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Worst Best Picture: Is West Side Story Better or Worse Than Crash?

west side story

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1961 winner West Side Story. Is it better than Crash?

Before watching it recently, almost all of my specific West Side Story knowledge came from this Curb Your Enthusiasm clip:

I’ve talked before about my relationship with musicals, and I don’t know how much there is to really say on the subject in general. There’s a handful still to go, but the quintessential American musical just might be this one. It has three songs in the American Film Institute’s top 100 songs in film list: “Somewhere,” “America,” and “Tonight.” The “Sharks vs. Jets” pairing has been mocked in every form of media that exists. West Side Story is ubiquitous, I just didn’t really know how much I knew. I’d heard versions of “America” and “I Feel Pretty” before, but I think I was only loosely aware of their source.

All of that makes for an interesting first viewing in 2014, on par with movies that you somewhat know but don’t really like Driving Miss Daisy and Rain Man. You have a basic understanding of what’s up in West Side Story even if you haven’t seen a moment of it: forbidden love, dance fighting, and race in New York City. You’d end up writing a pretty terrible book report without more details than that, but you really do have most of what you need there. I guess the Driving Miss Daisy version of that is “a black guy drives an old white lady around and they learn they’re not so different after all,” but that would leave out the all-time-terrible performance from Dan Aykroyd, which would be a mistake.

So what’s under the surface of the dance fighting in West Side Story? Well, while “America” may be a pretty straightforward critique of race in the United States, it is a solid update of the Romeo and Juliet class dynamic. There’s some interesting smarm in “Gee, Officer Krupke” about the nature of being latchkey kids and what contributes to “troubled youth.” While it’s primarily an update of Shakespeare, it’s also something a little bit more. I can’t really judge the singing and dancing — reviews of musicals often have strong takes on the matter, and I just don’t have an eye for it — but the storyline is compelling and the pacing carries the nearly three-hour epic better than expected. It won’t be something I revisit very often, but I found myself caught up in an update of a story that I already know. That’s an accomplishment, so my bold take on West Side Story is that it’s “an accomplishment.” Really going out on a limb here.

The Best Part: Probably “America,” but I was really interested in the reaction to the climactic fight. I don’t think it’s possible to “spoil” an update of Romeo and Juliet, but someone dies. It’s not supposed to get that bad, and the reaction of a bunch of kids — that they act like a bunch of kids for the first time — is eye-opening. It adds a touch of realism to a movie that’s mostly people jumping off stoops and throwing their arms wide to show how tough they are. These kids don’t want to be “tough” but they see no other option, and when it all goes bad they can’t handle it.

The Worst Part: Is it bad that it’s the love story itself for me? I don’t care about Tony and Maria. I get that it’s the construct around which the rest of the world turns, but I was never that interested in it. Even the absurd love story of Gigi drew me in more than Tony/Maria, but that’s probably a failing on my part.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Finally, a movie that is directly about race to compare with the worst of the worst. The difference between the two is that in West Side Story race is a complicating factor for an existing plot and in Crash the plot stands in the way of a discussion of race. Race feels a little inserted into West Side Story, so even when the complication of “white vs. Puerto Rican” does come up, it comes up alongside “Sharks vs. Jets.” The battle lines are drawn along racial lines, but sometimes it feels more like they’re talking about the gangs than about the difficulty of race in America. That complication leads to some conversations where everyone appears to be talking about one thing, but really it’s a discussion of race. Race informs the entire movie, which allows for a deeper viewing of what is otherwise a fairly straightforward musical. Crash never lets anything go unsaid. If two people of a different race have a conversation, they both bring it up, angrily, to the other one. The tension of race is something everyone understands without it being shouted at them, but Crash is not at all interested in subtleties.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind| Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

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Worst Best Picture: Is Patton Better or Worse Than Crash?

image source: oscars.org

image source: oscars.org

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1970 winner Patton. Is it better than Crash?

I’ll say this: this was the easiest movie on the list to pick out a picture for.

Patton is dramatic, funny, and challenging. It’s a sweeping view of one part of one person, but it’s by no means simple. George C. Scott won — and refused — an Oscar for his portrayal of General George S. Patton, and I’m not sure anyone has ever done a better job of portraying a character.

It’s a character, for sure, because it’s such a thin version of a person. Patton doesn’t care about anything aside from military conquest. He can’t keep control of his troops because he keeps screwing up basic stuff, but he’s a brilliant tactician on the battlefield. He, like so many of us, can’t do the dumb things he’s gotta do every day — like, well, not piss off Russia — to get to the part of life that he cares about. He just wants his troops to follow him, unwavering, to battle. He cares about conquest and victory in a very romantic sense. He’s a warrior-poet, emphasis on both, and he needs his story told in blood.

What makes it work so well is that it isn’t a sort of un-Full Metal Jacket. It’s still not a very rosy view of military life or battle, it’s just a more complicated view of the men who care about such things. Patton isn’t the everyman and he isn’t supposed to be a suggestion of the proper way to feel about patriotism or war. He’s supposed to be an over-the-top view of the military. He’s what we’d all be if we actually gave ourselves to work. He’s too far gone.

War movies are almost always the story of why we shouldn’t go to war. Those are fine — many on this list are more than fine — but Patton wants to talk about George S. Patton more than war. It’s about how we love our heroes when they’re being heroic, but we don’t want to deal with the things that keep those people human. We want them to go back into a box until there’s more heroism needed. George C. Scott’s Patton wants to keep being heroic all the time, and when he runs out of villains to find he starts constructing them himself.

The Best Part: Maybe it came across here, but if there’s any doubt I shall put it to rest: GEORGE. C. SCOTT. Go watch the first 10 minutes of Patton. It’s the iconic “pep talk” scene in front of the giant flag. Go do it, right now. Don’t even read the rest of this section first. I could put anything here, because no one is reading it, because you are watching the first 10 minutes of Patton. I’m gonna put my Social Security number here.

The Worst Part: I hate to keep coming back to length. A good third of Best Picture winners are 2.5 hours or longer, and most of them definitely don’t need to be. Patton doesn’t sag under the weight of 170 minutes, but it’s impossible to not mention. It’s supposed to feel enormous, like the full weight of the man’s struggle against the system he so didn’t understand, and it does. It just wanders a little bit toward the middle; there’s some especially repetitive scenes of Patton losing his shit and losing his army that don’t add to anyone’s understanding of the General himself.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Patton, if nothing else, is the triumph of George C. Scott. He’s exceptional in Dr. Strangelove, but he’s all-time great, here. It would not be unreasonable to say that this is possibly the greatest single performance on the list, and this is one hell of a list. There are flaws with Patton, to be sure, but none of them come from Scott’s consistent, terrifying performance. He sells you on a difficult concept: that a man who loves war, and only war, is more than a monster. Exceptional art challenges the viewer, and Patton does. I’m not even going to talk about the other movie right now.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Should You See It: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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Andrew Findlay

In our rarely-running kinda-series Should You See It? we talk about movies that just came out. You can figure out the rest of the premise from the title of the series. That’s right: We talk recipes. Should you see Captain America: The Winter Soldier?

The movie opens with Captain (America) Steve Rogers jogging laps on the National Mall. His “jogging,” as a superhuman recipient of Dr. Abraham Erskine’s super-soldier serum, amounts to a full sprint for an Olympic athlete. He laps another jogger, a young, fit man, so many times that the other guy gets pissed off and tries to sprint to catch him, which progresses to two army veterans talking about war, which is ended by S.H.I.E.L.D. picking Cap up in a fast car. Solid intro.

The intro of Steve Rogers jogging says something important about the character: He actually needs to exercise and train to maintain his strength. He’s strong and great, but still pretty normal. I was amazed when Marvel took Captain America, clearly just the worst superhero ever when I was nine, and made him into one of the most appealing franchises in movies today. Nine-year-old me thought he was stupid because basically he is just in really good shape with a weird shield. Superman is invincible and Batman has an endless supply of cool toys, so what’s in it for a Steve Rogers fan? The appeal of Captain America, aside from the movies doing a great job focusing on the human side of him and helping audiences empathize with his life, is that he is the absolute, be-all end-all specimen of human perfection, but his superpowers end there. He’s the ultimate athlete, the ultimate patriot, and the ultimate gentleman, but he is still fundamentally human, unlike Superman, who has to shave with laser vision.

This is either the dumbest or the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. 

