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

The Kitchen review

For inSing

THE KITCHEN

Director: Andrea Berloff
Cast : Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss, Domhnall Gleeson, Bill Camp, Margo Martindale, Common, Brian d’Arcy James, James Badge Dale, Jeremy Bobb
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 1 h 43 mins
Opens : 8 August 2019
Rating : NC16

It is 1978, and the New York underworld will come to know and fear three women.

Kathy Brennan (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby O’Caroll (Tiffany Haddish) and Claire Walsh (Elisabeth Moss) are the wives of three Irish mobsters who get caught by the FBI and are shipped off to prison. Seeing an opening and left with little choice, they decide to step in, running their own protection racket. This causes them to run afoul of their husbands’ compatriots like Little Jackie (Myk Watford) and Ruby’s mother-in-law, the mob matriarch Helen O’Caroll (Margo Martindale).

Further complicating matters is the return of Gabriel O’Malley (Domhnall Gleeson), an enforcer who escaped to lie low and is now back in town. Claire finds herself falling for Gabriel, while Kathy and Ruby butt heads over how the business is to be run. The ladies eventually find themselves dealing with powerful Italian mafia don Alfonso Coretti (Bill Camp), based out of Brooklyn. While they find success with their burgeoning criminal empire, the bodies start piling up and the women realise they may have bitten off more than they can chew.

The Kitchen is based on the DC/Vertigo graphic novel of the same name, written by Ollie Masters and illustrated by Ming Doyle. The film marks the directorial debut of Andrea Berloff, who was nominated for an Oscar for co-writing Straight Outta Compton. The Kitchen is a brash, stylish film that plays on audiences’ familiarity with gritty gangster movies. The 70s New York portrayed in The Kitchen looks authentically grimy at first but leans into the “I’m walking here!” stereotypes and the movie is beholden to expectations of mob-centric media.

The film lulls viewers into a false sense of security in knowing where everything’s headed, before a final act packed with explosive twists. This is an appropriately bloody, violent movie, but there is some levity sprinkled throughout. The Kitchen seems to face the dilemma of wanting to give us three-dimensional characters while delivering as many recognisable mafia movie elements as possible.

Another dilemma is that the film is presented as being empowering and is fronted by three women, but at the end of the day, they are committing crimes and it can be a bit uncomfortable to find oneself cheering as bodies get sawn up.  It is possible to say “it was a different time” and go along with that, to a point. Perhaps it is a way of reclaiming how movies like The Godfather, Scarface or Goodfellas seemed to model masculinity, but The Kitchen does not dig into its moral greyness as deeply as it could’ve.

A big part of what makes this work as well as it does is the cast, led by Melissa McCarthy. McCarthy’s Kathy is likeable, non-violent and innately decent, but is also ambitious and resourceful. Even though the characters are engaging in criminal activity, McCarthy’s sympathetic performance is often just enough to keep audiences in the protagonists’ corner. She knows there’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed, but the women keep barrelling towards – and past – said line.

One of the major changes from the source material is the Ruby O’Carroll character, who is depicted here as a black woman who has married into an Irish mob family and resents her status as an outsider. Haddish brings a fire to the role but can’t quite evince the same depths that McCarthy can and seems ever so slightly more limited as a performer.

Elisabeth Moss’ Claire has the arc of going from the victim of domestic abuse to revelling in practicing violence on anyone who stands in her way. Moss is entertaining when Claire is unhinged, but the character is overall less interesting than the other two, who also have more control of the narrative.

Domhnall Gleeson’s quietly, disconcertingly detached Vietnam veteran hitman character provides some of the film’s more memorable moments, but Gabriel’s romance with Claire seems played more for laughs than for drama.

The film’s supporting cast includes excellent character actors like Margo Martindale and Bill Camp doing fine work, with Common getting not a lot to do as an FBI agent who watches things go down from afar.

If you don’t watch many mob movies, there’s enough to like about The Kitchen, with director Berloff showing plenty of panache. The cast seem to enjoy making the film, and McCarthy is especially outstanding. However, the film doesn’t attain the level of complexity it seems to be shooting for and is sometimes torn between serving up visceral thrills and shocks and being a compelling character study. Still, it is a good change of pace from the typically male-driven 70s mob movie.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

First Man review

FIRST MAN

Director : Damien Chazelle
Cast : Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Corey Stoll, Pablo Schreiber, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Christopher Abbott, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas, Shea Whigham, Brian D’Arcy James, Cory Michael Smith, Ciarán Hinds
Genre : Drama/Biography
Run Time : 143 mins
Opens : 18 October 2018
Rating : PG13

Call it ‘La La Moon Landing’: Damien Chazelle, the youngest winner of the Best Director Oscar, trains his sights on NASA’s quest to put the first man on the moon in this biopic.

