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Posts Tagged ‘Steven Spielberg’

Ansel Elgort as Tony, Rachel Zegler as Maria

“WEST SIDE STORY”  My rating: B (In theaters)

156 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

There’s really no point in remaking “West Side Story” if you’re only going to recreate the 1961 version. Which was, after all, pretty damn definitive.

And so Steven Spielberg’s  daring re-imagining of this classic — my favorite piece of musical theater, rivaled only by Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” — consistently takes its audience by surprise. You may think you know the show inside out; just wait until the master filmmaker  lays a modern sensibility over the story’s late ‘50s ambience.

In this “WSS” the Puerto Rican characters deliver many of their lines in Spanish without subtitles (not that you’ll need them…you can tell by the performances what’s going on).

Moreover, where appropriate the film has been cast with Latinx performers…no lily white actors trying to pass for ethnics.

Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner, adapting the Arthur Laurents/Ernest Lehman script, have shaken things up, shifting the order of the musical numbers and in some cases giving songs to characters who didn’t sing them in the original.

Of course the dancing (not pure Jerome Robbins but close enough to generate goosebumps), the memorable Leonard Bernstein melodies and those brilliant orchestrations (jazz meets mainstream) remain potent enough to generate tears of aesthetic gratitude.

And the core story of star-crossed lovers seeking fulfillment in a world of hatred and strife is as strong as ever (hey, it’s Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”…borrow from the best.)

But perhaps the filmmakers’ biggest reach is to pump up the material’s psychological and social realism to a near breaking point. It is for this effort that Spielberg’s film has been generating off-the-charts praise — and yet I’ve got to admit to a lot of ambivalence.

Ariana DeBose (in yellow) as Anita, David Alvarez as Bernardo

We understand that the film is taking on some big ideas from the first shot, a flyover of a Manhattan neighborhood falling under the wrecking ball. The few tenement walls still standing are surrounded by piles of rubble and abandoned bathtubs. A billboard announces that this will be the future home of Lincoln Center. 

Of course, when the livable turf is reduced, the remaining inhabitants must duke it out for possession of what’s left.

“West Side Story” has always had an undercurrent of social commentary (just listen to Sondheim’s caustic lyrics for “America”) and an aura of liberal awareness. But this new version brings those concerns front and center, then hammers away at them.

In this retelling Riff (Mike Faist) and his Jets view themselves as the last white men standing against a brown tidal wave. The cynical police detective Schrank (Corey Stoll) taunts the Jets as “the last of the can’t-make-it Caucasians,” in effect goading them into continual warfare with the just-off-the-boat Puerto Ricans.

That the Jets are nativists has always been an element of “West Side Story,” but never before has that idea been banged on so relentlessly.  No one in the film utters the words “Proud Boys,” but you’d have to have spent the last few years in a cave not to see the racial signifiers.

Simultaneously the film paints a vibrant picture of Latin culture, depicting a neighborhood where huge Puerto Rican flags are painted on walls and the locals can effortlessly turn a block of storefronts into a bubbling ethnic festival. (Indeed, the show-stopping “America” is here performed not at night on a rooftop but in bright sunshine on a busy city street.)

“I Feel Pretty,” a song that has always seemed vaguely out of place, gets a major transformation. Instead of being performed by Maria (Rachel Zegler), Anita (Ariana DeBose) and friends in a modest dress shop, the number unfolds after hours in the department store where the immigrant women fill the ranks of the cleaning crew.  They deliver the lyrics while surrounded by mannikins posed in vignettes drawn from majority white culture…what up to now has been a hummable but thematically thin song suddenly is crawling with wry political/social commentary.

Kushner’s script also pumps up what we know about the characters.  Thus we learn that our Romeo stand-in, Tony (Ansel Elgort), is on parole after spending a couple of years in prison for nearly killing another young man in a brawl. Once one of the Jets’ fiercest fighters, he’s now steering clear of conflict.

Anybody’s, the girl who desperately wants to be one of the Jets, is usually portrayed as a tomboy.  Here, though, she is played by non-binary actor Iris Menas, bringing a whole new level of sexual politics and sexual ambiguity into the mix.

Characters that were basically placeholders in earlier incarnations get a major reworking.

Officer Krupke (Brian d’Arcy James), usually depicted as  a hapless flatfoot, comes off as a decent if weary bloke who’d like to see everybody get along.

Perhaps the biggest character expansion falls to Chino (Josh Andres Rivera), Maria’s gang-approved suitor, who is anything but a thug…he’s going to night school and wants to become a CPA. This bespectacled brainiac is the hope of his community, so much so that Bernardo (David Alvarez) and the Sharks work to keep him out of their conflict with the Jets.

But all that is merely a prelude to the big whopper, the casting of Rita Moreno (she won an Oscar for her portrayal of Anita in the 1961 film) as the widow of Doc, operator of the local pharmacy/candy store.  

Doc, inspired by “Romeo and Juliet’s” Friar Lawrence, never had much of a presence in earlier “WSS” incarnations.  But Moreno emerges as a major character, Tony’s employer and moral backup; she even gets to sing the haunting “Somewhere,” a number traditionally performed by Tony and Maria.

Here’s the thing…all these augmentations and observations had the effect of taking me out of the central romance.

Oh, there were some terrifically romantic moments. Tony and Maria’s meeting at the community dance here unfolds beneath the bleachers, a very nice touch.  And songs like “Maria” and “Tonight” absolutely nail the swooning universal yearning for a love capable of changing the world.

But at a certain point I found the ever-thickening patina of commentary got in the way. A marvel of traditional musical theater is the way in which one-dimensional characters expand through song, finding their true humanity through the synthesis of melody and lyric.

This “West Side Story” gave me so much information, so much detail that I felt I was being force fed rather than discovering.

It’s at moments like this when your faithful critic wonders if I have at long last reached the ranks of grumpy old men.

| Robert W. Butler

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“MAKING WAVES: THE ART OF CINEMATIC SOUND” My rating: B

94 minutes | No MPAA rating

The cinema has always been dominated by its visual elements and the moving image…there’s a reason we refer to them as “the movies,” after all.

But as powerful as visual images may be, they can be enhanced immeasurably by the judicious and creative use of sound. Some filmmakers, in fact, argue that what we hear in the theater is as important — perhaps more important — than what we see.

Midge Costin’s documentary “Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound” — she’s a veteran sound and dialogue editor making her directing debut — is a little bit of everything: history, aesthetic exploration, technological geek out.

It is also, for the most part, a look at the careers of two of the still-living giants of movie sound: Walter Murch, whose sound designs have graced the films of Francis Coppola, and Ben Burtt, who brought his talents to George Lucas’ “Star Wars.”

The film opens with Murch, now 77, commenting on how even before birth we are accustomed to hearing our mother’s breathing and heartbeat, as well as voices and noises coming from outside her body. For that reason, Murch asserts, hearing is a much more profound experience than viewing.

The film picks out from cinema’s past special films that advanced movie sound. There’s “King Kong,” whose sound designer manipulated the roars of zoo animals.  There was the radio era, when entire worlds were fabricated from pure sound; artists like Orson Welles exploited the artistic possibilities of radio and then brought that some creativity to the soundtrack of his “Citizen Kane” (1941). Alfred Hitchcock was an advocate of pure sound, eschewing all music for his “The Birds” (1965) and relying heavily on electronically distorted avian noises.

But these adventurous souls were few and far between. Mostly the studios were run like an assembly line that avoided adventurous sound design; each studio had its own sound library of gunshots, trains, screeching tires, ricocheting bullets and other noises that were used over and over again.

Of course for most of the sound era — which began in the late ’20s — movie sound meant monaural sound, noises coming from one speaker directly behind the screen.  It wasn’t until Barbra Streisand demanded a full stereo presentation for her 1976 “A Star Is Born” that stereo soundtracks became the norm.

In films like “Nashville” Robert Altman got creative with dialogue, wiring up everyone in a crowded scene with their own microphones and recording each actor individually so that he could manipulate what his audience heard in the final print.

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“READY PLAYER ONE” My rating: B
140 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

That most films based on video games suck mightily should come as no surprise…video games are all about dishing visceral thrills, not building dramatic momentum or developing characters.

This is why Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” is such a remarkable achievement. Instead of attempting to wrestle the video gaming experience into a standard dramatic format, this surprisingly entertaining entry is really just one long video game, albeit a game with so much pop-culture name dropping that geeks will spend countless hours documenting all the visual and aural references.

Think “Tron” to the nth degree.

Don’t go looking for the usual plot developments or relatable characters. The strength of  “Ready Player One” lies in its ability to create an totally plausible fantasy world that operates by its own rules.  At times the audience’s immersion in this universe is total and totally transporting.

The screenplay by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline (based on Cline’s novel) unfolds in the year 2045.  Economic and environmental disasters have left the working class chronically unemployed.  They live in “stacks,”  mini-high rises made of mobile homes resting on metal frameworks. In this world video games are the opiate of the masses — when they’re not eating, sleeping or taking bathroom breaks, the citizenry are experiencing virtual realities through 3-D goggles.

This is the world of Wade (Ty Sheridan of “Mud,” “Joe” and the X-Men franchise), a shy teen whose on-line avatar is the game-savvy Parzival.  Wade/Parzival is a devotee of The Oasis, a massive video game developed by the late programming guru Halliday (played by Mark Rylance in flashbacks) and so complex and challenging that in the years since its inception no player has come close to beating it. But millions log in daily in an attempt to find three hidden keys that will unlock Halliday’s fantasy world and grant the winner ownership of the unimaginably wealthy Oasis empire.

The challenge attracts not just individual gamers like Parzifal and on-line buddies like the hulking giant Aech or the samurai warrior Daito.  The IOI corporation and its Machiavellian director Sorrento (Ben Mendelssohn) has its own army of players who compete for the prize.   The person — or business — that solves the game’s many puzzles will in effect become one of Earth’s dominant forces.