The fast car takes him to a jet which takes him to the location of the first action set piece. These set pieces are the definite high points of the movie. They are most of what the movie is, and for each and every one, I was literally leaning forward thinking, as much as I thought anything, “yes yes yes yes yes” on repeat until Captain America stopped slamming his shield into people’s faces. The combat is more complicated and varied than that, though. One scene in particular that stands out is an amazing car chase through Northwest D.C. with Nick Fury at the helm of an SUV that’s so well-equipped it’s really more of a spaceship. Samuel L. Jackson truly lives up to his laconic badass persona in this role, participating in one of the most exciting parts in a movie filled with super-soldiers. Marvel has been doing crowd-pleasing action for years now, and they have become exceedingly efficient at it.

Trinity_in_screens

Pictured: Stan Lee

The plot is believable and full of suspense. It never drags or makes you roll your eyes, which is admirable when a plot is serving mostly as spackle between action scenes. The twist (SPOILER – there’s a twist) is pretty horrifying and plausible when it happens, and gives Captain America plenty of opportunity for research on the relative durability of shields versus faces (hint: in 9 out of 10 studies, the shield demonstrated higher levels of durability). There are certain things that, if you think really hard about them, seem to not quite fit together right for plausibility or continuity, but if you’re thinking that hard about it, you’re doing it wrong, anyway. They’re seriously minor things that I hate myself for noticing, and you won’t think about them. This is not the awful era of the horrendous post-Keaton late-90s Batman movie. This is not Ben Affleck in Daredevil. Superhero movies are A Thing now, and any plot holes that exist aren’t big enough to fall through unless you dig them out yourself.

Should you see it? 

You should definitely see this movie. It is one of the best vehicles for action scenes this year, and it achieves what a lot of really impressive action movies don’t: Those over-the-top scenes are actually tied together really well with a strong story. Yes, the exploding and shooting and hitting are definitely the focus of the movie, but their weight doesn’t shatter the rest of the film into kindling.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Image: IMDB

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Neil Gaiman’s American Gods

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Andrew Findlay

Neil Gaiman has been a darling of fantasy fiction for years. His profile is huge and unassailable – multiple awards, multiple movie adaptations – this is a writer who goes on late night talk shows and people watch those shows specifically to see him. Any two or three of his works are enough to qualify him as a game-changing writer. If you have not read Sandman, go do that right now. It is the best thing he’s ever written, and one of the best 15 things written in the last 50 years. I can’t get into it right now because the story is massively complex and free-roaming, but do yourself a favor and check it out. Today’s book, American Gods, won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards. To give an idea of how big a deal that is, only 10 books have ever done that, and two of them were written by Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, respectively.

American Gods is fantasy, which is a really important genre as it’s the first there ever was. Think about it: In Gilgamesh the main character is the son of a goddess, befriends a wild man, slays an ogre, rejects the advances of the goddess of sex, and slays the skybull she sends to destroy him in revenge. In The Odyssey, the main character blinds an ogre, pisses off a sea god, and is assisted by and given gear by a war goddess. Any number of old stories contain fantastic elements: humans made of clay, humans made of thrown rocks, world-wrapping floods, and so on. These early stories are special, as they all attempt to explain humanity, its place in the world, and how they both came about. There is no whiny asshole running around with daddy issues (I’m looking at you, The Corrections). At the dawn of human cultural life, all of the stories were concerned with how we got here and what we should do about it. Of course, people back then had no fucking clue and just made shit up. The results were amazing. Modern fantasy stems from either that initial efflorescence or from all the stuff J.R.R. Tolkien single-handedly standardized. American Gods is the former. It goes old and deep for its mythology.

I am the oldest character in all of literature, and my beard rings are amazing.

Some people hate American Gods, and those people are wrong. There is plenty to hate, but a lot more to love. The first big hit is that the main character’s name is Shadow, which is usually not a good sign quality-wise. In general, the characters are there to advance the plot and to do cool things. There’s depth there, but not a lot. Shadow is a pretty simple guy who is set up a little maladroitly as a big strong silent type, but with hidden feelings. At the start of the novel, he finishes a three-year bid in prison. Later in the novel, he remembers being a kid and crying while reading Gravity’s Rainbow in a hospital while his mother died of cancer. Jarring mismatches like that rub you wrong and don’t deserve to be forgiven, but there is just so much good to go with the bad. Most of the good comes from the premise in the title itself.