It is 1961 and civillian test pilot Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is accepted into NASA Astronaut Group 2. Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler), NASA’s first Chief of the Astronaut Office, emphasises how the Soviet Union has beaten the US to every major milestone in the Space Race. This batch of astronauts, which also includes Ed White (Jason Clarke), David Scott (Christopher Abbott), Elliott See (Patrick Fugit), Michael Collins (Lukas Haas) and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin (Corey Stoll), among others, will take part in the Gemini Program. Gemini is NASA’s second human spaceflight program, and the tests conducted during the Gemini missions will lead to the Apollo Program, which aims to put a man on the moon.

The training is physically and mentally demanding, and the risk is high – several of the astronauts whom Neil becomes close to die in failed missions. This takes a toll on Neil’s wife Janet (Claire Foy), who fears that their children Rick (Gavin Warren and Luke Winters at different ages) and Mark (Paul Haney and Connor Blodgett at different ages) will be left without a father. NASA faces scrutiny and pressure in the aftermath of their high-profile failures, as many across the nation question the cost of the Space Race in dollars and in lives. This culminates in Neil, Buzz and Michael forming the crew of Apollo 11, with Neil becoming the first man to step foot on the lunar surface.

Following in the grand tradition of historical dramas about the Space Program like The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, First Man is an awards contender that hopes to also thrill audiences. Chazelle works from a script by Spotlight and The Post co-writer Josh Singer, who adapted history professor James R. Hansen’s book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong. First Man combines a documentary-like feel marked by lots of grainy verité handheld shots with grand cinematic spectacle, and it’s a balance that mostly works.

There are bits of First Man that do feel a bit dry, but the film does a fine job of covering the history and an even better job of putting audiences inside the spacecraft alongside the astronauts. Before the Gemini 8 mission takes off, we get close-up shots of all the rivets and bolts inside the capsule as it creaks on the launchpad – if just one tiny thing fails, it all goes up in smoke. First Man contains some of the most realistic depictions of spaceflight ever put on screen, and endeavours to shed light on the people who made the achievements of the Space Program possible.

Chazelle reunites with several collaborators from La La Land, including cinematographer Linus Sandgren and composer Justin Hurwitz, who also scored Whiplash. The 16 mm and 35 mm film stock give the film an authentic period feel, while the moon landing sequence is presented in all its 70 mm IMAX glory. There is careful attention to detail in capturing the specifics of the ‘60s NASA setting, and production designer Nathan Crowley’s reproductions of the spacecraft and facilities is entirely convincing.

The backlash against the film for omitting the moment in which the American flag is planted on the moon seems like a mountain out of a lunar molehill. The decision to leave this well-known part of the moon landing out seems to stem from a desire to pare back the iconography of this historical moment and focus the story into something personal, giving the movie an honesty and a rawness.

Gosling anchors the film with a quiet, well-considered performance. The film characterises Neil Armstrong as someone who’s intelligent and earnest, but who is not especially well-equipped to process the grief that befalls him and those he cares about all too often. He is consumed by his work and driven to succeed, while it looks like everything around him is in danger of crumbling away. There’s an earnestness and intensity that Gosling dials to just the right level.

Foy’s Janet Armstrong is stern but caring, and her take on the role is a lot more than “worried wife back home”. Her relationship with Neil underscores how the astronauts are people with their own lives, and that serving the higher call of the Space Program comes at the expense of those lives.

The film’s supporting cast, including Clarke, Chandler and Ciarán Hinds, all give serious, unassuming ‘character actor’-type performances. Stoll’s Buzz Aldrin is characterised as someone who’s not exactly likeable, and this is something Stoll visibly enjoys playing.

First Man is a finely crafted serious awards season drama, but watching it still feels a little bit like homework. The attempts to juxtapose the US’ involvement in the Space Race against the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights struggle are commendable but a little clumsy. In taking a matter-of-fact approach, the film loses some of the wonderment and awe associated with mankind “slipping the surly bonds of earth”. However, Chazelle and co. largely succeed in crafting a credible account of Neil Armstrong’s journey from the earth to the moon.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Molly’s Game movie review

For inSing

MOLLY’S GAME

Director : Aaron Sorkin
Cast : Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Brian d’Arcy James, Chris O’Dowd, Bill Camp, Graham Greene, Jeremy Strong, Joe Keery
Genre : Biography/Drama
Run Time : 2h 21m
Opens : 4 January 2018
Rating : NC16

The tagline to the recent Justice League film was ‘all in’ – that film has nothing to do with Poker, but ‘assemble’ was taken. This biopic is about someone who could be considered the Wonder Woman of high-stakes Poker.

Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) has had a rough go of it. Growing up in Colorado under the tutelage of her father Larry (Kevin Costner), she has long harboured dreams of becoming a professional skier. Molly overcame a spinal injury in her childhood, but a career-ending accident dashed those dreams.

Needing to reinvent herself, Molly moves out to Los Angeles, working as a cocktail waitress and as a personal assistant for investor Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong). Dean runs a poker game out of LA’s Cobra Lounge that attracts Hollywood A-listers and business moguls, and places Molly in charge of hosting the game. Molly quickly learns the ropes, and sets up her own game, operating out of a plush penthouse suite. When she moves the game to New York, she attracts a whole new set, including Wall Street power brokers and sports stars. However, the Russian and Italian mafia soon get involved, and Molly finds herself investigated by the FBI. She hires Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to represent her, telling the attorney her story.

Molly’s Game is the directorial debut of Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, the scribe behind The Social Network, Moneyball, A Few Good Men and The West Wing. We know what to expect from Sorkin screenplays: every exchange of dialogue is a verbal knife fight, with quotable barbs flying in all directions. It’s easy to be dazzled by the witty verbosity, but it can also be a turn-off because Sorkin’s style can feel glib and self-satisfied.

Sorkin has found the ideal source material with which to make his directorial debut, as the true story includes elements that he’s played around with before. The protagonist is wildly ambitious and dives head-first into a glamorous, seductive, sometimes dangerous world. It’s all there in the subtitle of Bloom’s book: ‘From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker’. It’s a fascinating true story, just add cinematic style, which Sorkin brings plenty of.

The film establishes a smart alecky tone from the outset, with Bloom going over her backstory in voiceover. There are stylistic devices including graphics on the screen that attempt to explain specific moments in the Poker games – even with the visual aids, it all flew over this reviewer’s head. Sorkin might be known for his writing, but he displays a keen awareness of how film works as a visual medium, and the movie never feels static or airless. Sorkin achieves a blend of the lurid and the cerebral that fits the material like a glove.

Chastain is spectacularly adept at playing powerful women, and she makes quite a meal of this role. It’s not dissimilar to her turn in the lobbyist drama Miss Sloane, but there’s the added physical element of Molly being a skier. Molly is sharper than a tack, and any man is putty in her hands. Chastain is mesmerizing – the character wields her sexuality like a dagger, but never makes the fatal strike. She sinks her teeth into this and then some, and is wildly entertaining in the process.

Elba takes a backseat as Charlie, and the interactions between him and Molly begin as sizing each other up, before evolving into something approaching sincerity. Molly and Charlie are on the same side, but it is never an easy alliance, and Elba and Chastain engage with the material and with each other in a lively manner.

Molly’s Game features a veritable carousel of dopey guys whom Molly has wrapped around her little finger. They generally seem intelligent and are all successful, but when they’re in Molly’s thrall, they are rendered dopey. Chris O’Dowd is entertainingly schlubby and it’s fun to see Joe Keery, best known as Steve from Stranger Things, pop up in this – complete with famous coiffeur.

The casting of Michael Cera is a bit weird. He’s playing a Hollywood star referred to only as ‘Player X’, but the identity of Player X can be determined with a quick Google search. Cera doesn’t quite sell the competitive streak and treachery hidden behind a disarming exterior that is crucial to the role.

Costner has settled into gruff mentor roles well, and the relationship between Molly and her father has its moments, even if it ventures into cliché territory. When her father visits Molly late into the film, it’s meant to be an emotional moment and Costner does his best to sell it, but the sarcasm in the dialogue doesn’t let up, somewhat undercutting the sincerity.

