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Posts Tagged ‘Rita Moreno’

Let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that someone turns up at the front desk of Universal Pictures with the idea for a gripping new thriller: the tale of a small coastal town gripped by fear and institutional inertia, while one of the world’s deadliest killers lurks in the waters just offshore. The name of this new movie? Well, Jaws, obviously. It’s not a remake, before you say anything, it’s an entirely new thing, a brand new adaptation of the original novel by Peter Benchley. How far do you think this project would get?

Not far, you might think, but then again I’ve got quite used to seeing once-unthinkable remakes get to the screen, seldom making much of an impression: The Magnificent Seven, Ben-Hur, The Wicker Man, and so on. Nevertheless, I was genuinely baffled at the news (quite a while ago now) that Steven Spielberg was in the process of doing a new version of West Side Story. For the benefit of new visitors (hello, thanks for dropping by; there’s a link to the A to Z list of reviews at the top, and no, I’m not going to ask you to support me on Patreon or anything), the original Robert Wise version of West Side Story is amongst my absolute favourites – it seems to me to be one of those films it would be impossible to change without diminishing it, somehow, so the prospects of a whole new version… well, this is a big movie made by the world’s most famous director, so it’s bound to make a profit [It turns out maybe not – A], but apart from that, what’s the point of it? What’s it for?

A possible solution eventually emerges. The film is set on the west side of Manhattan in the late 1950s, at a point when many of the slum neighbourhoods were being cleared and redeveloped as more upmarket districts. The area looks like a bomb site, but this doesn’t keep it from being the turf of the local street gang, the Jets, and their leader Riff (Mike Faist). The main target of the Jets’ aggression is the incoming Puerto Rican immigrant community. Tensions between the two sides, and Riff and the other side’s leader Bernardo (David Alvarez) in particular, are growing.

Riff sets out to resolve the matter in the time-honoured manner (by having a big fight), calling on his friend Tony (Ansel Elgort) for help. Recently out of prison and trying to turn over a new leaf, Tony is reluctant – but things change when he meets Bernardo’s little sister Maria (Rachel Zegler) and the pair are instantly smitten, despite the racial and cultural chasm between them. Then again, if love can bloom in such circumstances, perhaps there is hope for peace in the community…

It is quite difficult to write about the new West Side Story objectively: the 1961 version doesn’t so much cast a long shadow as cause a total solar eclipse. Even the new film itself tacitly acknowledges this, as the original story has been amended to provide a role for Rita Moreno (who played Anita in the first film) – Moreno gets very little screen time opposite Ariana DeBose, who plays Anita this time, which must have been a relief. Not surprisingly, Spielberg seems to have realised there is not much of a percentage in attempting to copy the original, and it often feels like the new film is deliberately trying to be as different as possible, regardless of how well this serves either the story or the music.

Certainly Spielberg takes every opportunity to make use of modern film-making technology and capabilities: sequences which were originally mounted on slightly stylised sound-stages now occur in the street, in broad daylight, with a full cast of extras in the background. The film feels more grounded and less theatrical as a result. As you may perhaps have noticed, the details of the story have also been amended – the general through-line remains the same, and the songs are largely identical, but a lot of the dialogue has been changed, some characters expanded and deepened, others less prominent. Even more radically, the order of the songs has been changed (sometimes significantly), along with who performs them – although my understanding is that this actually means the new film is closer to the stage show in some ways.

One of the key differences between the 1961 film and the new one is, obviously, that for Spielberg and his collaborators this is a period piece, a story about a specific time and place in the past. The film works hard to establish the historical and social realities involved – again, making it more grounded and naturalistic. One key but subtle difference is that while they may be credited as the Sharks, the Puerto Rican characters aren’t referred to as such on screen – they don’t really form a street gang like the Jets, being depicted as defending their community rather than acting like delinquents. The Jets, it is suggested, are the real no-hopers, the heirs of prior generations too lazy or short-sighted to move out of the west side before it became a slum.

It’s an interesting new approach and I would have thought the film was unlikely to encounter much trouble for its depiction of the various ethnic and minority groups involved – but apparently the fact that this is a production about but not written by Puerto Ricans means it will always be problematic. Even so, you can’t fault everyone’s intentions – the Puerto Rican characters speak so much Spanish to one another that the lack of subtitles is keenly felt, but apparently this was a deliberate choice, so as not to give English some kind of privileged status.

One way or another this version of West Side Story feels like a very different beast from the Robert Wise film – a period piece, but also very modern in its earnestness and occasional lack of subtlety. The film is so determined to be grounded and naturalistic that it feels conflicted about its identity as a musical: the breath-taking, transcendentally cinematic moment from the 1961 film when the strutting street-gang suddenly start ballet-dancing doesn’t have anything like the same effect here; the same is true for most of the choreography. This version is much more about the songs than the dancing.

But, you know, it’s still the same songs and music, and no matter what the context there is a certain minimum level of quality they are not going to dip below. I’ll be honest and say that hearing them in this new setting was a bit disconcerting, so closely do I associate them with the Robert Wise film, while some of them don’t really seem to fit the style Spielberg is going for – ‘Gee Officer Krupke’ is a cynical vaudeville comedy number, which feels a bit at odds with the film’s determined naturalism. But many of them sound as good as ever, even if the staging sometimes feels a little lacking.

As I say, comparisons with the 1961 film are inevitable, and it would be wrong to criticise Spielberg just for doing something different; he hardly had a choice. But I do think the conflict between the naturalism of the staging and the theatricality of the original show creates a tension which is jarring and awkward rather than energising, while the lavish virtuosity of the film sometimes just isn’t as effective as the brilliant clarity Wise managed to achieve. This isn’t a bad film by any means, but I think in years to come, when people casually refer to West Side Story, this isn’t the movie they’re going to be talking about.

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It is once again that difficult time in the cinematic calendar, when the fruit of the creative loins of Michael Bay has been loosed upon the world, and – more to the point – is filling all the multiplexes. As you might expect, I would more cheerfully drill through my own toenails than actually pay to watch Transformers: Age of Extinction, but I can hardly ignore it entirely, can I? Luckily enough, it turned out that one of Michael Bay’s own favourite films was enjoying a brief revival at the local art-house, so I think in the circumstances this is an acceptable replacement. Given that only the other week I was singing the praises of the non-diegetic musical, it also makes a certain sense to revisit one of the greatest ever examples of the form: 1961’s West Side Story, directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins.

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Yes, it’s a bit of a shock, isn’t it? Bay, the maestro of overblown and incoherent excess, a fan of one of the most perfectly formed films ever released. Just goes to show you never can tell. The scene is laid, as the title suggests, on New York City’s west side, some time in the early 60s, where tensions are rising between the different street gangs – principally, in this case, the ‘indigenous’ Jets, and the Sharks, who are Puerto Rican immigrants.

Jet leader Riff (Russ Tamblyn) comes to the conclusion that things need sorting once and for all, and resolves to challenge Shark head honcho Bernardo (George Chakiris) to a grand combat to settle the conflict. Things become unexpectedly complicated, however, when Riff’s lieutenant Tony (Richard Beymer) happens to meet Bernardo’s sister Maria (Natalie Wood) at a neighbourhood dance, and the pair fall passionately in love virtually on the spot.

Tony and Maria wisely keep quiet about their relationship and battle plans are drawn up by the two gangs. But when Maria learns of the planned confrontation, she implores Tony to intervene, and he agrees, not realising that his presence will only lead to a deadly escalation in hostilities…

So, a movie about gang violence, juvenile delinquency, racism, and urban deprivation (for all that the basic plot is swiped from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet) – not, you might think, the most obvious material for all-singing, all-dancing musical theatre. For a long time I was always rather amused by the somewhat bizarre source material of many musicals – race riots, totalitarian coups, anti-semitic pogroms, and celebrity murders being just a few examples. I am starting to think, though, that perhaps I’m getting this backwards, and that the musical is in reality the most natural way for mainstream cinema to tackle these tough topics. The overt non-naturalism and glamour of the musical form to some extent takes the hard edges off the subject matter, and gives the creative people involved a little more latitude than a straight drama might have.

I think this is certainly the case with West Side Story. There are two main strands to the plot – Tony and Maria’s romance, and the gang war, and the songs punctuating the former are fairly traditional musical numbers with people singing about love and hope and their emotions. I should point out that these are still brilliantly executed pieces of work, of course, but for me all the real show-stoppers come from the other side of the film – the Puerto Ricans get the justly famous ‘America’, about the contrast between their hopes and the reality of the immigrant experience, while the Jets are served with ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’, a blackly funny dig at society’s inability to come to terms with the issue of juvenile delinquency. These songs are superbly performed and choreographed – there may be other musicals with equally good songs, but the dancing in West Side Story is surely unmatched – but they’re not just catchy tunes, they’re cynical and very, very smart pieces of social commentary. The end results are really breathtaking.

Then again, this is a film that makes bold choices from its opening moments. Following the overture, the movie starts naturalistically enough, with the Jets holding court over the neighbourhood playground. But slowly their swagger takes on a more graceful, choreographed quality, until they start breaking out into ballet steps, and the film manages to sell this idea. Throughout, the film is doing careful, striking things with colour – at the dance, the Jets are all subtly decked out in yellows and greens, the Sharks in blacks and purples – sound, and the image – observe the way the rest of the dance fades to a muted blur as Tony and Maria first set eyes on each other. The contrast between the grittiness of much of the narrative and the almost impressionistic quality of its realisation is perfectly achieved.

I must confess to finding more stand-out moments in the first half of the film than the second, but then this is really the nature of the beast where versions of Romeo and Juliet are concerned – the young lovers almost inevitably end up being a bit too wholesome and drippy. Certainly the departure of Tamblyn and Chakiris from the narrative doesn’t really do the film any favours. But it would take a harder man than me to argue against the sheer winsomeness and charm of Natalie Wood (the fact that she – and Beymer, come to that – is dubbed for all her songs somehow doesn’t seem to matter, nor does the fact that she’s clearly not actually Hispanic), nor the sincerity and emotion the romantic leads bring to their roles. (Perhaps the dubbing issue is why the acting Oscars for this film went to Chakiris and Rita Moreno instead.)

Superficially, West Side Story has not aged well, with all its buddy-boys and daddy-Os seeming rather quaint. But, even leaving aside the quality of the music and dancing (Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim are responsible for the former, Jerome Robbins the latter), the film’s concern with issues of racism, immigration, and urban alienation still mark it out as relevant to the modern world. Part of me thinks this will always be the case, and that this is one of those films that will endure as long as the medium of cinema does, because in so many ways it is as close to perfect as any film I’ve seen. If they’d only included some robot dinosaurs, it would really be an essential film.

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