What exactly are American gods? The premise that makes the book is that gods are generated by human thought and belief. For example, Odin (who is a main character), first popped up in America when Vikings visited the Americas, got into conflict, and slew a native in a ritualistic way. The power of their belief created him. Then they left, and Odin spent the next few centuries kicking around the continental US as “Mr. Wednesday” (Wednesday = Wōdnesdæg or Odin’s Day). This method of god creation is upliftingly anthropocentric – our belief is not just their payment or due, but the key to their existence. Unfortunately for the gods, lack of faith leads to lack of food. Without constant, strong belief, they weaken and, if they can find no substitute, they die. The substitutes available normally consist of some type of human interaction tangentially related to their godhead. For example, the half-djinn Queen of Sheba, Bilquis, achieved fame and drew belief as a great seducer. In American Gods, she is working as a prostitute and drawing her power and sustenance from that. An American incarnation of Anubis, the Egyptian death god, runs a funeral home and draws his power and sustenance from that. The hardscrabble landscape of American belief has transmogrified Mr. Wednesday, an incarnation of the Norse god of war, wisdom, and poetry, into a confidence man. There is definitely a precedent for Odin as a type of trickster god, and his godhood being shaped and reflected by American culture emphasizes and feeds this aspect of him. He gains strength and survives through bamboozlement. For example, he needs money, so he finds an ATM, dresses up like a security guard, handcuffs a briefcase to his hand, and marks the ATM as out of order. When anyone comes up to make a deposit, he apologizes, takes their money, and painstakingly writes them a receipt. He then walks away with a ton of money. He not only gets cash this way, but also acquires the “worship” necessary for his continued existence. The problems associated with lack of spiritual nourishment create the central conflict of the book.

I’m going to need a little bit more than that to survive, Ron.

Old gods are scattered across all of America. All of the immigrants who ever came here, and all of their beliefs, created sub-pantheons filled with strangely reduced gods. Old cultures come over with their old beliefs, then slowly buy in to the new ones. Up to the time of the book, these gods have only had to deal with their transformation and weakening due to the acculturation of their worshipers, but problems arise when they enter into direct competition with the new gods, avatars of tech, finance, and the like. As Americans worship these things with more fervor, so do their respective avatars gain power, to the direct detriment and weakening of the old gods. Once created, gods have staying power, but if they are completely cut off, they will simply fade into nothing. This is an undesirable outcome, so the main plot of the book deals with the old gods’ actions to preserve themselves in the face of the onslaught of the modern world.

Yes, the plot is linear and simple. Yes, the characters could have a little more depth. Yes, the protagonist’s name is Shadow Moon. Do any of those things make this a bad book? I mean, yes, they would, if there wasn’t more to it. American Gods is an exploration of American belief, American places, and the American psyche. Neil Gaiman is an Englishman who settled in Minnesota, and this is his love letter to his adopted country. The whole presents a mythic America, one where the salt of the Earth is the center of the nation and where roadside attractions are the most sacred and powerful locations in the country. The climax of the novel takes place in the holiest spot in the United States – Rock City, just outside Chattanooga, TN. The swindler habits of a major character – Mr. Wednesday – dovetail with the venerable American tradition of getting one over on people not as clever as yourself, from Tom Sawyer getting people to paint a fence all the way down to a more modern Sawyer.

Son of a bitch.

Ultimately, this novel’s passion for Americana and its in-depth commentary on the nature and power of human belief far outweigh any niggling concerns with naming or plot pacing. Much like taking a road trip (which occupies most of the plot), you might go to some less-than-ideal places, but you will still have an amazing time there because of the idea of the road trip. The idea of this novel transcends any flaws that mar its execution. I believe it is a great novel, and as Neil Gaiman himself writes in the novel:

People believe…[i]t’s what people do. They believe.

And then they will not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things,

and do not trust the conjurations. People populate the darkness; with ghosts,

with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe: and

it is that belief, that rock-solid belief, that makes things happen.

It is not a perfect novel, but any book containing the above quote has my vote. It is not flawless, but much like the nation it enshrines, the monumental good overwhelms the (admittedly) searing bad.

Image sources: IMDB, Wiki