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"WEST SIDE STORY"
(2021) (Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Musical: A recently paroled gang leader tries to keep the peace between his gang and their rivals, but creates a problem when he starts dating the other leader's sister.
PLOT:

It's the 1950s and poorer sections of New York City are being redeveloped, thus leaving rival gangs with increasingly less turf to claim as theirs. Returning to that world is Tony (ANSEL ELGORT), the leader of the white Jets whose chief rivals are the Puerto Rican Sharks led by Bernardo (DAVID ALVAREZ). Tony's been in prison for the past year for beating up another gang member and has decided to turn over a new leaf in his life, much to the dismay of his number two, Riff (MIKE FAIST), who wants him to rejoin the gang and battle the Sharks.

Tony, who's taken a job working for local drugstore owner Valentina (RITA MORENO), wants no part of that, but gets talked into attending a dance where members from both gangs will be present. As is Maria (RACHEL ZEGLER) who lives with her brother, Bernardo, and his girlfriend, Anita (ARIANA DeBOSE), and is being set up at the dance with Chino (JOSH ANDRES RIVERA).

But when she and Tony lock eyes at the dance, it's love at first sight. That enrages Bernardo who makes a scene, with his actions setting up a scheduled rumble between the gangs. Tony wants to keep the peace, but his growing relationship with Maria creates further friction between the rival gangs, meaning their relationship could be in jeopardy.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10

As a general rule of thumb, and for a variety of reasons, I'm not crazy about movie remakes, especially if they're in the vein of Gus Van Sant's literal shot-for-shot redo of "Psycho." There are exceptions, of course, such as the original film being barely known and/or enough time -- meaning decades -- having passed by since the first release.

Or if one makes enough changes to the source material that the remake feels like an offering of its own, such as occurred with 1978's "Heaven Can Wait." The final and very rare exception is if the remake is simply done so exceptionally well that you have no choice but to surrender to its greatness.

And with that, I present to you the 2021 remake of "West Side Story." I'll readily admit I thought a redo of the 1961 film -- that garnered 11 Oscar nominations (and won all but one) and generally is considered one of the greatest movie musicals ever made -- was a dumb idea and an unnecessary one at that.

I certainly and understandably questioned why someone as esteemed as Steven Spielberg -- who could pick and choose whatever project he wanted -- would opt to step behind the camera. Well, ladies and gents, having just sat through all two and a half hours plus of the flick, I can say the legendary director was right and I was wrong as he's delivered one of the best films of the year.

Yes, for those who are big fans of the original film -- which was based on the 1957 Broadway play of the same name which itself was an imaginative retelling of Shakespeare's doomed lovers tale, "Romeo & Juliet" -- there's plenty to admire here.

The film is both loving and respectful homage to the earlier work while sporting a more open and encompassing feel while also correcting some glaring problems (namely Rita Moreno being the only Latina where half the characters are Puerto Rican).

And for those new to the story, there's plenty to love, with a timeless, opposites-attract romance, great to good performances, wonderful choreography, and top-notch tech credits across the board with the cinematography (Janusz Kaminski), editing (Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar), production work (Adam Stockhausen and his team) and costume design (Paul Tazewell) all award-worthy.

Not to mention the music (by Leonard Bernstein) and lyrics (by the late, great Stephen Sondheim) that stand the test of time and range from wonderfully romantic ("Maria" and "Tonight") to energetically goofy ("Gee, Officer Krupke") to arguably one of the greatest movie musical songs ever recorded (the infectiously entertaining "America").

The only weak element unfortunately is a pretty big part of the offering and that's Ansel Elgort as Tony, the recently paroled leader of the 1950s era New York street gang, the Jets. Yes, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner have kept the story set in the Eisenhower era when the slums of the Big Apple were being torn down and redeveloped. But I can't guess why the filmmaker chose Elgort. It's not that he's bad (the acting and singing are fine), it's just that he comes off as inert, especially when compared to Rachel Zegler (making her debut) as his star-crossed lover, Maria, the sister to the rival Sharks' gang leader, Bernardo (David Alvarez).

Zegler lights up the screen whenever she appears, while Ariana DeBose -- as Bernardo's girlfriend Anita -- is a commanding force of her own. Beyond Mike Faist as Tony's number two, most of the rest of those playing the other gang members are just glorified set pieces, but Rita Moreno (who will turn 90 the day after the film's release) gets a notable character, albeit one different than her part in the '61 film.

The nice and necessary update that Spielberg and company have made is casting Latino performers in the Puerto Rican parts, and the effort shows, especially since a big chunk of the story is about intolerance toward foreigners, something the original couldn't get away with sixty years ago when it cast Natalie Wood as Maria.

It's been a long time since I saw the earlier film and have never seen the stage production, so I can't say what if any songs have been changed, rearranged, or omitted. But it doesn't really matter as the result is a glorious piece of throwback filmmaking to grand movie musicals of old. While I originally thought remaking "West Side Story" was a bad idea, I now think it was a glorious one. The film rates as an 8 out of 10.




Reviewed November 29, 2021 / Posted December 10, 2021


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