West Side Story (2021) review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast : Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, Mike Faist, David Alvarez, Rita Moreno, Brian d’Arcy James, Corey Stoll
Genre: Musical/Drama
Run Time : 131 min
Opens : 6 January 2022
Rating : PG13

One of the most influential American musicals of the 50s, that was adapted into one of the most influential American movies of the 60s, now gets a new adaptation from one of the most influential Hollywood directors of the last 50 years. West Side Story, originally developed by Jerome Robbins with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and libretto by Arthur Laurents, is back on the big screen under the helm of Steven Spielberg.

It is 1957 in Manhattan’s West Side. A turf war is raging between the white gang the Jets and the Puerto Rican gang the Sharks, both vying for control of San Juan Hill. Riff (Mike Faist), the leader of the Jets, and Bernardo (David Alvarez), the leader of the Sharks, are planning a big face-off between the two gangs. Riff promises that Tony (Ansel Elgort), the co-founder of the Jets who was recently released from prison, will be there. At a dance, Tony and María (Rachel Zegler) catch each other’s eye. María is Bernardo’s sister, and lives with Bernardo and his girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose). A potential romance between Tony and Maria will send the already-high tensions soaring. The stage is set for a tale of crime, community and forbidden love.

When it was announced that Spielberg would be directing a new adaptation of West Side Story, the common response was “why?” The answer is “because he’s Steven Spielberg and can do whatever he wants.” Beyond that, this adaptation justifies its existence, building upon the stage show and the earlier movie with an obvious affection for the source material, but also a sincere desire to dig deeper. Playwright Tony Kushner, who collaborated with Spielberg on Munich and Lincoln, set out to contextualise the setting of the story.

The themes of gentrification, the prejudice faced by immigrant communities and the underlying factors that lead to violent crime were all inherent in the source material, but one could argue they weren’t handled with much nuance. This West Side Story is a triumph of style and substance, a handsomely filmed and designed movie showcasing some of regular Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s finest work. It looks and sounds incredible, with the story rendered urgent and compelling. West Side Story is a cultural touchstone, often referenced and parodied, so the danger of approaching it afresh is that there’s going to be baggage. Spielberg and Kushner deftly navigate this, presenting something that feels at once fresh and classic.

West Side Story has often been criticised by Puerto Rican people for its stereotypical portrayal of Puerto Rican characters. The original creative team was, after all, entirely comprised of people who did not have the first-hand experience that would have made the story more authentic. There are pains taken here to paint in strokes that aren’t quite so broad, with Puerto Rican writer, director and choreographer (and protégé of Jerome Robbins) Julio Monge on board as a consultant. However, there still are Puerto Rican people who feel West Side Story is beyond salvaging, and this reviewer has no place to argue with their interpretation. For all its strengths, the movie also highlights the need for people from varied backgrounds to tell their own stories on platforms they have historically had limited access to.

There isn’t really any stunt casting going on here, which is one of the pitfalls of movie musicals. The star is Spielberg. Most of the key roles are filled by actors with considerable musical theatre experience. Former Newsie Mike Faist and former Billy Elliot David Alvarez, both strong dancers, are wonderful foils for each other. Ariana DeBose is a powerhouse and commands the screen.

Rachel Zegler is a revelation, radiant, endearing and possessing incredible vocal control. This is a rare, miraculous instant movie star-type performance. She already has roles in Shazam: Fury of the Gods and Disney’s Snow White remake lined up.

Unfortunately, the one big misstep here is the casting of Ansel Elgort. He is not a bad singer, having obviously put effort into trying to keep up with his much more musically experienced co-stars, but once he’s in a duet with Zegler, it’s all over. She runs rings around him, and this is on top of how Tony was always kinda boring to begin with.

Rita Moreno is one of the highlights of the film. The actress portrayed Anita in the 1961 film, and here, plays Valentina, a modified version of the Doc character who looks out for Tony. She sings “Somewhere” in one of the film’s most powerful moments.

One would think that getting the music right would be a priority for any movie musical, and yet, movies like 2012’s Les Misérables and 2019’s Cats have shown how things can go horribly awry. West Side Story is serious about its music – after all, the songs by Bernstein and Sondheim, including standards like “Tonight” and “Maria,” are evergreen and beloved. The musical arrangement by David Newman is both majestic and nimble, with composer/arranger Jeanine Tesori working with the actors on their vocals. The score is recorded by the New York Philharmonic with additional material by the L.A. Philharmonic, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. The sound editing and mixing shows the music off in all its glory, with the performers delivering some of the best-sounding singing in a movie musical in recent memory.

Summary: A purely cinematic experience, this new adaptation of West Side Story is as classic as it is dynamic. Featuring performances from musical theatre performers including Mike Faist, David Alvarez and Ariana DeBose and featuring a revelatory performance from young star Rachel Zegler, these are actors who are at home with the material and who more than do it justice. Rita Moreno provides an important link to the past, delivering a genuinely emotional supporting performance. West Side Story looks and sounds amazing, boasting enough thematic richness to justify its existence.   

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

November Criminals movie review

For inSing

NOVEMBER CRIMINALS

Director : Sacha Gervasi
Cast : Ansel Elgort, Chloë Grace Moretz, Tessa Albertson, Catherine Keener, David Strathairn, Cory Hardrict
Genre : Crime/Drama
Run Time : 1h 26m
Opens : 28 December 2017
Rating : NC16

Ansel Elgort and Chloë Grace Moretz are out to avenge their friend’s murder in this mystery thriller. Be warned: it’s not as exciting as it sounds, because this movie isn’t all that mysterious, nor is it very thrilling.

Elgort and Moretz play Addison and Phoebe respectively. They’re not exactly boyfriend and girlfriend – ‘friends with benefits’ is more like it, but that’s not exactly right, either. Anyway, their friend Kevin (Jared Kemp) is shot dead at the coffee shop where he works. The police write it off as a gang-related killing, but Addison insists that there’s no way Kevin, a trombonist in the school band who loved literature and wrote poetry, would’ve been in a gang. Addison refuses to let the matter lie, much to the chagrin of the school principal Mr. Karlstadt (Terry Kinney). Addison’s father Theo (David Strathairn) grows concerned about his son, especially since Addison’s mother passed away recently. Phoebe’s mother Fiona (Catherine Keener) is none too pleased that her daughter is involved with Addison, whom she deems trouble. As Addison and Phoebe get further in over their heads, the criminal elements who killed Kevin threaten their own lives.

November Criminals is based on the novel The November Criminals by Sam Munson. The film is directed and co-written by Sacha Gervasi – co-writer Steven Knight was initially set to direct, with Gervasi replacing him at the helm. Gervasi made a living as a journalist while he was studying screenwriting at UCLA. As such, it’s a shame that the investigative aspect of the plot is downplayed, and the whodunit ostensibly at the story’s core is so uninvolving. Gervasi comes from a family who have been involved in both journalism and politics, but he doesn’t bring his understanding of either field to bear in this film, which would be a natural vehicle to do so. After all, it is a murder mystery set in Washington D.C. This reviewer was hoping for a far-reaching conspiracy to swallow up our young heroes. What we get is far more mundane.

November Criminals hinges on the somewhat unconventional relationship between its two leads. Elgort and Moretz seem like a pairing that would work on paper, but the writing only serves to render both actors unlikeable, instead of highlighting their charm. This is especially true of Elgort, whose persona has often been described as off-putting. While the recent Baby Driver smartly showcased Elgort at his very best, in November Criminals, he comes off as a smug, twitchy, and ultimately insufferable know-it-all. The character’s Jewishness, which was apparently a key element in the novel, is not mentioned at all.

Much as the film does not want Phoebe to end up as a stock girlfriend character, and despite Moretz’s efforts to keep the character from being an example of that, Phoebe is little more than ‘the girlfriend’. Phoebe makes her intention to lose her virginity to Addison known early in the film, leading to an incredibly awkward sex scene – the thing is, we cannot determine how much of said awkwardness was intentional, and how much was accidental. Phoebe often comes off as whiny, and while Elgort and Moretz are passably convincing as a couple, their chemistry often lacks energy.

Strathairn and Keener, dependable actors they are, show up and do their jobs but don’t make too much of an impact. Keener’s character apparently works in government, but this plays almost zero part in the plot. Cory Hardrict’s drug dealer character D. Cash is little more than a caricature, and doesn’t have enough personality or intimidation factor.

November Criminals doesn’t balance the giddy rush of young love with the intensity of a mystery thriller, resulting in a film that’s flat-footed and dull instead of deftly exciting. Oddly enough, the least endearing traits of its leads are brought to the forefront, and there aren’t really any stakes to speak of. This would’ve been a borderline okay TV film, but is too underwhelming to see on the big screen.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

 

Baby Driver

For F*** Magazine

BABY DRIVER 

Director : Edgar Wright
Cast : Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jon Hamm, Eiza González, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal, CJ Jones, Flea, Lanny Joon
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 52m
Opens : 20 July 2017
Rating : NC16 (Violence and Some Coarse Language)