Unlike many awards season biopics, Molly’s Game is not a chore to sit through. It speeds along, seducing the audience as it goes. It does feel like the work of someone who is a little too pleased with himself and it could stand to be a mite less smug, but thanks to Chastain’s confident, hypnotic turn, Molly’s Game is engrossing and entertaining.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Spotlight

For F*** Magazine

SPOTLIGHT 

Director : Thomas McCarthy
Cast : Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 128 mins
Opens : 21 January 2016
Rating : NC-16 (Some Mature Content)

It was 2001, and facing great opposition, one small band of intrepid reporters uncovered the truth behind a string of child sex abuse cases. Spotlight tells their story. The Boston Globe’s new editor Marty Baron (Schreiber), arriving from Florida, reads a small column about a paedophile priest whom Boston’s Cardinal Law was aware of and yet did nothing to stop him. Baron assigns journalist Walter “Robby” Robinson (Keaton) and his team to go after what appears to be a much larger story. Alongside Robinson, Michael Rezendes (Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams), Ben Bradlee Jr. (Slattery) and Matt Carroll (James) comprise the Spotlight team, the oldest newspaper investigative unit still active in the United States. Because of the sensitive nature of the case and how strongly institutional Catholicism figures in the city of Boston, the Spotlight team faces an uphill battle in illuminating the sobering, horrifying truth of the pattern of abuse that has been perpetuated by the city’s priests.

            Directed by Tom McCarthy and co-written by McCarthy and Josh Singer, Spotlight has emerged among the stronger contenders of the 2015-2016 awards race, premiering to “sustained applause” at the Venice Film Festival. As moviegoers, we’re used to seeing fearless, heroic reporters ducking out of the gun sights of assassins or going toe to toe with Lex Luthor, getting rescued by Superman at the last moment. Spotlight presents a portrait of real-life reporters and the good that they’re capable of doing. It’s a cinematic embodiment of journalistic integrity and a measured, objective handling of a potentially provocative topic. There’s nary a whiff of embellishment and McCarthy avoids a vulgar, sensationalistic approach to the subject matter at every turn. As the cliché goes, this is a movie about “men and women just doing their jobs”, and the realism and credibility McCarthy brings to the film is just the right way to celebrate the accomplishments of the Spotlight team.

            There’s a nobility and a worthiness to the story being told, of course, but seeing reporters standing around the bullpen comparing notes doesn’t exactly scream excitement. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, who also lensed the Boston-set Black Mass, adds just the right amount of dynamism to the proceedings while restraining from distracting flashiness. There is a clarity to the progression of the story in the sequence of events without it getting too dry. At the same time, Spotlight never loses sight of the human toll of the case. A cleverly-edited sequence which intercuts Pfeifer and Rezendes interviewing two very different victims conveys how many young lives were affected by the scandal without descending into hokey sentimentality.

            Spotlight boasts a luminous ensemble cast who breathe life into unglamorous unsung heroes. Keaton doesn’t get as juicy a part as in the earlier award season darling Birdman, but is still able to bring a charisma to the role of the Spotlight team’s fearless leader. Schreiber’s Marty Baron is the outsider that is desperately needed to examine and evaluate the situation from a distance and without his impetus, the investigation probably wouldn’t have happened, or would at least have been significantly delayed. As a reporter who’s less of the plucky Lois Lane archetype she portrayed in State of Play, McAdams gets some excellent scenes where Pffeifer has to maintain her composure in difficult confrontations with victims and perpetrators alike.  Ruffalo is the stand-out as the dedicated, passionate, somewhat awkward Rezendes. He mostly plays opposite Tucci’s Mitchell Garabedian, an attorney representing the victims. Garabedian is prickly and suffers no fools, but is ultimately well-meaning. Michael Cyril Creighton and Neal Huff both turn in affecting performances as but two of the many victims traumatised in their youth.

            A level-headed telling of the events that’s not out to shock or function as a smear piece, Spotlight offers great insight into the way investigative reporters conduct their inquiries and the positive impact that their work can have. Sure, the quiet, even-handed approach favoured by McCarthy may sacrifice superficial excitement, but Spotlight’s lack of self-conscious prestige picture artifice is refreshing. Spotlight is more concerned with lauding the Boston Globe journalists than delivering a searing takedown of the Roman Catholic Church, which is just as well. Pragmatic without being detached, compelling without being heavy-handed, Spotlight’s unassuming nature is the ideal reflection of the work ethic displayed by the journalists it is about.

Summary:This account of the Spotlight team’s investigation into the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic archdiocese of Boston is concise, fair, dignified and respectful, brought to life by a powerhouse cast.

RATING: 4.5out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong