A Tale of Two West Side Stories

I famously “hate musicals”, but I know I’m wrong. Both in live theater and in film, musicals carry massive cultural import that are beloved by millions, so the problem is most likely me. Perhaps some are indeed simply bad, but I don’t yet have the vocabulary to identify which ones and explain why.

A friend of mine who is literate in both film and musical theater suggested that it would be a useful exercise to watch the 1961 version of West Side Story and compare it to Steven Spielberg’s newly-released remake version.

I needed to develop a working theory of how musicals should be read or judged. I heard someone on a podcast say that one feature of the musical is that it is meant to be understood by people who don’t speak the language it’s performed in. Even if you don’t know the plot details, you should know from the songs how the characters feel. This might be more true of Opera than the modern musical, but the insight formalized a crucial piece of understanding: the songs in musicals are meant to convey the emotional content of the story. This is the lens through which I’ll attempt judge Spielberg’s effort to update West Side Story. In doing so, I’m hoping that I can knock loose a better appreciation of the form.


West Side Story (1961) worked surprisingly well for me on an emotional level. The most prevalent cultural joke, and implicit critique, related to this film is how silly it is that the Jets and the Sharks dance and sing in a manner unbefitting the gangster personas that they are meant to embody. Yes, it takes a minute to acclimate to this — West Side Story is significantly more stagey than what I’m used to viewing. But the biggest ask in terms of suspension of disbelief is not the neighborhood toughs doing ballet twirls, it’s the central relationship. We have to believe in the love between Tony and Maria. If we don’t, the whole plot is inherently pretty ridiculous, because she sticks with the guy even after he murders her own brother in cold blood.

West Side Story (1961) accomplishes this not through the facts of the narrative, but by the charisma of its leads (Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer) and with the emotional impact of the songs. And the songs, to put it bluntly, are bangers. To my (untrained) ears they’re more melodic than what I’m used to hearing from modern musicals, and express the characters’ feelings in the moment instead of just being dialogue in song form. According to my friend, this is Leonard Bernstein’s super power.

By my estimation, Somewhere is the emotional centerpiece of West Side Story.

When you hear this song and see it performed by these leads, you understand that their relationship is not just what they see in each other after a very brief amount of time, but the potential to escape the conflict that they’ve been born into. Do they fall in love suddenly without knowing each other? Yes. But this song gives us reasonable clues as to why. The emotion carried by the melody itself brings us the rest of the way there.


So why did West Side Story need an update? Well, per Spielberg:

“Divisions between un-likeminded people is as old as time itself. … And the divisions between the Sharks and the Jets in 1957, which inspired the musical, were profound. But not as divided as we find ourselves today. It turned out in the middle of the development of the script, things widened, which I think in a sense, sadly, made the story of those racial divides – not just territorial divides – more relevant to today’s audience than perhaps it even was in 1957.”

I don’t think that structural white supremacy is the same thing as “divisions between un-likeminded people”, so this pitch is hard to get behind. It’s also framed more as a mid-production realization than a fundamental reason for the remake. I think this movie exists mostly because Spielberg has done everything else in his career and thought filming his favorite musical would be fun. That’s fine, I guess. Let’s dive into what’s different.

As cinematic techniques gain sophistication over time, there’s a natural and perhaps unavoidable movement towards realism in films. We could almost take it as a given that Spielberg’s West Side Story would be less stagey and more grounded than its antecedent. It’s stunning to look at, richly textured and masterfully filmed with a kineticism that tracks with equally great choreography. At a base level, this is all-time great filmmaker with a huge budget. That alone is worth showing up for.

An increase in visual realism arguably demands a commensurate increase in narrative realism. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner definitely seem to believe this: in the opening seconds, we’re given a socioeconomic context for the conflict between the Jets and the Sharks. Both gangs are feeling the pressure of eviction as the city plans a slum clearance and construction of high-end apartments in their contested territory.

Some characters are given more detailed backstories: Tony (Ansel Elgort) has recently been released from prison after nearly beating a Shark to death, which is the reason for his reformation and reluctance to participate in the Jets/Shark conflict. He’s “scared of himself”. Also he’s on parole.

Other characters are simply made to explain themselves with more words. Riff (Mike Faist) opines:

“I don’t know who I am, and who cares who I am? Nobody, including me. I know that this dust that’s covering everything now, that’s the four-story buildings that was standing here when you went upstate a year ago. I wake up to everything I know either getting sold or wrecked or being taken over by people that I don’t like. And they don’t like me. Know what’s left outta all of that? The Jets. My guys. My guys who’re just like me.”

Reading this back, it almost feels like an attempt to make the Jets’ racism seem relatable or understandable. Or sorry, their “divisions between un-likeminded people”.

In many cases, plot points and thematic elements that were implicit in the original are made explicit. The Jets’ attempted rape of Anita is called what it is. Anybody’s, a queer-coded but textually female character in the 1961 version, is portrayed as unambiguously transmasculine.

Fundamentally, Spielberg has given us a more information-rich version of West Side Story. Mercifully and impressively, this only results in about five extra minutes of runtime. But does all of this information serve the movie’s function as a musical? Again, I am focusing on how the film conveys emotional beats via the songs.

The songs themselves are still the songs: bangers. Their performances are mostly beautifully executed, in some cases exhilaratingly so. However, more realism and context around them adds little to their emotional function.

One song-related choice that baffled me was the displacement of Somewhere to the end of the story, where it is sung by Rita Moreno’s shopkeeper character over a montage. Arguably this version broadens the song’s meaning to be about a community rather than two people, but that sacrifices its vital contribution to our investment in the Tony/Maria relationship.

But even a great performance of Somewhere wouldn’t have salvaged the love story: I did not buy it here, mostly due to the complete mishandling of Tony. The changes to the character in the script combined with Ansel Elgort’s oafish screen presence make him come off as dumb and desperate, a far cry from the bright-eyed dreamer Richard Beymer portrayed in 1961. Newcomer Rachel Zegler does what she can opposite him, but at times it’s not clear why she even likes Tony, let alone loves him. I expected Spielberg and Kushner to slow-burn the romance a bit to make it easier to believe, but Tony and Maria’s connection is if anything even more sudden and aggressive than in the original. More backstory didn’t help at all.

The characters in the original West Side story were by nature more symbolic and archetypical than they were grounded and layered. By attempting to make them more of the latter, it’s possible that Spielberg and Kushner only succeeded in undercutting the emotional punch of the entire story.

Bernardo is super hot, though!

The Power of the Dog

I would argue that what Campion does in The Power of the Dog is a more subtle version of what Christopher Nolan does in many of his films: she creates a puzzle for the viewer.


I watched my first Jane Campion film, The Piano, last year out of respect for the G.O.A.T. Holly Hunter (bless her name). I enjoyed it, but seeing The Power of the Dog cemented Campion in my mind as a rare filmmaker who leverages the medium in specifically innovative ways. This is what I’m always chasing as a viewer: what can cinema do that other forms of storytelling can’t?

I would argue that what Campion does in The Power of the Dog is a more subtle version of what Christopher Nolan does in many of his films: she creates a puzzle for the viewer. Most won’t see the whole picture of the story until the very end, and even then it could take some pondering or even a rewatch before things come clearly into focus.

How is this puzzle set up? On the surface, the events of the film are straightforward and by themselves don’t really comprise a story. Here’s what technically happens in The Power of the Dog:

– A man (Phil) bullies a woman and her son (Peter)
– Phil’s brother marries woman
– Phil befriends Peter
– Phil dies from an infected wound

But in the end, we realize there’s an entire sub-narrative happening between these beats that is conveyed with hints from visuals, performance, and subtext. This is the story:

– A man (Phil) bullies woman and her son (Peter)
– Phil’s brother marries woman
– Peter discovers Phil’s weaknesses
– Peter gains Phil’s trust
– Peter kills Phil

It’s a revenge story. Peter repays the trauma that Phil inflicted on his mother, but it’s almost as hidden from us as it is from Phil. Campion is asking us to put this sub-narrative together ourselves. The characters themselves don’t necessarily arc, but if we solve the puzzle, our perception of them changes drastically.

Maybe the most brilliant hint is the rabbit sequences. As viewers, the second a cute little animal appears in a darker drama we just know it’s not long for this world. Popular film language tells us that it’ll be killed to demonstrate the monstrousness of the villain, who we assume is Phil. When the timid and frail Peter ends up calmly dissecting the animal, we’re initially confused, but we’re being shown who the monster actually is. Campion subverts our expectation and then reverts it when we finally understand what was going on all along.

Learned: Get your viewers to connect the dots themselves, making them an active participant in the storytelling. This is a pretty advanced technique for a n00b writer like myself, but it’s something to aspire to.

Quick Takes August/September

Hi. After several abortive attempts to resurrect this blog that I didn’t have time to execute, I’m going to try writing about what I’m watching to capture what I learned (or didn’t learn) about storytelling. Here we go. 

The White Lotus

Mike White’s Hawaiian resort set mini series is the closest thing to a filmed adaptation of the iconic subreddit r/AmITheAssHole that we’re ever going to get. That question is the best way to describe nearly every permutation of character interactions that make up the show, and with a few exceptions, the answer is ESH: Everyone Sucks Here.

Bleak? Yes, very. White doesn’t give us a character that we can back 100%, which in less skilled hands could be a real problem. But like that subreddit that I spend too much time scrolling through, these dynamics are so interesting and so painfully realistic that you can’t look away. The promise of a dead body given in the show’s first moments wasn’t even necessary to keep me glued to the screen.

As a side note, Mike White being a huge fan of (and participant in) reality TV make me feel better about the fact that I’ve watched five seasons of Love Island in a fiscal year.

Learned: You don’t need any conceptual bells and whistles to make something incredibly compelling IF you’re good enough at writing characters.

Meanwhile, at Hulu…

Nine Perfect Strangers

When compared to The White Lotus, this ended up being a useful study in suspense versus mystery. Nine Perfect Strangers leans heavily on the implication that the strangers in question, and their weirdo Galadriel meets Gwyneth host played by Nicole Kidman, are hiding a lot. Much of the character information is doled out via rapid-cut silent flashbacks, which compared to the sharp character writing in White Lotus feels like a tiresome cheat.

I was mildly interested in the mechanics of what Kidman was trying to do to these people (mystery), but getting there wasn’t enough fun for me to stick around. I made it about five episodes before jumping ship.

Learned: A Big Question isn’t enough to sustain drama. You have to have interesting stuff going on the entire time.

Another Round

Mads Mikkelsen – Another Round

In September, I was thinking a lot about what it means for a film to have a concept, or premise. It’s easy to know it when you see it (or don’t see it) but a bit hard to define concretely. One way to say it could be the following: a good premise is an idea that inherently suggests character action.

An example I heard discussed on a podcast recently was Bruce Almighty:

Jim Carrey becomes God for a week.

That is a premise. I could have a decent idea of how to approach writing it. As a counterexample, Napoleon Dynamite does not have a premise. It is about a strange person’s boring life. Am I saying Bruce Almighty is better than Napoleon Dynamite? No. Napoleon Dynamite is one of the great films and you can quote me on that. But its creation was an act of God that cannot be replicated.

I am not Jared Hess (or Mike White) and it is not 2004, so if I want to get paid to write someday, I need to stick to punchy concepts. This month I was on a five-hour flight, so I decided to go through the airline’s selection of streamable films to hunt for premises. After a few minutes I came across the description for Another Round:

Four high school teachers embark on an experiment to see if a constant level of alcohol in their blood will improve their lives.

Hell yes. Now we are talking. Hijinks must ensue!

I won’t go too far into analyzing the filmmaking of Another Round, but it was an absolute joy to watch and delivered on its premise in both humorous and heartbreaking ways. I did cry on the airplane.

I think this exercise was useful in separating out the ideas of premise/concept and world. Generally, when people think “high-concept”, they think elaborate world building, which in turn implies budget, vfx, and genre. The two can go together and frequently do, but they are not the same thing. Another Round is a concept-driven film populated by normal people in a normal place. Just because you have a lot of fancy visual stuff in your idea does not mean that you have a solid concept.

Learned: Concept-driven does not equal big budget genre studio film.

Motherless Brooklyn

This was another film that I found on my airplane premise hunt. The concept is not as strong as Another Round, but a 1950’s PI with Tourette’s syndrome was hooky enough for me. And having just visited Brooklyn for the first time, I was an easy mark.

Based on a novel, Motherless Brooklyn contains lots of interesting New York history, but the characters are all fictional. I think this is a better way to do historical drama. Being married to the facts can bring a lot of tedium and stilted storytelling to these type of period films, and the visuals frequently follow in the same boring vein.

This movie was… just really cute? The small-time gumshoes played by Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bobby Cannavale, and Dallas Roberts have a sweetness to their dynamic that you don’t see often in this type of movie. These guys really care about each other, and that’s what holds our interest more so than whatever detective plot mechanics are going on in the background. This warmth makes Motherless Brooklyn feel like a lot more than the sum of its fairly basic parts.

Learned: Warm character relationships go a long way towards making a movie fun to watch. We care about characters when we see them caring about each other.

Ocean’s 13/ Ocean’s 8

I joined my friend as she went through the Ocean’s movies for the first time, giving me the chance to watch Ocean’s 13 and Ocean’s 8 back to back. This afforded a stark illustration of the difference between great and just passable screenwriting. I’m not going to do a full forensic analysis of what went wrong with Ocean’s 8, but I will focus in on one moment that was illuminating for me.

My working understanding of plot is that events need to follow each causally, not just temporally. Matt Stone and Trey Parker formulate this idea as the “But and Therefore Rule”: between each plot event, you need to be able to insert a “but” or a “therefore”, not just a “then”.

In Ocean’s 8, Sandra Bullock gets out of prison, and THEN wants to rob the Met Gala. The screenwriters are aware of this glaring THEN in the middle of their first act, so they try to turn it into a THEREFORE with dialogue (recreated by me in WriterDuet): 

Not even Cate Blanchett’s character is buying this narrative band-aid. If anything, the problem is made worse by drawing attention to it.

I also can’t help but feel that Bullock was miscast as the lead here. She plays Debbie as “cool” and unaffected, which just reads as her not taking much joy in any of the fun crimes she’s committing. This is agonizing, because robbing the Met Gala is the most fun crime I can think of!

On a bright note, Anne Hathaway’s performance is incredible and it alone makes the movie worth watching.

Learned: Do not try to fix fundamental story issues by acknowledging them in dialogue.

The Coen Project Part 7: The Big Lebowski

I haven’t officially signed up for the church of Dudeism, but I’ll admit I’m a bit of a Lebowski fanatic. I’ve spent more time than anyone should trying to figure out what books the Dude has on his coffee table, and I own an (almost) exact replica of the Dude’s Pendleton sweater. Despite these patterns of behavior, I’m uncomfortable with The Big Lebowski’s status as a “cult classic”. It’s hard to specify exactly what makes a cult film, but most are defined by something other than their quality as a movie. While it has inarguably developed a cult following in the years since its release, The Big Lebowski is and always was just a great film.

According to Ethan Coen, the goal in writing The Big Lebowski was to create a Los Angeles noir story in the vein of Raymond Chandler’s dark, labyrinthine novels. This influence is the basis for the film’s structure, but in a classically Coen-esque subversion, it’s populated with distinctly un-noirish characters. The typical hard-boiled detective protagonist is traded in for an easy-going stoned bowling enthusiast, Jeffery “The Dude” Lebowski, a role written for Jeff Bridges.

The Dude bowls, drinks white russians, and hangs out with his friends, Walter (John Goodman) and Donnie (Steve Buscemi). One evening he is accosted in his apartment by two men who shove his face in the toilet and demand money. It’s a case of mistaken identity — they have the wrong Jefferey Lebowski. The intruders leave, but not before one of them urinates on the rug. Bummed by the destruction of his property, The Dude seeks out the other Jefferey Lebowski (David Huddleston), a paraplegic millionaire, to right the wrong. All he wants is a rug, but he gets conned into participating in a kidnapping scheme that spirals into a convoluted mess.

The plot of the Big Lebowski surprises me every time I watch it because it’s so complicated, yet so extraneous to an understanding of the film. Who the are the Knudsens? Whose toe is that? Where is the money, exactly? These narrative details are fun, but they’re largely decorative: the meat of the film is in the characterization, most importantly of the two men named Jeffery Lebowski, along with John Goodman’s compulsively aggresive Vietnam war vet Walter Sobchak.

In my notes on Fargo I talked about the Coens’ commentary on American manhood in the form of the contrasting characters of Jerry and Norm. In Lebowski, the filmmakers build on this theme more deliberately. This is evident from the Dude’s introduction, coupled with a narration by Sam Eliot’s The Stranger, speaking in a deep Western drawl (emphasis is mine):

Now this here story I’m about to unfold took place back in the early nineties — just about the time of our conflict with Saddam and the Iraqis. I only mention it ’cause sometimes there’s a man — I won’t say a hero, ’cause what’s a hero? — but sometimes there’s a man. And I’m talkin’ about the Dude here. Sometimes there’s a man who, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that’s the Dude, in Los Angeles.

We get two major themes up front: conflict and manhood. Even before this, the focus on masculinity is previewed by the opening credits song, Bob Dylan’s The Man in Me.

The Dude and the millionaire he calls the Big Lebowski represent warring visions of what an American man should be. The fact that they have the same name is more than a plot device — it makes the contrast and conflict between them explicit. In their first scene together, the Dude walks into the Big Lebowski’s ornate office in his sandals and hoodie with a simple request — some form of compensation for his peed-upon rug. He instead gets subjected to a self-righteous tirade. (Note the opening shot of the Dude in the Man of the Year mirror.)

The rant has nothing to do with the rug. Big Lebowski is affronted by the Dude’s very existence, livid that anyone, much less a man, could live with that little regard to societal norms. Any suggestion that his twentieth century values of male achievement and status don’t apply to everyone must be aggressively shouted down. Big Lebowski smugly believes that he’s won the encounter, while the Dude never even wanted to pick a fight. It’s important that Big Lebowski’s “achievements” turn out to be fraudulent. His version of manhood was literally a performance.

Walter Sobchak has no slavish notions about masculinity per se — he gladly carries around his ex-wife’s tiny dog. Where he contrasts with the Dude most starkly is how he handles conflict. When anyone crosses a line (literal or figurative) he reacts immediately and forcefully. Walter isn’t mindlessly violent — he has airtight logic justifying all of his outbursts. “Am I wrong?” is his mantra. To this the Dude responds with the film’s thesis in regards to conflict:  “You’re not wrong, Walter, you’re just an asshole”. The reasons for being violent don’t matter. It’s always an asshole way to be.

I want to talk about Sam Eliot’s mysterious cowboy character The Stranger, because I think he’s more than a narrator or an audience surrogate. I’ve always thought of The Stranger as the Dude’s guardian angel. This used to be just a pet theory of mine with little textual justification, but it actually fits in pretty well thematically. When the Stranger tells the Dude that he likes his style, he isn’t talking about his clothes — it’s a moral validation. He likes the Dude’s way of living, his commitment to peacefulness in a world that keeps on pummeling him.

The Big Lebowski was intended to be produced and released before Fargo, but due to scheduling issues with Jeff Bridges and John Goodman had to be delayed. This was a stroke of luck: Lebowski’s reception was lukewarm, barely making back its fifteen million dollar budget. Had it been released first, the Coens’ careers would have been on shaky ground.  Why did Lebowski resonate to such greater degree in the 2000’s than in the late 1990’s? It’s likely that pre-911 America wasn’t as interested in the film’s focus on conflict, violence, and pacifism. In the (George W) Bush era, these issues were in the forefront of American life. It probably also didn’t hurt that The Big Lebowski looks a lot like Dick Cheney.

While it’s their second film set in Los Angeles, Lebowski is the Coens’ first true LA movie. Los Angeles is unique because there is no way to experience it holistically — it’s so decentralized that everyone lives in a different version of the city. Each individual will know a handful of places intimately, but the rest is an amorphous landscape that’s never fully comprehensible. This can be difficult to capture cinematically — one of the major failures of La La Land is that Damien Chazelle tried to film Los Angeles as though it were New York, ending up with a touristy, Instagram-filtered version of the city that bears no resemblance to the experience of those who live here. The Coens, however, aren’t interested in landmarks — they only show us the version of Los Angeles that’s relevant to the characters in the story. 

Stray Observations

  • I love how the Dude repeats words and phrases that he learns in previous scenes, first with “This agression will not stand, man”, after he hears Bush Senior say it on TV, then “johnson” after he learns it from Maude.
  • I’ve always been bothered that the cups Donny and Walter hold after they get In-n-Out aren’t In-n-Out cups. But I have to imagine that the company wouldn’t allow their products onscreen — It would be a big detail for the filmmakers to overlook. Also, I have been to that particular In-N-Out in North Hollywood. It is indeed near Radford.
  • John Turturro uses every second of screentime to the fullest in his performance as the bombastic Jesus. Dios Mio, man. Also, what’s the deal with his silent pal Liam?
  • I just now realized that the title of this movie is a reference to Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Wow.
  • The Stranger does have a nit-pick about the Dude’s character — his use of “cuss words”. This is the line that I always point to in defense of my theory. Who else but a guardian angel would care about that?

Netflix Pick: Chicken Little

In 2005, then Pixar chairman Steve Jobs and Disney CEO Robert Iger were in the middle of negotiating over the extension of the deal in which Disney marketed and distributed Pixar’s films, an already impressive roster including Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, and most recently 2004’s The Incredibles. The talks hinged on the release of Disney’s first CG animated film produced in-house: Chicken Little, a loose adaptation of the sky-is-falling children’s tale. If the film was successful, Disney could argue that they didn’t have to depend on Pixar for 3D content, giving them the upper hand in the negotiations.

Chicken Little made $40 million in its opening weekend, tying The Lion King for Disney Animation’s biggest opener. While it didn’t fare as well with critics, it struck some kind of chord with thirteen-year-old me and my brothers: we watched our DVD copy over and over again and quoted it endlessly. When I saw it pop up on Netflix, I had to check it out to see if it held up.

For the past five or so years, we’ve all gotten used to Disney Animation cranking out beautiful, well-made CG features. They’ve done this in large part by embracing the narrative and artistic sensibilities of Disney’s hand-drawn classics. Although they don’t adhere strictly to their source material, mega-hits like Tangled and Frozen are essentially earnest musical retellings of fairytales (Rapunzel and The Snow Queen, respectively).

Disney didn’t arrive at this strategy overnight. At the outset, they tried to replicate the success of the less traditional offerings from Dreamworks and Pixar. From its opening frames, Chicken Little makes a concerted effort to distance itself from Disney’s old fairytale tropes, mocking both the classic storybook opening introduction and the beginning of Lion King.

From there we’re thrown straight into the inciting incident, in which a diminutive high-school aged Chicken Little (Zach Braff) insists that he’s seen a stop sign shaped chunk of the sky on the ground, causing panic and destruction in the animal town of Oakey Oaks. Little’s embarrassed father Buck Cluck (Gary Marshall) plays it off as an innocent gaffe, but Little can’t quite live it down. This makes high school rough for him and his misfit pals Abbey Mallard (Joan Cusack, an Ugly Duckling), Runt of the Litter (a rotund piglet), and Fish Out of Water (a fish wearing a diving helmet full of water).

After an unlikely baseball victory puts Little back in his father’s and the town’s good graces, another chunk of sky crash-lands in his bedroom. Turns out it’s actually a lost cloaking panel from an extraterrestrial spacecraft. From there the story becomes a goofy take on a War of the Worlds style alien invasion plot.

Compared to the recent sweeping epics like Frozen or Moana and the serious social parable Zootopia, Chicken Little feels like a feature-length Saturday morning cartoon, but that’s what makes it so much fun. As in the best cartoons, the humor comes from the characters, who are much broader comedically than those in typical Disney films. Runt of the Litter, played by the always funny Steve Zahn, is a perpetual over-reactor with a penchant for classic pop music. The wonderfully expressive Fish out of Water is unfazed and delighted by everything that happens to him, up to and including being abducted by aliens. He gets some of the best one-off bits, including constructing an Empire State Building out of homework papers and re-enacting the climactic scene of King Kong while the other characters have a serious discussion. My favorite character as a kid was the snotty popular-girl antagonist Foxy Loxy, whose pre-dodgeball declaration “PUMP IT, PUMP IT, PUMP IT UP!” became a go-to celebratory mantra for me and my brothers. She’s still pretty damn funny.

In addition to the cartoony fun, Chicken Little actually has a decently affecting emotional core in the form of Chicken Little and Buck Cluck’s relationship arc. Countless animated films are about the importance of family, whether they be biological or those constructed from unlikely companions. This can often feel a little vague and tacked-on, but Chicken Little narrows the focus down to the relationship between a father and son, and the social expectations and anxieties that go along with it. 

The CG doesn’t hold up nearly as well as Pixar movies from the same time: the textures, fur simulation, and fluid simulations are all clunky and primitive looking by comparison.  Nearly all of the non-hero characters are variations on the same generic animal model. Some of these cookie-cutter characters even have speaking roles, like the announcer at the baseball game. But none of this really distracts from Chicken Little’s strengths in terms of humor and characters. It’s an awfully fun movie with a great heart. 

Stray Observations:

  • Some clever foreshadowing — check out the pattern on Chicken Little’s bedspread.
  • Disney originally produced Chicken Little as a Silly Symphony short in 1943, an allegory about the dangers of believing in rumors during wartime. It’s pretty dark — Foxy Loxy literally reads passages from Mein Kampf. If you look at the title card, you can see the same hexagonal pattern seen in the 2005 movie. Either that’s a weird coincidence, or the Disney designers took some inspiration from it.
  • This movie definitely relies heavily on musical montages, but I’ll forgive it because they’re so much fun. I had that Barenaked Ladies song stuck in my head for days.
  • It’s pretty incredible to compare Chicken Littles primitive animal crowds animation  to the crowds work in last year’s Zootopia, in which according to fxguide featured 64 different species and 800,000 different character models.
  • For some reason, Abbey Mallard’s reaction to the cloaking panel cracks me up every time: “Bizarre!”

Christine vs. 80’s: Round 2

After several abortive attempts at a second entry in this ~series~, I am back with two more 80’s flicks. Both are considered to be cult classics, both lived up to their reputations, and both are available to rent on iTunes. Again, I’ll be rating them in terms of how much I enjoyed watching them and in terms of their general 80’s-ness.



It’s a lady. It’s a hawk. It’s LadyHawke, the 1985 medieval comedy starring Matthew Broderick that you’ve never heard of. Full disclosure: I hate Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I think it’s an insufferable ode to nihilism and entitlement. Despite this deep flaw in my character, I still love some adorable ‘lil young Broderick, especially in War Games, so I was excited to jump into Ladyhawke.

Our young protagonist, Gaston (Broderick), is a small-time thief and recent dungeon escapee who runs into a mysterious black-clad knight named Navarre who carries around a hawk. Turns out the hawk is actually the lady Isabeau (Michelle Pfeiffer). Here’s the deal: Navarre and Isabeau were in love, but a jealous, evil bishop cursed them. Isabeau becomes a hawk during the day, and Navarre turns into a wolf at night, preventing the pair from being together in human form. What’s even more of a bummer is that they don’t retain their human minds when they animorph, nor do they remember any of it, which totally defeats the purpose of turning into an animal. They have to go find the bishop to break the curse and end up enlisting the help of Gaston.

The tone isn’t as strictly comedic as, say, The Princess Bride, which is probably the first movie you think of when you think medieval comedy. There are times when you almost think you’re watching a semi-serious period piece, but then the heavily synth-laden soundtrack kicks in. It makes no sense, but it’s kind of amazing.

As I expected, Broderick is his absurdly charming self, and gets all the best one-liners. I was not expecting this movie to have such pervasive religious themes and references: Gaston is in constant dialog with God, bargaining, promising, and explaining. The main antagonist is a disloyal bishop who has aligned himself with Satan. The seal of confession is a major plot point. There’s a Lent joke. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a comedy that engages with Catholicism so sincerely. Both the drama and humor rely on religion, but it’s never the butt of the joke, nor is it portrayed as inherently bad, despite the rotten clergyman.

Watchability: 4/5
80’s-ness: 3/5 for the soundtrack alone

The takeaway: “The truth is, sir, I talk to God all the time, and no offense, but He never mentioned you.”


Mad Max 2: Road Warrior

Like everyone who saw it, I was completely mesmerized by Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller’s revisitation of his earlier action trilogy starring Mel Gibson. I have been meaning to check out the original movies, but the first Mad Max was released in 1979, so obviously I had to skip ahead to Mad Max 2: Road Warrior for the sake of this very important journalistic endeavour. This didn’t end up being a problem, since Road Warrior starts out with a nice recap of prior events, setting up how Max came to be a lone wolf in the parched Australian post-apocalypse.

Narrative-wise, Road Warrior is a textbook old-school western. A group of settlers must find a way to defend themselves from the cadre of bad guys who are about to to ransack their home. Max is the hardened mercenary who reconnects with his humanity by selflessly lending his services to the community. Just sub out the climactic gun fight for a car chase laced with explosions and gore.

The pacing is slower and the effects are obviously less sophisticated, but Road Warrior is more similar to Fury Road than I expected, in terms of both visuals and tone. The manipulation of frame rates to create jerky, surreal motion is already present. There’s plenty of weird, colorful characters, including a boomerang-toting feral child. Although the dialog-to-action ratio is higher, Max is very much the same steady and reticent hero. One big difference is the hair. Shampoo is apparently much more readily available in the 2015 version of the world.

Watchability: 4/5

80’s-ness: 2/5

The takeaway: Not all boomerangs can be caught. Also, why don’t I have my own mini helicopter?

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – A First Step Into a Larger World

This review contains mild spoilers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.  If you haven’t seen it yet, sorry not sorry. 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is Disney and Lucasfilm’s first entry into the promised slate of Star Wars spin-off films, which will eventually include stand-alones focusing on Han Solo and Boba Fett. Cribbed from the opening crawl of A New Hope, the Rogue One details the exploits of the  Rebel spies who stole the plans for the Death Star, remedying one of Star Wars’ biggest plot holes in the process.

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the lost daughter of reluctant Imperial weapons designer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), has been recruited by the rebellion to find her father and with him the plans for the Death Star. She’s accompanied by the ruthless and handsome and ruthlessly handsome intel officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and K-2SO, a reprogramed Imperial security droid with the personality of Sheldon Cooper. Along the way, they pick up a crew of rebel and rebel-ish misfits, including a defected Imperial pilot and a couple of out-of-work Jedi temple guards (Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang). The characters are all fun and each have their own memorable moments, although there’s no time for real exploration of their backgrounds and relationships. It’s also just really hard to keep track of six different Star Wars-y names, even on a second viewing.

Rogue One’s production was fraught with re-shoots, and it shows in the final product. Some elements of the plot aren’t well explained — how did Jyn go from being rescued by Saw Gerrera to being incarcerated by the Empire? It seems like a lot of the connective tissue got lost in the shuffle. Luckily these issues are relegated to the first third of the film, but it takes a frustrating amount of head-scratching to get fully immersed into the story.

But if a standalone Star Wars film’s purpose is to expand the universe, then Rogue One is a success in spite of the rocky start. The world feels huge and detailed, bringing us deeper into the mythology: we’re introduced to Jedha, the holy city of the Jedis, and kybers, the Force-attuned crystals that power lightsabers (and also giant spherical super-weapons, turns out). We learn that the Rebellion isn’t a united front: fringe groups with no qualms about civilian casualties threaten to compromise the efforts to restore the republic, blurring the usual stark lines between good and evil.

If there’s one thing that Rogue One nails, it’s the texture. While Force Awakens set in the future and therefore free to establish its own aesthetic, this film had to match the look and feel of A New Hope exactly. Everything is there, from boxy, hard-edged user interfaces to 70’s-style mustaches. It all matches so well that I didn’t even notice that several shots were actual footage cut from the original series.

In the slightly less nailed category is the computer generated visage of Peter Cushing mapped onto the head of actor Guy Henry as Grand Moff Tarkin. The effect is not bad by any means, but the technology isn’t quite to the point where it’s visually seamless. Since director Gareth Edwards got his start in the VFX industry, it’s understandable that he would want to push technological boundaries — whether it was worth taking the audience out of the story for an experiment is debatable. CGI Tarkin might not age very well.

The most common criticism I’ve seen leveled at Rogue One is that it’s “fan service”: just a bunch of cheap references to the original series. I’m not sure what reference-free Star Wars movie these people are imagining. Rogue One ends literally minutes before A New Hope begins. It’s narratively impossible for the two films not to be intimately linked. Maybe it is fan service. But it’s well crafted and fun fan service, so I’m not complaining.

If there’s one thing all Star Wars fans can agree on, it’s that Rogue One fixes one of the only narrative flaws of the Original Series: why was the Death Star so easy to just blow up? Gareth Edwards and co. give us a satisfying answer. For that, the Force will be with them, always.

Stray Observations:

  • Seriously, I have no recollection of Donnie Yen or Wen Jiang’s characters ever being referred to by their names. I’m sure it happened at some point?
  • Re: the re-shoots/re-edits: I threw down $26 for a C2-B5 (evil R2-D2) action figure, thinking that he was going to be a major player. He was literally nowhere to be seen in this film. I could have gotten a K-2SO and now I regret all my life choices.
  • This movie gave me an uncontrollable urge to read a Star Wars novel, so I read Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel by veteran Star Wars author James Luceno. It actually has nothing to do with Rogue One per se (marketing I guess), but instead focuses on Galen and Lyra Erso, Orson Krennic, and the planning and construction of the Death Star. It’s completely fascinating and by my not-too-experienced estimation, well written.

Picks for Kevin


I was discussing HBO’s Westworld with my college buddy, Kevin, when he mentioned that he had never seen Blade Runner. In general, he felt that he was lacking in the classic sci-fi filmic knowledge appropriate to a card-carrying nerd. To remedy this situation and to help him to expand his overall cinematic palate, I offered to come up with a list of movies for him to watch.

Here you go, K-Money. My hope is that each movie listed here can be a jumping-off point into a different genre or era of film that I think you’ll enjoy. I’ll take it for granted that Blade Runner is already on your to-watch list, and I KNOW you have Blu-Rays of Alien and Aliens, because I saw you stand in line to get them at Comic-Con a year and a half ago. You should watch them.

Total Recall (1990)
Since 2015 brought us an ultra-realistic look at life on Mars in Ridley Scott’s adaptation The Martian, I thought you might like to check out an earlier sci-fi depiction of the Red Planet. Even though it was released in 1990, Total Recall is quintessential 80’s action. Directed by Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Basic Instinct), it’s full of ridiculous body horror and brutal fight scenes along with dumb, awesome one-liners by Arnold Schwarzenegger, in one of his best non-Terminator roles.

Set in 2048, Arnold plays construction worker Douglas Quaid, who’s plagued by nightmares about a mysterious woman on Mars. To remedy this situation (I guess), he decides to try Rekall, a service that will implant the memories of a trip to Mars in his consciousness. Of course craziness ensues, with Quaid finding out that his entire life might not be what he thought it was.

It isn’t just mindless fun, though. Total Recall is an early predecessor to movies like The Matrix and Inception, that deal with questions of the nature of reality. Like Inception, the movie itself is a puzzle that may take a handful of viewings to really crack, if there’s really an answer at all.

WarGames (1983)
As a software engineer, you need to see this film because it’s widely, and I think correctly, regarded as the greatest hacker movie of all time. Additionally, it’ll give you some much-needed context for the book Ready Player One and its forthcoming film adaptation, which is going to be directed by Steven Spielberg. Ready Player One is drenched in 80’s nostalgia, and WarGames is one of its major touchstones.

A pre-Ferris Bueller Matthew Broderick plays a young Seattle computer hobbyist who accidentally hacks into the military’s nuclear control system. He thinks that he’s accessed a nuclear-war themed computer game, but soon discovers that his tinkering has triggered real-world panic.

As much a Cold War movie as it is a hacker movie, WarGames tapped into the long-standing nuclear panic of the 80’s combined with the very new concepts of computers and hacking. At the time of its release, most people didn’t even have computers in their homes, let alone access to the internet. The idea that any person with a computer could influence events on a global scale must have been utterly mind-bending. WarGames even ended up helping to shape our national policy: the film evidently made such a huge impression on President Reagan that it prompted him to launch extensive investigations into the threat of cyber warfare.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
I know you’ve seen this at some point, but it’s worth revisiting. Although only a handful of Steven Spielberg’s films can be considered science fiction, he’s influenced the genre as much as any other director I can think of. His cinematic fingerprints are all over contemporary film and TV. If you re-watch Stranger Things, you’ll notice that multiple shots are directly lifted from his films.

Close Encounters features 70’s everyman Richard Dreyfuss as a father and husband whose relationships are threatened by his growing obsessions after an encounter with a UFO. While most films in the alien invasion subgenre rely on the aliens being a hostile threat to create tension and drive the plot forward, Close Encounters instead builds suspense as the protagonist gradually pieces together what’s happening to him. As a result, the pacing is slower than typical modern sci-fi, but it’s worth the patience that it requires.

If you haven’t seen the recent Arrival yet, I’d recommend watching this first if you have a chance. In many ways, Arrival is a spiritual descendent of Close Encounters, and in my opinion the first film in the genre to really approach the powerful sense of wonder that Spielberg brought to his film.

Chinatown (1974)
Director Roman Polanski and writer Robert Towne’s 1974 neo-noir is essential for anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of cinematic storytelling. Set in late 1930’s Los Angeles, Chinatown features Jack Nicholson in one of his most well-known roles as Jake Gittes, a tough private detective who’s hired to surveil the city’s chief water engineer by a woman claiming to be his wife. The gig turns out to be a set-up, launching Gittes into a web of deception and intrigue.

Every screenwriting book I’ve ever read uses Chinatown as an example of rock-solid story structure, pacing, and dialog. It can also serve as an entry point to New Hollywood, a renaissance era of filmmaking that stretched from the late sixties to the early eighties. Kicked off by Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Mike Nichols’ The Graduate in 1967, the movement was heavily inspired by French New Wave Directors like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, and focused on the importance of the director as the film’s primary creative force, as opposed to the film studio.

Some Like it Hot (1959)
Let’s bring it back even further with a comedy that I think you’ll enjoy. Some Like it Hot was written and directed by Billy Wilder, one of the most prolific and versatile filmmakers of the twentieth century. It follows a pair of jazz musicians (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) who witness the 1929 St. Valentine’s day Massacre and escape by pretending to be women and joining an all-female band. This results in some surprisingly nuanced gender commentary that pushed cultural boundaries at the time of its release in the late fifties. It’s also a masterpiece of screwball comedy, ranked the Funniest Movie of All time by the American Film Institute. Some of its classic one-liners have become so embedded in the zeitgeist that you’ve probably heard them already, even if you’ve never seen it.

Rope (1948)
I thought that this would be an interesting entry point into the world of Alfred Hitchcock, which you’ve yet to delve into. Rope is unique within Hitchcock’s oeuvre of suspense movies in that it takes place in real time over the course of one evening in an apartment, and was edited to appear to be one long, continuous shot. This gives it a stagey quality that I think you’ll appreciate as a theater guy. It’s actually extremely reminiscent of The Hateful 8 (minus all the gore), to the point that I would bet money that Tarantino was strongly inspired by it.

If you want to explore more Hitchcock, I’d follow this up with Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, and Vertigo.

Double Indemnity (1944)
Classic 40’s film noir is both a genre unto itself and a hugely influential cinematic style, so I thought I would recommend the noir-iest of all noirs, as determined by this super scientific infographic .

Double Indemnity also happens to be one of my favorite movies ever, a film that I find myself going back to over and over. Directed by the same guy who did Some Like it Hot (he had some serious range), it follows an insurance salesman who gets talked into plotting his own wife’s murder.

The noir style had a massive influence on comics as well as film. Batman (especially Frank Miller’s interpretation), Watchmen, Daredevil, Hellboy,  and many others can trace their stylistic DNA back to the dark, crime-focused movies of this era.

Quick Takes – Arrival, Trolls


I have been anticipating Arrival since I saw the trailer running before Ghostbusters this summer. It didn’t disappoint. Sicario director Denis Villaneuve’s adaptation of a short story by sci-fi author Ted Chiang is a thoughtful and mature genre piece that delivers on its premise in a way most similar films fail to do.

The world has been visited by twelve huge, Pringle-shaped monoliths, each in a different country. These “shells” open up every eighteen hours, allowing a small number of human beings to enter and have an audience with their occupants.

Arrival doesn’t waste any time building up to the reveal of the extraterrestrial visitors — it thrusts linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) into their presence before she even has time to decide against becoming involved. What the creatures look like, a mystery that so many films of the alien subgenre rely on for suspense, doesn’t really matter. What matters is what they have to say, and how they say it.

While the trigger-happy military brass look for the first excuse to open fire on the shells, Banks methodically works to understand the visitors and their intentions. What they learn from each other ultimately transforms them both.




The Trolls property is nothing more than a line of weird little poofy-haired dolls, so the creators at Dreamworks had a pretty blank slate to work with when developing it into a feature film. In the mythology of the movie, the tiny, colorful Trolls are menaced by the frankly much more troll-like Bergens, who must eat them in order to be happy. This is a refreshingly dark premise for a film geared towards children.

While the  plot doesn’t take the setup to a very interesting or original conclusion, Trolls’ style makes it worth seeing, especially for well-versed animation fans. Both the humor and animation call to mind the goofy, left-field sensibilities of Cartoon Network’s current creative renaissance, including shows like Adventure Time, Regular Show, and Uncle Grandpa. 

I was rendered a little skeptical by this film’s marketing campaign, which heavily featured characters with A-list celebrity voice talent singing pop songs. The musical numbers are a little hit-or-miss, but the best ones are cleverly chosen and accompanied by delightfully weird visuals; the Bergens’ stomping rendition of Gorillaz’ Clint Eastwood in a declaration of their Troll-starved misery is possibly one of my favorite movie moments of the year.

Christine VS 80’s: Round 1

Like most of us, my new hobby is watching Stranger Things repeatedly until my eyes bleed. Among other things, the show has made me realize that the 1980’s is somewhat of a blind spot in my pop cultural education. Sure, I know the hits, but I want to delve deeper into the weird corners, both good and bad. Luckily, Netflix has no shortage of fodder for my investigation. I shall be rating these in terms of watchability and 80’s-ness for your movie night decision-making benefit.


The Burbs, 1989

Young Tom Hanks is a high-strung suburb-dweller spending his vacation from work snooping on his neighbors in what is essentially a goofy, late 80’s version of Rear Window. Hanks, Bruce Dern, and Rick Ducommun attempt to prove that their creepy neighbors are in a murder-cult while Carrie Fisher rolls her eyes. A teenaged Corey Feldman sits on his porch and comments on the action like a vaguely punk greek chorus.

This is the earliest Tom Hanks movie I’ve seen, and I’m really digging this era of his work. Highlights include Tom Hanks writhing furiously on the ground having been stung by a swarm of bees, Tom Hanks slowly chewing and swallowing a slimy sardine, and Tom Hanks sneezing uncontrollably for no apparent reason. If you are interested in seeing Tom Hanks do any of these things, this film is for you.

Watchability: 3/5     80’s-ness Rating: 4/5

The takeaway: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean everyone isn’t out to get you.


Harry and the Hendersons, 1987

Like many #millenials, my first introduction to Harry and the Hendersons came in the form of the 30 Rock episode Goodbye, My Friend. Jack Donaghy views the film with the TGS writers and takes its message to heart, declaring to Liz Lemon: “That film has layers”.

Does it actually have layers? Kind of, just not terribly entertaining ones. Canonical 80’s Movie Dad John Lithgow plays George Henderson, a trigger-happy rifle enthusiast who has dragged his family on a camping trip, only to hit a large, ape-like creature with their station wagon multiple times on the way back. Presuming its death, the Hendersons tote the beast back to their suburban home, hoping to gain some cash off of the discovery. The animal is in fact very much alive. The rest of the plot is essentially E.T.

In a way, this movie is quite prescient. I think that at the time it was supposed to be about environmentalism, but small town Americans frantically buying guns to defend themselves from a strange, foreign, presumably dangerous something feels very 2016.

Stray observations:

Not to be pedantic, but since Harry was willing to eat a fish sandwich and not a cheeseburger he’s actually a pescatarian, not a vegetarian.

Watch out for a Ronald Reagan cameo during the obligatory 80’s weird-creature-is-fascinated-by-television sequence.
Watchability: 2/5     80’s-ness: 3/5

The takeaway: I know what America needs to solve its gun problem: Bigfoot.