West Side Story
There’s every reason to look back on 1961’s Best Picture Oscar-winner as the last great movie musical. It’s not like no one ever made a musical again, but the genre has declined pitifully in the last forty years, and everything that’s come afterward, good or bad - Oliver!, Cabaret, All That Jazz, Chicago - seem like dim pools of light in the awesome shadow cast by the genre’s masterpieces.
This edition might possibly be the film’s definitive version, if only because of the thick book - it’s too impressive to be called a booklet - included with the two discs. Comprised of the original screenplay, the souvenir “lobby brochure”, studio memos and reviews, it’s a relief that it wasn’t just crammed into the bonus features section of a disc.
The hour-long “West Side Memories” documentary details the troubled production, which saw co-director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, an obsessive perfectionist, fired before the film was complete, and includes excerpts of Natalie Wood’s unfortunate attempts to sing the difficult score, later dubbed by Marni Nixon.
Robert Wise’ elegant cutting and camera, combined with Robbins’ kinetic dance sequences, would have gone nowhere if not for the supporting cast, especially Rita Moreno and George Chakiris. They’re so impressive that Wood and Richard Beymer, the star-crossed and inevitably insipid lovers, often recede as we wait for the jolt of numbers like “Cool” and “America”.
The story is outrageous, but the casting superb in Steven Shainberg’s story of romance between the damaged. James Spader, never an actor adept at projecting normalcy or easy charisma, is fantastic, but it’s Maggie Gyllenhaal who carries this abidingly strange tale of a young woman who finds love by giving up her free will.
Lee is a mess when we meet her, fresh from being institutionalized after a nervous breakdown. Looking for something to do, she takes a job typing letters for Spader, a spectacularly anal lawyer whose office decor combines bordello and haunted house, and who immediately homes in on Lee’s hothouse insecurities with a combination of hunger and shame.
If you believe that Lee’s loving participation in her ritual humiliations eventually empowers her, then you might consider the film’s climax a bit less of a lunge into the sort of disturbing fantasyland once dominated by David Lynch. If not, you might just be swept along by Shainberg’s confident, even audacious insistence on calling their relationship love. If you’re merely disturbed and offended, then it’s a pretty good sign that you shouldn’t be watching a film like Secretary, and there’s every reason to regard al of these responses as utterly valid.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
The copious production documentation included with this deluxe reissue of Robert Zemeckis’ 1988 cartoon/live action hybrid makes one thing clear - digital filmmaking is the “killer app” the movie industry has always wanted. It’s amazing to see just how much work - over two years and tens of thousands of drawings - was required to make this silly but heartfelt homage to the golden age of movie cartoons.
It’s also possible that, if someone made this film today, at a fraction of the cost and labour thanks to digital effects, it might not seem like such a labour of love, though the cartoon/human interface would probably be more technically seamless. It’s still a lark, though the best performances are given by Christopher Lloyd’s villain and a cartoon shoe that he cruelly dissolves in a vat of turpentine.
Ron “The Hedgehog” Jeremy is the most successful male porn star in the history of the industry, and Scott J. Gill’s documentary depicts him as a lovable mess, a needy but charming man whose best chance at happiness probably disappeared halfway through his 1600-film career. Thanks to Jeremy, Gill manages to make the porn industry seem less seedy than absurd, but the film is much closer to the truth when it shows how wildly popular - even virtually mainstream - it is, the fact of which accounts for most, if not all, of Jeremy’s dubious, even apparently painful, celebrity.