Friday, January 21, 2022

West Side Story Review: Spielberg Returns to His Habit

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At the start of Steven Spielberg’s brilliantly choreographed West Side Story, the Jets whistle, snap their fingers and pirouette around New York, a city that looms and sprawls but is still not large enough to contain their daring fighting energy. So far, everything is familiar. But anyone who grew up with Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s 1961 Oscar win – and who has memorized every chord of Leonard Bernstein’s music, every step of Robbins’ choreography, and every lyric composed (sniffs) by the late great Stephen Sondheim – will immediately notice some of the differences. (And I’m not just referring to the regrettable absence of the word “Fox” in the 20th Century Studios logo.)

Rather than opening a bird’s eye view of Manhattan, Spielberg’s film starts off the ground, plowing through the brick-strewn rubble of a San Juan Hill apartment building that was demolished to make way for Lincoln Center. The patina of 1950s Socialist Realism has long been one of the highlights of this musical, and here in the barbed wire and curved metal in Adam Stockhausen’s design, an extra layer of sand is added, plus the vibrant athleticism of cinematography (Spielberg’s longtime lens is a man, Janusz Kaminski). Once the dance begins, the camera seems to not so much record as advance the performers’ movements, harmonizing and even amplifying their mixture of ballet grace and street gang aggression.

And such aggression! Led by Riff (Mike Feist, an impressive wiry physique and intelligent mind), the Jets quickly desecrate the local Puerto Rican flag mural, provoking a startlingly brutal battle with their arch rivals, the Sharks. Racial divisions feel particularly violent, not only because of the insults flying to and fro, but because, unlike the earlier film, the Sharks are actually played by Latino actors (no more exciting than David Alvarez as their swagger leader Bernardo). I don’t want to highlight this casting as an achievement: for heaven’s sake, this is 2021. But this is also, of course, the 50s. And the apparent concern shown by Spielberg and his screenwriter Tony Kushner – squeezing a completely new script from Arthur Lorenz’s original book here – speaks to the cultural storms that West Side Story seems to flare with each iteration (including Ivo Van Hove) is something else entirely. the controversial 2020 Broadway revival).

As with most updates to beloved material, the very existence of this film caused a fair share of indignation in it. Some criticism has focused on Hollywood’s fondness for remakes, but more to do with the troubling and complex legacy of West Side Story itself, whose mixture of broad archetypes (ah, angry, impetuous youth!) And reductive ethnic stereotypes have long been a source of contention. There can be no more striking emblem of the series’ inextricable triumphs and failures than Rita Moreno’s performance in 1961 as Anita, a role for which she was forced to wear brown makeup – an exceptional humiliation for a lone Puerto Rican cast – and for which she won an historic award Academy Award for Supporting Role.

Rita Moreno in Steven Spielberg’s new adaptation of West Side Story.

(Niko Tavernis)

Moreno, now 89, is the executive producer of the new film and also plays a key role in Valentina, replacing Doc, the original soda shop owner. In a role shrewdly reimagined as a Puerto Rican woman, she helps balance some white powerhouses, including Brian D’Arcy James as the beleaguered Officer Krupke and Corey Stoll as his smug boss Lieutenant Schranck, whose attitude toward the split is inevitably skewed in favor of the White Jets. … The tough, loving direction of our romantic hero Tony (Ansel Elgort) by Valentina adds a balancing note of cross-cultural friendship to the film’s seething racial cauldron. And Moreno’s presence, which includes a sweetly quivering rendition of “Somewhere,” acts like a poignant luck charm in the film, which bills itself as a glorious comeback and gentle fix.

Some of the most important and exciting restoration work takes place in the apartment, where Bernardo bickers with his younger sister Maria (outstanding newcomer Rachel Zegler) and his girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose), fluently and deliberately mixing English. no Spanish subtitles. The point is to assert not only the ubiquity of Spanish as an American language, but also to reinforce the timeless universal qualities of history; Bernardo’s stifling defenses, Maria’s vigorous disobedience and Anita’s street irritation do not need translation, especially since Alvarez, Zegler and especially DeBose give such vivid, emotionally instant performances.

Spielberg’s filmmaking is, of course, another language intuitive enough for any moviegoer to understand. It may be worth noting that America’s most popular filmmaker has never shot before in what was once America’s most popular film genre, but that fact is almost irrelevant given his instinctive sense of visual rhythm, proportion, and kinetic flow. his gift of orchestration. moments that cause almost Pavlovian outbursts of feelings. When Sharks and Jets converge in the school gym for a little mambo-a-mambo, the dazzling swirls of color (supplied in part by Paul Tasvell’s suits) and the unifying camera swing produce a special kind of delight. The collision of bodies – and characters, cultures, identities – with almost physical force jerks you into the moment.

Women in colorful dresses dance on the corner of a New York street.

Ariana DeBoes (center) in West Side Story.

(Niko Tavernis)

This dance serves as the backdrop for the first glimpses of romance and the first rumors of a rumble. Riff’s best friend, Tony, is a peaceful Romeo who looks into Juliet’s eyes with Maria’s new face, cementing the film’s ill-fated love story and setting in motion its climaxing waves of violence. Elgort can move gracefully around the frame, as he demonstrated in Baby Drive, and he hums pleasantly, if not too insistently, his way through Tony’s big early numbers such as Something’s Coming and María. However, there is often a woodiness in the actors’ expressions, an excessive brooding softness in the eyes that does not fully overcome Tony’s fundamental moodiness as a character. When Anita convinces Maria to “forget this boy and find another,” you may find yourself nodding in agreement.

The excellent Zegler, on the other hand, brings the quality of bright intelligence even to Mary’s naive naivete; her clear singing and timing serve her in the flamboyant comedy I Feel Beautiful, and amid the seething passions Tonight, in which a fire escape becomes Tony and Maria’s romantic haven. This scene has long been one of West Side Story’s emotional (and literal) highs, and Spielberg’s staging and blocking – here, as always, with impeccable choreography by Justin Peck – is a concrete model of how dynamic camera movement, strategic close-ups and physically nimble performers can breathe fresh life into even the oldest chestnut.

Directing the musical – and the version of the musical he loved since childhood – shook Spielberg. Why West Side Story, why now? To watch this film is to see and hear the answer. With each number, you can feel how he playfully defies Wise and Robbins’ interpretation and, most importantly, challenges himself if he forces Tony, Riff and their friends to play an acrobatic game of “stay away from the gun” during tense, alarming “Cool”. or stage the wild comic rap “Gee, Officer Krupke!” in the police station building, the better for the Jets to ignore the authorities. (Other young actors who stand out here include Josh Andres Rivera as Maria’s abandoned boyfriend, Chino, and Iris Menas as the tagalong-turned-informant for the Jets, Anybodys.)

Three young men dance ballet down a New York street in front of other men.

David Alvarez (center) in West Side Story.

(Niko Tavernis)

He reaches its apotheosis with America, in which Anita and Bernardo wrestle with witty ingenuity over the joys and dangers of assimilation – a journey that rightly goes from domestic quarrel to dancing of almost kaleidoscopic beauty to stop movement. This is the acute paradox of this “West Side Story”, which knows that in sufficiently sensitive hands, extreme realism and flamboyant formalism can be the reverse sides of one stylistic medal. Spielberg’s film can be rougher, harsher, more lively and culturally more truthful than its 1961 cinematic incarnation. But it’s also more overtly classic, more vibrantly stylized than anything a major American studio has produced in recent years.

This includes some of Spielberg’s own films. Over the past ten years or more, he has embarked on a stubbornly optimistic quest for what might be called the soul of America — a quest that has led him safely back in time to the Watergate Post and Civil War newsrooms. House of Congress of the Lincoln era (another Kushner-Spielberg collaboration). West Side Story is more owned by their company than you might think; it is not a historical drama, but its place in history or its alternately confusing and illuminating vision of how age, racial and gender differences manifest themselves in the political body should not be overlooked. Spielberg, attentive to the quality of singing and dancing, comes from the belief that this Broadway-to-Hollywood warhorse still has something important to say.

And conviction — a commitment that cannot be counterfeited — and the quality that makes every musical live or die — is what sustains, energizes, and ultimately justifies this West Side Story. In the end, I was less moved by the tragic love story of Tony and Maria, which is expected to fluctuate between sweetness and squeak, than Spielberg’s genuine faith in the transmission power of films. He believes that there is still room for them and for us.

‘West Side Story’

Rating: PG-13, for severe violence, topical content, obscene material, and short-term smoking.

Duration: 2 hours, 36 minutes

Plays: Starts December 10th in general release

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