12/11/2011

Blu-ray Review: West Side Story (1961) -- 50th Anniversary Edition




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It wasn’t until the theatrical release of The Sound of Music that West Side Story filmmaker (and Citizen Kane editor) Robert Wise asked audiences how to “solve a problem like Maria.”

Yet roughly twenty years earlier, Wise’s West Side co-director Jerome Robbins was asked to solve the problem of the man who would become the lover of the Story’s heroine – also named Maria – when a frustrated friend knocked on the legendary choreographer’s door, struggling with an acting class assignment of how to bring Romeo Montague to life.

And while it’s never been proven that the “friend” in question was none other than Montgomery Clift*, given the way that West Side Story seems to transcend the musical genre, it’s not surprising to discover that the person who lit the creative match for a contemporary take on Shakespeare’s "star-cross’d" tragedy wasn’t even a song and dance man himself. 

Of course, rhythm and movement was Robbins’ stock in trade so he turned to other avant-garde artists in the field – eager to push the boundaries of what the American stage musical was in the middle of the twentieth century to make something unlike anything that had been executed before.


To carry it out, Robbins made a wise decision to enlist the help of playwright Arthur Laurents, whose interest in social consciousness and the human struggles of everyday life naturally lent itself to the contemporary handling of the material.

In doing so, Laurents traded in the Bard’s poison of deadly potions to vengeful prejudice sweeping the streets of New York City instead of Fair Verona where he laid the scene of two street gangs (the white “Jets” verses the Puerto Rican “Sharks”) both alike in desperation when an interracial romance between Shark sister Maria (Natalie Wood) and inactive Jet (Richard Beymer) gets in the way of territorial war.


While it’s hard to imagine West Side Story with any one element from music to lyrics to dance to drama removed, it’s amazing to mentally break down the work involved and admire just how ambitious Robbins’ and company were to choreograph steps to that score with just the right lyrics to move the dramatic plot forward.

A triumphant collaboration that began with a core team of four including Robbins, Laurents, master maestro Leonard Bernstein and wit plus grit poetic lyricist Stephen Sondheim, when West Side Story moved from stage to screen, editor turned director Robert Wise and award-winning scripter Ernest Lehman were added to the mix.


Anchored by composer Leonard Bernstein’s daring score which married the sound of smoke filled jazz clubs with the sweet sounding perfection of symphony hall -- the staggering soundtrack jumps octaves and time-signatures every few measures.

And similar to the way that the poetic language of Romeo stays with us the most, in a musical fusion blend of sight and sound, Story adapts and transforms the poetic language of the Bard’s iambic pentameter to do the same by giving off the impression of spontaneous improvisation in all areas including song, dance and free-flowing camera movement.


Given that the sound level of the music was always a point of contention for Bernstein – considering his famous dislike of the triple sized orchestra used to record the score to rather unsubtle effect – it’s safe to say that he may not have been overjoyed by the overwhelming and at times downright ostentatious 7.1 high definition audio track on the film’s 50th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray debut.

Drowning out everything from some of the individual singers to the overall dialogue, even though the theater-level soundtrack tends to blast you out of your chair more often than you’d like in countless efforts to scramble for the volume control, the sheer majesty of this Criterion quality, scratch and flaw free pristine 1080 pixel image resolution will leave you speechless.


Giving other MGM/Fox Blu-ray transfers a run for their money, from Story era classics like Sound of Music to Fiddler on the Roof to contemporary classics like Moulin Rouge!, this three-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo pack is a must-own musical collection, complete with a fascinating Memories documentary (roughly ten years old) that includes vintage footage and rare clips and recordings including pretty if underwhelming performances of beloved tunes by Natalie Wood herself.

While the topic of prejudice will never stop being vital to us, 1961’s ten-time Oscar winner West Side Story is a vibrant reminder of just how important it is to teach the next generation lessons of acceptance and diversity before they learn them on the street whether it’s on the Broadway stage, on the page with the Bard or with a Blu-ray player hooked up to a HD screen.


*Source: Music on Film: West Side Story by Barry Monush


Text ©2011, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

12/04/2011

DVD Review: Shanghai Mystery (2006) aka Shanghai Red

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Original 2006 Theatrical Title: Shanghai Red

As the old saying goes, “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone,” and this becomes a main theme that serves writer/director Oscar Luis Costo well in his intriguing albeit sluggish Shanghai-set mood piece Shanghai Mystery, where the adage is utilized again and again.

Unfortunately by settling for a storyline that’s only faintly mysterious rather than a full-out Shanghai Mystery, from a viewer perspective, this clich├ęd piece of wisdom comes back to haunt us with the realization that even though we’re set up with a titular mystery, the genre-promise established by the opening credits disappears long before we reach the conclusion.

While we’re led to believe that if we remain patient we’ll eventually unmask the villain responsible for the murder of her husband, that’s quickly put on the back burner in favor of an emotional/psychological look at Vivian Wu’s conflicted character, who spends a majority of the film narrating the chronologically challenged tale to the audience through a jailhouse interview device.

Despite its shortcomings, it’s a sophisticated star vehicle for Costo’s wife Vivian Wu, who also serves as a producer of the largely subtitled film, co-starring Desperate Housewives ensemble actor Richard Burgi.

Is our gun-toting lady in red a heroine pushed too far in her role as a single mother or in her double life as a part-time vengeance seeking antiheroic assassin aiming to gun down the man who made her a widow?

Best described as an unlikely Film Noir inspired cross between Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita and Zhang Yimou’s 1990 neorealist period, though it’s quite stylishly made from a technical standpoint, Shanghai Mystery is tonally uneven, frustratingly paced and oddly structured.

Anticlimactic if fascinating on the most basic level, Costo’s Shanghai Mystery begins with more promise than a great title alone due to its terrific starting point that could’ve been used as a building block to one solid gender-reversal Neo-Noir thriller that refreshingly places a woman in a role traditionally reserved for a man.

An unusual Mystery that's missing a mystery beyond one inviting us to question where the mystery went and if it got lost in translation in a film, though Shanghai spirals out of control by trying to be too many genres for too many people, its biggest misstep relates to character rather than plot.

Wooden stock characters may abound as is the case in Noir flavored film but Shanghai shanghais us completely by drastically changing Wu’s characterization via an upsetting revelation that occurs late in the game, which not only makes it hard to sympathize with her but seemingly comes out of nowhere.

Richly atmospheric and undeniably ambitious, though it misses the mark as a traditional or existential mystery by not knowing the potential of the plot until the mystery was gone, Costo’s otherwise bold effort remains impressive on a filmmaking level, boasting crisp cinematography and lush production values executed by those working behind the scenes.


Text ©2011, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. 
FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

12/01/2011

TV on DVD Review: Luther -- Series 2 (2011) aka Luther 2



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Those who’ve had many small screen encounters with police procedurals of the British kind might be quick to assume that Luther series creator Neil Cross drew inspiration from similar sociological and psychologically fixated programs such as Murphy’s Law, Blue Murder, Prime Suspect and Cracker.

Yet the roots for the eponymous brilliant but obsessive Detective Chief Inspector embodied by actor Idris Elba (HBO’s The Wire) are far more diverse than you’d suspect as Cross’s inspiration was half-literary and half-Yankee.


Initially impressed by the “elementary” yet elegant logically based deductive reasoning techniques by Sherlock Holmes, Cross derived pop-culture wisdom to balance out the scales of Holmesian good for Elba’s albeit somewhat antiheroic character with the “inverted detective format” evidenced on the iconic USA smash series Columbo by openly revealing the evil perpetrator but not the means with which he’ll be caught.

Therefore, rather than spend an inordinate amount of time on Poirot-style drawing-room explanatory speeches that link the crook to the crime for the case’s final solution, we become part of the mystery itself as a vicarious member of Luther’s cast-of-characters.


By switching our point-of-view from one side to the other a la Hitchcock’s Psycho or Rope, we’re forced to see the events through the eyes of the murderous perpetrator, wanting to shout clues to Luther from our family room, hoping there’s enough evidence to keep the criminal in custody more than a mere matter of hours.

Thus, we’re put on edge and pushed to participate in case building as opposed to case solving – engaging parts of our brain we seldom use as TV viewers while trying to figure out (right along with Luther) how to piece together the clues to construct a solid case rather than a circumstantial or coincidental house of cards.


It’s an enviable and intelligent feat all around, making the second series of the acclaimed and award-nominated show an addictive addition to your sleuths-of-the-small-screen collection.


And as such, by clocking in at just four hours and dividing the season’s two masterful two-hour mysteries into four episodes transferred to two BBC DVDs – Luther justifies my sole piece of criticism that it’s much too good to be much too short.

Unlike Prime Suspect which at times could drag out each individual case far too long as Helen Mirren doggedly chased every single red-herring, because there are so many subplots including those unrelated to a given case, at times Luther’s running-time runs out before we catch up with all of the drama going on off-the-beat.


Despite the fact that I hadn’t seen the first series and was therefore unable to piece together some of the back-stories, the emotions are so strong and the mysteries so engrossing that I didn’t need to view in numerical order to find myself wanting to knock it out in a marathon day of viewing.

Intense and supremely well-acted by its ensemble cast – led by Elba’s multiple award-nominated powerhouse performance – not only will Sherlock and Columbo enthusiasts enjoy Luther, I dare say that in an alternate universe of fictional characters, the sleuths themselves would’ve found the coppers’ complicated, code-filled, identity-skewed Serious and Serial Crimes thrilling to comprehend as well.

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Text ©2011, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. 
FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.