4 Star Films’ Favorite Movies: 21-25

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One of the reasons film is so engaging and fascinating is the discussion that it evokes from all people. Every person, no matter their age or knowledge, can have their own subjective opinion on a film and why they liked it, or better yet why they hated it so much that they wanted to throw up.

But I’m going to cut the discussion short and put my cinematic life on the line by being completely vulnerable with some of my admittedly subjective picks for my favorite movies. Any agreement is highly encouraged. All dissenting opinions will be disregarded without a thought. Enjoy #21-#25 in this ongoing series:

21. It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)

This first title was love at first sight. All the things I love about a great comedy. Completely lacking sophistication and full of hilarious insanity. Also, Mad…World has arguably the greatest ensemble every assembled for one film. Everyone shows up for the party and it’s wonderful. Jonathan Winters was my favorite discovery from this film because he truly was a comic gem of a man.

22. Some Like it Hot (1959)

Jack Lemmon will always and forever be one of my favorite actors. Maybe it’s because he reminds me of my Grandpa because my Grandpa is a funny man. But that’s neither here nor there. Some Like it Hot stems from the genius of Billy Wilder, always ready with a funny storyline (two cross-dressing musicians fleeing Chicago gangsters) and a rapier wit. Of course, there’s Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe too, and the Hotel Del Coronado makes a memorable appearance filling in for Florida. Boy, oh boy, am I a boy!

23. The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

Now this one might seem kind of random. But I quickly fell in love with the fateful whimsy of Jacques Demy. His love of American musicals is evident with the casting of both Gene Kelly and George Chakiris, but this is also undeniably a French production starring sisters Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac. Michel Legrand’s music is surprisingly catchy and the fact that the film’s exposition is all given through song intrigued me from the beginning.

24. Laura

Film-Noir became a favorite genre, movement, style (whatever you want to call it) early on and Laura was one of the reasons why. I think I was smitten with Laura (Gene Tierney) much like our protagonists, and the film’s core mystery was gripping in more ways than one. David Raksin’s haunting score adds yet another layer to the drama as does Otto Preminger’s direction through the film’s interiors.

25. To Kill a Mockingbird

By now Harper Lee’s novel and Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch are almost intertwined in my mind, so much so, it becomes difficult to separate the two. And since I loved the book growing up, it’s only fitting that the film adaption would also hold a special place. Its set of sentiment and moral uprightness is hard for me to disregard, even when I’m at my most cynical. Mary Badham does a wonderful job as does Brock Peters — the perfect foils for Peck’s monumental portrayal.

Review: West Side Story (1961)

westside1Look at West Side Story through a simple lens and you might see a Shakespearian classic given a 1950s facelift and set to music. It might seem antiquated, perhaps not as politically correct as we have come to expect, and maybe a bit regressive. However, this musical based off of the bard’s famed Romeo and Juliet is most definitely a thematic spectacle pulsing with song and dance. It’s full of romance, full of angst, all expressed through the motions of the human body. In an age where we often feel like we have come so far and know so much, maybe a film like this is good for us if we take a step back for a moment.

Robert Wise’s film opens over the skies of New York and we are quickly introduced to the two competing forces that rule the streets with a “snappy” opening number. You have the local street gang, the Jets made up of delinquents of New York and the Sharks consisting of young immigrant Puerto Ricans. They hate each other for different reasons, but the bottom line is that they hate each other, and there’s no other way to slice it. A tiny scuffle broken up by Lt. Schrank and Officer Krupke is only a small tremor of what is to come, but it sets the tone.

The Jet’s leader Riff (Russ Tamblyn) is looking to have a rumble with their bitter rivals and the neutral territory at the local dance is the perfect opportunity to set things up. Although people are having fun and it’s a grand ol’ time you can tell there’s unrest between the factions bubbling under the surface. The indubitably funny John Astin makes a valiant effort to get them all to be friends, but it doesn’t work so well. Bernardo (George Chakiris) the leader of the Sharks accepts the offer to have a war council because he wouldn’t mind getting a piece of one of the Jets.

The glue that holds the narrative altogether, of course, is the romance that buds on the dance floor when our star-crossed lovers Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood) first meet. This is important because Tony use to be a Jet and is still the best friend of Riff. Meanwhile, Maria happens to be the younger sister of head Shark Bernardo. This is a relationship that’s not supposed to happen and yet their inhibited, naive passion disregards all else. He’s obsessed with a girl named “Maria.” That’s all he has, a name to go with a face and yet he’s infatuated. The singing of “Tonight” reflects how caught up in this dream they really are. And finally “I Feel Pretty” is Maria’s own exuberant reaction to the turn of events.

As an aside, Richard Beymer supposedly wanted play Tony rougher around the edges instead of a hopeless romantic, but ultimately it seems alright that he did not. Only because this film is not simply a drama where a nuanced performance would be suitable, but it is also a musical and a romance. In many ways, we need his character to be as love-struck and idealistic as he is. Because his song and his love story are a striking contrast with the world he and Maria live in.

westside2With the rumble afoot the following night, it can only spell trouble for all involved. The moment that Tony promises Maria that he will try to stop the fighting, he is part of it. Things turn out as he could never have imagined. In fact, no one wanted things this way, revealing how big a difference one single day makes. Tragedy hits with a vengeance, making this a marvelous piece of cinematic expression, but also a jarring indictment of this broken world we live in.

All the choreography in the film is directed by Jerome Robbins, and it is beautiful to see the melding of something so graceful like ballet crossed with the street gangs of New York. There’s something inherently contradictory about it and yet the culture, as well as the angst, is revealed so beautifully. It can be smooth and slick with a group of buddies or violent with arms flailing, heads contorting, and bodies all over the place. But it’s never vulgar, the people might be, but the dance never is. It is always enjoyable to see George Chakiris dance, and he’s not the only one, from Rita Moreno to a whole host of others. They move with such grace but it is never dull because it has feeling. And that extends to their entire performances. In fact, Chakiris and Moreno are probably the most enjoyable, because they are far removed from the dreamy-eyed couple of Tony and Maria.

The composition by Leonard Bernstein is obviously outstanding and this is one of the famous soundtracks in musical history including the “Jet Song”, “Maria”, “Tonight”, and “I Feel Pretty.” However, I think I was especially interested in “America” and “Gee Officer Krupke.” The first puts to song the two conflicting perspectives that lead to civil unrest. There’s the idea that America is this land of opportunity and yet there’s also a negative flip side to this ideal. Also, the second song in a comical way, comments on the treatment of the youth of America. From a film that might seem outdated, it has some pretty frank analysis of the never-ending cycle that goes on.

westside3In fact, if we give our society a good hard stare, have things really changed? Are our discrimination and racism better than that of Lt. Schrank or just veiled behind greater open-mindedness? Are people still hating one another, even when they might be more similar than they realize? Is our society working towards collective good or are we slowly “killing” it through our acts of hate? Even a likable fellow like the drugstore owner Pop (Ned Glass) brings into question those who are against the violence but don’t really seem to do much about it. Words don’t act unless the people behind them do. That can go both ways.

All this pops into my mind because of a musical from over 50 years ago where, yes, Natalie Wood was, unfortunately, playing a Puerto Rican. But hopefully, we can look past that for a moment and see the artistic merit here and then think for a moment what themes we might glean from this West Side Story.

4.5/5 Stars

The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

rochefort1If the Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a piercing operatic drama, The Young Girls of Rochefort is pure, unadulterated escapism at its finest. 

Directed by Jacques Demy and starring an ensemble cast including Catherine Deneuve, Francois Dorleac, Gene Kelly, Michel Piccoli, Gerochefort9orge Chakiris, Grover Paul, and Danielle Darrieux, this is a whimsical French musical that has no equal. 

The film opens with a group of performers coming into the town of Rochefort to get ready for a big outdoor show. They become acquainted with the local hangout that includes a kindly matron (Darrieux) and many locals including an idealistic artist and sailor who is searching for his ideal lover. Nearby her two adult twin daughters hold piano and ballet lessons as they too get their little prodigies ready for the big show. Delphine (Deneuve) is fed up with her suitor and desires a new love, while Solange (Dorleac) on her part hopes to advance her career as a pianist. She goes to the proprietor of a local music store to see if he can introduce her to a prestigious American Friend.

A great deal of dramatic irony sets in and the plot is constantly moved forward through song. Yvonne at the café is still depressed over a split with a lover 10 years prior, because he had an unfortunate name. Solange has a chance encounter while stopping to pick up her kid brother Booboo, and Delphine becomes curious about an artist who painted a portrait that looks strikingly like her. All of these events reach their apex on the Sunday of the big performance, and in need of some performer, the carnies enlist the help of the twins. They are a huge success and things wind down.

The nextrochefort4 morning the performers get ready to leave for Paris and the girls decide to follow suit. However, Solange has another encounter that changes her plans and then Yvonne is united with her love. That leaves only Delphine to go with the boys to Paris, but not to worry, she would be united with her painter soon enough.

The light and very French-sounding tunes are hard not to like, but that is only the very beginning. Demy pays homage to Hollywood musicals of old going so far as casting Gene Kelly (Singin’ in the Rain) and George Chakiris (West Side Story) in his film. He undoubtedly owes a debt to Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen with some striking moments reminiscent of An American in Paris (1951). It makes sense. Demy uses the pastels and costumes of a Hollywood musical extravaganza while also including dashes of French style.

Rocrochefort2hefort takes place in a real location, but it truly is a fantasy world that the characters inhabit, full of perpetual dancing and dialogue that is delivered through song. The real-life sisters do a wonderful job in this film and there is something reassuring about seeing Gene Kelly. Rather like an old friend who gives comfort in a whimsical, but altogether new experience. The story arc of dashed, renewed, and ultimately new found love allows Demy to once more explore the issues of fate and chance that always seem to enchant him.  His partnership with Michel Legrand is once again bountiful including the enduringly memorable “Chanson Des Jumelles,” an infectiously bouncy, trumpet-laden number performed by the sisters.

There’s nothing much else for me to say except The Young Girls of Rochefort is one of those under-appreciated gems that is thoroughly enjoyable and chock full of all sorts of fun. It delivers a serving of something with a familiar flavor while giving it a little extra panache. It’s about as playful and fluffy as you can get which in this case is not a bad thing at all. 

4.5/5 Stars

The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

Directed by Jacques Demy and starring an ensemble cast including Catherine Deneuve, Francois Doreleac, Gene Kelly, Michel Piccoli, George Chakiris, Grover Paul, and Danielle Darrieux, this is a whimsical French musical.

The film opens with a group of performers coming into the town of Rochefort to get ready for a big outdoor show. They become acquainted with the local hangout that includes a kindly matron and many locals including an idealistic artist and sailor, who is searching for his ideal lover.

Nearby her two adult twin daughters hold piano and ballet lessons as they two get their little prodigies ready for the big show.  Delphine is fed up with her suitor and desires a new love while Solange on her part hopes to advance her career as a pianist. She goes to the proprietor of a local music store to see if he can introduce her to a prestigious American friend.

The dramatic irony sets in, and the plot is constantly moved forward through song. Yvonne at the café is still depressed over a split with a lover 10 years prior because he had an unfortunate name. Solange has a chance encounter while stopping to pick up her kid brother Booboo, and Delphine becomes curious about an artist, who painted a portrait that looks strikingly like her. All of these events reach their apex on the Sunday of the big performance and in need of some performers, the Carnies enlist the help of the twins. They are a huge success and things wind down.

The next morning the performers get ready to leave for Paris, and the girls decide to follow suit. However, Solange has another encounter that changes her plans, and then Yvonne is reunited with her love. That leaves only Delphine to go with the boys to Paris, but not to worry. She would be united with her love soon enough.

The singing is an integral part of this film, and sometimes there seems to be so much that it gets tiresome. However, the light and very French-sounding tunes are hard not to like. Demy pays homage to the Hollywood musicals of old going so far as casting Gene Kelly in his film. The film takes place in a real location, but it truly is a fantasy world that the characters inhabit, full of perpetual dancing and most of the talking comes out in song. The real-life sisters do a wonderful job in this film, and most of the characters are pleasant in this comedic musical of renewed and new found love.

4.5/5 Stars

West Side Story (1961)

354d1-west_side_story_posterIn this 1960s, musical adaption of Romeo and Juliet, two lovers become infatuated with each other but the problem is that none of their friends would ever approve. They come from two different classes and backgrounds which are constantly at odds. The two sides frequently clash as represented by the Shark and Jet gangs. Naively, the lovers believe they can get away and be happy forever. However, the situation escalates when the gangs take part in a rumble. Pretty soon the situation is out of control and it has become something nobody wanted. Hope for the future finally seems possible for the pair but it is brutally crushed in an instant. The viewer is left with a feeling of tragedy. This is a very good film for the most part and many of the songs are great, sticking with you afterwards. I suppose it is quite difficult to go wrong with a story from Shakespeare .

4.5/5 Stars