The director of the Cornetto trilogy and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World takes the driver’s seat, and he has the Wright of way. This action comedy follows Baby (Elgort), a getaway driver who is a veritable prodigy behind the wheel. After surviving an accident in his childhood, Baby suffers from tinnitus, and to drown out the ringing noise, listens to pre-selected music on his iPod. Baby is in the employ of criminal mastermind Doc (Spacey), whose gang of bank-robbers includes miscreants like Buddy (Hamm), Buddy’s wife Darling (González), the violent and unpredictable Bats (Foxx) and the surly Griff (Bernthal). The latter two aren’t especially fond of Baby, but Doc insists on keeping Baby as his getaway driver, even as Baby wants out. Baby fears that his foster father Joseph (Jones) and Debora (James), the diner waitress with whom he strikes up a relationship, are endangered by his criminal activities. While he dreams of hitting the open road with Debora next to him, Baby is kept under Doc’s thumb. He might be the world’s greatest getaway driver, but can he escape from his shadowy employer?

Baby Driver has long been gestating in writer-director Wright’s mind. After first coming up with the idea in 1994, Wright directed a music video for Mint Royale’s “Blue Song”, featuring Noel Fielding as a getaway driver with an affinity for music. Wright has become known for his films’ dynamic, sometimes quirky style, and the comic energy with which he executes them. Baby Driver is supremely entertaining, a funny, romantic thriller crafted with the utmost care. It’s a little like a souped-up version of Carpool Karaoke, in that each action sequence is set to music.

Baby Driver moves with an effortless fluidity; Wright tapping on choreographer Ryan Heffington to help sync the actors’ movements to the soundtrack. Atlanta, Georgia, often doubles for other locations, but in Baby Driver, the city gets to play itself, becoming an ideal backdrop for thrilling, inventive car chases. Baby Driver features such brazen stylistic choices as cutting a gunfight to a drum solo; editors Paul Machliss and Jonathan Amos giving the picture a rhythm that matches the vibe of the story Wright is trying to tell to a tee.

With Baby’s personal mix of songs helping him to zone in while he works, while carrying sentimental significance for him, there are traces of Star-Lord’s awesome mix from Guardians of the Galaxy. It turns out that Wright consulted director James Gunn to make sure there wasn’t any overlap between the tracks featured in Baby Driver and those used in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Artistes like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, The Commodores, T. Rex, Beck, Martha and the Vandellas and, of course, Simon and Garfunkel all show up on the soundtrack, making this something of a hybrid jukebox musical action movie. It’s a clever, unique effect.

Elgort’s Baby is one of the more memorable original protagonists in recent memory. There are elements to him we’ve seen before in many a crime thriller: he’s got a tragic past, is embarking on the fabled ‘one last job’, has a parental figure who disapproves of his job, and falls in love with a woman from whom he tries to hide his unlawful ways. Even so, there’s a resonant freshness to the character, as if Wright has remixed said elements. Baby is laconic and withdrawn, existing in his own world created with the assistance of music. ‘Tough’ isn’t the first adjective that springs to mind when describing Elgort, but Baby exudes toughness of a non-traditional sort. The character is roguish, charming and endearing with Elgort having to try too hard at all.

The film’s supporting cast is stacked with talent. James exudes a somewhat old-fashioned girl-next-door sweetness, and while the romance between Baby and Debora unfolds predictably enough, it is still achingly romantic. Emma Stone was initially cast in the role, but left due to scheduling conflicts with La La Land. The character isn’t given the greatest amount of agency, and for most of the film remains an observer, but she plays a crucial role in the movie’s conclusion.

Spacey is Spacey: slyly terrifying and having the time of his life, while displaying commendable restraint. Hamm, Foxx and Bernthal all have their moments, with Foxx being especially easy to dislike as a bank robber who is instantly antipathic towards Baby. The characters who surround Baby are over-the-top, but that never undercuts their capability to be truly terrifying. By the film’s climactic confrontation, Baby Driver dispenses with the humour, and that sequence is intense and brutal. It’s a little jarring, but that turn is mostly well-earned. CJ Jones, who plays Baby’s kindly deaf foster father Joseph, is deaf in real life and is an activist for deaf awareness causes.

Baby Driver is the work of an auteur at the top of his game, with Wright’s stamp on it from beginning to end. The filmmaker makes numerous canny, inspired decisions, and pulls them off with stunning aplomb. Instead of coming off as smug and self-indulgent, it packs in a great deal of heart, feeling polished yet personal. It’s a deliriously good time that’s also deliriously good filmmaking.

SUMMARY: Edgar Wright fires on all cylinders, creating a superb slice of entertainment that’s a visual and aural delight. Baby Driver is also the best showcase for Ansel Elgort’s star power yet.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong