Skip to main content

Do you wanna start World War III?

West Side Story

(SPOILERS) Spielberg’s West Side Story remake isn’t merely redundant; it’s a lifeless, mechanical VR machine version of the original, the kind of soulless facsimile you’d expect to find discarded in some corner of his other recent, empty attempt at recapturing youthful brio, Ready Player One. The director previously dipped a toe in musical waters with the dance-hall tumble of 1941 and the opening number from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; both set pieces tantalised the prospect of his tackling an entire movie with such energy and aplomb. But they were forty-odd years ago, and he’s no longer the same eager geek. Now he’s drearily respectable, a slave to conformity, esteem and papering over the gaping cracks in his domestic sphere. Plus, he has the ball and chain that is Janusz Kamiński as his DP.

For all his slide into “adult” mediocrity, a glutton for worthy subject matter and constant validation, relatively few of Spielberg’s movies are complete write offs: Always; Hook; Amistad; Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; The BFG. And now this. Ironically, some on that list are less-than-glittering examples of his self-conscious attempts at rekindling the essence of his initial, formidable strides as a moviemaker. His lust for glory ultimately cancelled out that quality and, never being much of an intellect, all he had left was variably effective political or philosophical discourse.

Consequently, when the Beard scratched his musical itch, it had to be a movie that said something important NOW. No matter that Robert Wise’s West Side Story was a Best Picture Oscar winner, one with unbeatable choreography. I’m mixed-positive on the movie, but at the same time, there are absolutely no legitimate grounds to remake it; nothing therein could be bettered by another, unless that other decided to start from scratch, effectively the way Bernstein, Sondheim and Robbins did with Romeo and Juliet.

Spielberg had no such aspirations, hence the utterly bereft decision to set West Side Story in the same decade as the previous movie, but with added apocalyptic dread (the cityscape is crumbling, just the same as the social infrastructure). If you must have end-of-the-world fervour during gang dust ups, try the climax of Philip Kaufman’s The Wanderers, rather than this dyspeptic mouthwash.

And on the subject of mouthwash, Kamiński’s cinematography is as ghastly as ever. This has to be the ugliest musical ever made (and I’m not referring to directorial acumen; obviously, Rob Marshall is clueless in that regard, but at least he has a concept of colour). I’ve been watching Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity as a palate cleanser, and whatever that picture’s faults, you’re in no doubt you’re in the company of a master of musical form, choreography and composition. No such luck here. Spielberg has been approving Kamiński’s overcast, gauzy vision for decades now, be it skies or any given light source. Diffuse sunlight, diffuse spotlights. Everything is desaturated, even when the colours are supposed to be vibrant. It’s as if he employs a chemtrail filter to block out all natural light; generations to come, accustomed to a complete absence of natural light, will say “See, it was like this in the early 21st century too”. And what made the Berg think all the ubiquitous lens flares had any business in a musical? Absurdly, West Side Story has received a Best Cinematography Oscar nomination.

There’s some decent choreography here, to be sure. But it isn’t vibrant or charged; it’s going through the motions. It never wows you, not in the way Jerome Robbins’ contributions to the original did. But then Spielberg, who as we know grew up on the mean streets, is trying to make this version that bit grittier, positing his tragic fantasia in the real world. Or a real world.

The result only ever feels like a version of a version, from someone long-since disconnected with how to go about telling a tale in a fresh way (we’ve seen this a lot with his movies across a range of subject matter of late, be it SF, biopics or the Cold War) The picture, and consequently its cast, are utterly charmless. Technically, West Side Story is all-round competent – in as much as hitting marks, high notes and achieving a degree of mis-en-scene, for what that’s worth – but it’s a tepid remix. Ostensibly, none of that matters, though. What’s important is that the Beard gets to proclaim this one’s unquestionable legitimacy by casting actual Puerto Ricans (except for the lead, who is Colombian, so putting Fox, now Disney, reliably in the shit there).

Inevitably, in thrall as the Berg is to adulation, even when it reveals him as hopelessly out of touch (how many of his movies have been big hits in the past decade?), West Side Story flies the virtue-signalling flag. Spielberg so woke (after all, what could be woker than the stable upbringing he evidently provided his adoptive daughter?) The material already explores or lends itself to such themes: of racism, toxic masculinity, even gender identity. Tomboy Anybodys is now a trans character played by iris menas (hey, it makes for a talking point. Hence whole articles that can devote themselves to the subject and even end with a straight-faced line like “… a character who is allowed to chart a different path, to ultimately reject the most toxic aspects of masculinity, and survive”. The hoops you have to jump through to say the correctly couched thing!)

Armand White, really out there as he often is, but relishable as one of the few critics to sing his own tune, may the heavens fall, slated the picture under the header “The Wokening of Steven Spielberg". He commented “when Spielberg… mixes realism with song-and-dance sequences, the result is not fake realism but wokeness. Instead of being a musical love story it’s a social-consciousness musical… P.C. Spielberg can’t avoid the obstacle that West Side Story was too traditional, too hetero for today’s race and gender wars. Why didn’t he remake A Chorus Line instead?” Tickled as I’d be to see the latter – the original a flop made by Sir Dickie, no less – White has a point. There’s no sense Spielberg has a clear idea what he is doing here, mainly because what he did was start with “I’d like to remake a classic musical” and then try to justify its existence as a movie in 2021 (or 2019).

Such foregrounding would doubtless be less conspicuous if the love story worked. For all that the visuals are cockeyed and the socio-political focus is skewy, West Side Story fails so profoundly because you don’t care even a bit about Tony and Maria. There’s no chemistry between Elgort and Zegler. Both are entirely serviceable in performance terms, but more than technical acumen is crucial. Elgort doesn’t really convince as either a street kid or a rage machine (he’s also been thrown under a #MeToo bus, of course). Zegler looks too young; she more closely resembles a performing doll than a star-crossed lover. Natalie Wood may not have been the greatest actress in the world (and less of a singer), but I believed her Maria.

Maybe Spielberg didn’t really care. When has he actually tried to tell a love story before? Always went well. Indeed, when Tony beckons “Maria!” to the tenements above, and an actual child’s head pops up at a window in response, I thought yup, that’s the E.T., Poltergeist and Hook "kid-friendly" auteur at work. Mike Faist (Riff), David Alvarez (Bernado) – you may believe they could lead gangs, but you never want to like either of them, particularly Faist – Arian DeBose (Anita), even Zegler and Elgort, are all reasonable players in their own ways, but none of them leap out and grab, or knife, you.

A benefit of the original movie was that the slightly heightened performances engendered an internally consistent tone. Here, the only consistency is how unpleasant Kamiński makes it look. Rita Moreno returns in a Spielberg shout out, in what was formerly the Doc part; this serves to emphasise Tony as the rehabilitated only formerly racist gang member and menace to society (Elgort needs all the emphasis he can get). Only really Corey Stoll suggests an idea of an actor who can hold a scene, but he has barely more than cameo as Lieutenant Schrank.

For a brief spell, Spielberg succeeds in threading a trace of engagement, but it isn’t between his lead protagonists. The thread of trust/distrust between Tony and Riff leads to the sequence in which Tony takes the latter’s gun and then loses it, a rare occasion when the musicality sustains narrative tension; this continues, by and large, until the end of the rumble. Evidently, Spielberg’s first-hand insights into gang culture made for a grittier take.

But for all that Spielberg has upped the “laudable” aspects of the story, he’s also ironed out the wrinkles. The incestuous vibe of George Chakiris’ Bernando, in his desire to “protect” Wood’s Maria, was palpable in Wise’s movie; here, he’s concerned strictly with the business of identity politics. Later still, the attempted rape of Anita is stronger stuff – this time, Anybodys is clearly excluded from any degree of complicity, since there can be no hint of a blurring of lines – but is that such a feather in the movie’s bow? Well done, Steven, you pushed the envelope. Particularly since, as White noted, there’s an odd push-pull in such details, such that Moreno duly comes out and scolds the Jets, who are now suddenly chastened (“…and you have grown into rapists!”) It’s the kind of moment that throws the material back into an actual ’50s movie. Spielberg may have felt the brakes were off anyway, since recent stage adaptations have gone much further.

Four of this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees are remakes, but it’s West Side Story and del Toro’s Nightmare Alley that carry with them the least raison d’être, beyond major studios indulging their statuette-adorned makers’ whims. That both have been substantial flops ought to put the dampeners on such extravagance in future (unless Netflix is footing the bill). There’s a further nostalgic foray for the director next, in the form of autobiographical tale The Fablemens. Perhaps Spielberg has enough bona-fide hits in the bank that some studio will continue to finance him going forward, no matter how out of touch and unprofitable his choices are.

Popular posts from this blog

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013) (SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight ; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983) (SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk , and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm ’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. T

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

Tippy-toe! Tippy-toe!

Seinfeld 2.7: The Phone Message The Premise George and Jerry both have dates on the same night. Neither goes quite as planned, and in George’s case it results in him leaving an abusive message on his girlfriend’s answerphone. The only solution is to steal the tape before she plays it. Observational Further evidence of the gaping chasm between George and Jerry’s approaches to the world. George neurotically attacks his problems and makes them worse, while Jerry shrugs and lets them go. It’s nice to see the latter’s anal qualities announcing themselves, however; he’s so bothered that his girlfriend likes a terrible TV advert that he’s mostly relieved when she breaks things off (“ To me the dialogue rings true ”). Neither Gretchen German (as Donna, Jerry’s date) nor Tory Polone (as Carol, George’s) make a huge impression, but German has more screen time and better dialogue. The main attraction is Jerry’s reactions, which include trying to impress her with hi

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…