Nostalgia Movie Weekend

There is no greater tribute to the quality of a film than the fact that it resonates with audiences many years after it was first shown to them. The Screening of “The Godfather” that I attended on Friday, is basically a commercial for the 4K transfer and Blu-ray that is being released next month. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the film and it continues to be among the finest movies ever made, if not in fact the best film ever made. Our screening was packed. That’s right, a fifty year old film, that is available on multiple platforms and formats, is still able to draw an audience to a movie theater and that is the miracle of this movie. 

Five years ago, at a similar screening, I offered thoughts on the film that mentioned two scenes that again stood out. I will let you go back to that post for those details, instead let me offer two other moments to focus on for this screening. The very first scene with Brando is spellbinding. He speaks in a passive voice and he is not really focused on the supplicant who wants him to do murder, he is fondling a cat. Famously, this was not scripted but was a result of the stray animal being on the set and Brando improvising. It fits in perfectly with the persona of Don Corleone, who is only half listening to the undertaker seeking vengeance, but is also confident enough to hide his thoughts in this playful moment. 

Later, when he is taking the meeting with Sollozzo, he looks like a mildly interested man who wants the meeting to be done with but is polite enough to be slightly more attentive. When he moves over to speak to Sollozzo more intimately, he dusts off his conversation partner’s knee in a familiar fatherly gesture, even at the moment he is turning down the proposal. It is clear that Vito Corleone has a personal charisma that is not loud and overpowering but rather soft and subdued. The only time we hear him raise his voice is when he is mocking Johnny Fontaine, his Godson, and most of that volume is exaggerated for their relationship, not real anger. This is a man who knows how to influence people and woo them to his patronage. That it fails him with the “Turk” is just a catalyst for the story. 

Once again, anyone who has not seen this film on the Big Screen is missing a marvelous chance to be absorbed into one of the greatest films of all time.

The very next night, we also traveled back to a critically acclaimed Best Picture winner, that I have loved since I first saw it when I was nine or ten. 

Just as the Godfather experience I wrote about above had a five year precursor screening, it has been five years since we had the same sort of performance for “West Side Story”. This was not your typical screening but rather a presentation of the film with a live orchestral accompaniment. Back in 2017, we saw the film with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Having relocated to the Austin area almost 18 months ago,  it was taking me a while to get back to live Orchestra performances. Two weeks ago we saw the Austin Ballet Company perform “A Midsummer Nights Dream” it was a lot of fun but the orchestra was in a pit and the focus was on the dance.  Last night the stage was filled with a hundred plus musicians and a large screen above them for the movie to play on. 

I found the Austin Symphony Orchestra to be a powerful  ensemble who played excellently. There was not a dominant section that stood out because all the instruments were solid and the scoring matched the design of the film. I was happy to be listening to live concert music and it simply doubled the pleasure that it was with a great movie.

Again, I will refer you to the earlier post for a complete discussion of the film, but for this post I do want to take time to talk about a couple of things. All props to Rita Moreno and George Chakiris who deserved their awards back in 1961, but it is frequently overlooked as to how effective Natalie Wood was in the role of Maria. It is true that she did not do her own singing and she was not of Puerto Rican heritage, but she looks wonderful on screen. Woods dances elegantly in several of the numbers that require her to be light on her feet, and her visual performance in close ups is completely in keeping with the character.

Live Music, a classic film musical, and the recent Spielberg remake to stoke interest was enough to get me out for this. 

West Side Story (2021)

I’ve been waiting for Steven Spielberg to do a full fledged musical since I saw the opening of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” back in 1984. I think his sensibility and eye are right for musical sequences and that he could stage  some pretty energetic numbers and make them look engaging and not static, well it turns out I was right. I’m not sure why he chose this material, but once he committed to it I think he did a solid job justifying a new version of the award winning classic. I think I still prefer the Robert Wise version of the movie, mostly because everything was fresh but Spielberg found some ways to fill out the story, rearrange to songs and change some of the characters delivering the songs, in a way that is satisfying. 

The screenplay by Tony Kushner, with whom Spielberg collaborated on with “Munich” and “Lincoln“, adds some details to the backgrounds of our characters to flesh them out. Riff has a story that is spelled out rather than implied as it was before, Bernardo has been transformed into a professional boxer, and Tony is provided with some background that adds resonance to his character that maybe wasn’t there before. In some ways, the transition for Bernardo’s character is the most problematic, because he seems less sympathetic as a professional fighter, engaging in a street fight. The character of Chino is also built up and it provides some additional pathos to the final outcome of the plot. 

In moving around the order of the songs and changing the characters who perform them, Spielberg and Kushner help the character of Tony in one case and weaken him in the second. The decision to give the “Cool” number to Tony and Riff, works well giving Ansel Elgort and Mike Faist, an additional chance to show the gap between them, even as friends, and to make a stronger impact on the audience. While I appreciate the desire to include Rita Moreno more in the story, giving her the “Somewhere” moment robs Tony and Maria of a poignant moment that would make their tragedy more emotional at the end. 
So what else has changed? Well, the fight scenes are more brutal from the get go. Baby John doesn’t just get beat up, he is mutilated by a piercing of his ear done with a nail. Bernardo and Tony fight and the punches Bernardo lands when Tony is trying to hold his temper and let things chill, are hard and to the face as well as the gut. You can almost feel them and they look more realistic than most fight scenes, even those you might see in a boxing film. Both groups of opponents are struggling with the idea of losing their territory, not to each other but to the progress of NYC itself. That fuels a bit of the anger so that it does not feel entirely based in ethnic hatred. 

Some people have complained that Spielberg has reimagined the story as a “woke” parable on immigration. There has also been some defensiveness on the part of traditionalists that all the Spanish dialogue in not subtitled. The immigration issue is not any more prevalent than it was in 1961, so that seems foolish to jump on. The Spanish issue is a non issue since almost all those important lines are repeated bak in some form in English, and even a non-Spanish speaker like me could understand most of what is said by context, tone and the few words of Spanish that I know. Maybe the strongest argument against calling this film “woke” is that Officer Krupke, goes from being an overt racist in the 1961 film, to a fairly sympathetic character in this one.   Lieutenant Schrank is also not taking sides in the conflict, but seems more interested in avoiding kids being killed. 

Two great visual moments that clearly show that Spielberg was thinking about how the movie could look different yet still be familiar, come in the Gang confrontation and in the “America” number. The long shadows approaching each other from opposite directions in the salt warehouse, builds the confrontation moment nicely and being shot from above makes it feel more ominous. The girls dancing down the street in the daylight, pursued by the boys, instead of remaining on the rooftop at night, keeps the excitement and cleverness of Sondheim’s lyrics, but transposes it to a setting that feels even more joyful.

The bad news here is that the film has flamed out. It did not live up to expectations at the box office, and the critical hype , while strong, seems unlikely to sustain it for long in the onslaught of so many other films at the end of the year. I think it will mirror another great film that hid similar reviews and expectations but did no business. In 1983, “The Right Stuff” arrived with a thud at the box office. Oscar Nominations gave it a slight boost during awards season, but in the long run, it was passed by too often by too many people. I see the same pattern emerging here. I hope I am wrong and some holiday time results in more people seeing this worthy remake of a great musical. 

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”.