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bfg“THE BFG” My rating: B-

117 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Among the great gifts given by young Steven Spielberg to the movies was a  sense of wonder.

Films like “Close Encounters,” “E.T.” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” are plenty smart, but they work because of the childlike awe with which Spielberg approaches his stories.

A 69-year-old Spielberg brings back the awe with “The BFG,” a fantasy designed to tickle the kid in each of us.

Based on Roald Dahl’s 1982 children’s book, “The BFG” (it stands for “Big Friendly Giant”) soars on a couple of terrific lead performances, astonishing special effects work and a droll sensibility.

The film also represents the last screenplay by the late Melissa Mathison, whose kid-friendly credits include “The Black Stallion,” “E.T.”  and “The Indian in the Cupboard.”

Ten-year-old Sophie (a terrific Ruby Barnhill) lives in a London orphanage and dreams of escape. One night she spies an immense dark figure moving furtively through the streets.

Confronting this vision she soon finds herself in Giant Land where she is a guest/captive of The BFG (Mark Rylance), whose job it is to collect and redistribute children’s dreams.

The BFG is a benign eccentric who converses in his own brand of Yoda-speak, tossing around tongue-twisting words like “frobscottle” and “snozzcumber.”

BFG is a vegetarian, but the same cannot be said for the other giant inhabitants of the place. These skyscraper-sized Neanderthals have a taste for human flesh (especially children) and bear appropriately gruesome names like Bloodbottler and Fleshlumpeater (their voices are provided by Bill Hader, Jemaine Clement and Rafe Spall, among others). (more…)

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‘Bridge of Spies’ by DreamWorks Studios.

“BRIDGE OF SPIES” My rating: B+

142 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

 

Tom Hanks’ singular status as this century’s James Stewart pays off big time in “Bridge of Spies,” Steven Spielberg’s recreation of one of the Cold War’s lesser known stories.

As the real-life James Donovan, a New York insurance lawyer pulled into the world of espionage and international intrigue, Hanks is wry, moving, and astonishingly ethical. He practically oozes bedrock American decency.

Which was precisely what this movie needs.

The screenplay by the Coen Brothers and Matt Charman runs simultaneously on four tracks.

In the first Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested in NYC in 1957 by federal agents. As no lawyer wants to represent him, the Bar Association basically plays spin the bottle — and assigns the job to Donovan.

Jim Donovan believes that every accused person deserves the best defense possible. In fact, he alienates the judge, the feds, and the general public by standing up for his client’s rights and assuming that this is going to be a fair trial when everybody else wants just to go through the motions before sentencing Abel to death.

On a parallel track is the story of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a military flyboy recruited for a top-secret project and trained to spy on the U.S.S.R. from a one-man U-2 reconnaissance aircraft.  Alas, on his very first mission in 1960 he’s shot down, fails in an attempt to commit suicide, and falls into the hands of the Commies.

Then there’s the arrest in 1961 of Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American grad student studying economics who finds himself trapped on the wrong side of the newly constructed Berlin Wall and vanishes into the labyrinthine East German justice system.

All this comes to a head when Donovan, several years after Abel’s conviction, is dispatched to Berlin in an ex officio capacity to arrange a swap of the Soviet spy for Francis Gary Powers.  And if in the process he can somehow free Fred Pryor from a damp cell, so much the better.

The yarn is so big and dramatic that it seems improbable…yet it happened. (What’s more, a few years later Donovan was dispatched to Cuba to negotiate the release of anti-Communists captured in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion.)

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“WAR HORSE”  My rating: C+ (Opening wide on Christmas Day)

146 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Visually rich and dramatically undernourished, “War Horse” is director Steven Spielberg’s attempt at a David Lean-style epic.

It’s big. It’s gorgeous.

And, unfortunately, it is largely uninhabited despite a deep cast of yeoman British thespians.

The source material, Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 book for children, already has become a hit West End and Broadway show. The dominant critical view of the stage version is one of indifferent material elevated by brilliant staging, with breathtaking life-size puppets portraying the equine characters.

The question going into the Spielberg film, then, was whether the yarn would still deliver in a “real” world without that awe-inspiring stagecraft. The answer: Every now and then the movie is magic. But too often it feels overplotted and plodding.

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“THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN: THE SECRET OF THE UNICORN” My rating: B- (Opening wide on Dec. 21)

107 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Steven Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin” has so many jaw-dropping moments of visual splendor that it takes a while to realize that there’s really nothing much of interest here except the jaw-dropping visual splendor.

Employing the motion-capture animation techniques employed in films like “The Polar Express” and the Jim Carrey “Christmas Carol,” this screen adaptation of the late Herge’s universally popular comic book hero should please long-time fans. But it’s hard to imagine it winning many new converts to the Tintin brand.

Tintin (voiced by Jamie Bell of “Billy Elliott” fame) is a perpetually boyish, carrot-topped newspaper reporter who goes nowhere without a tan trench coat, brown knickers and a white pooch named Snowy.

He’s sort of like a junior Sherlock Holmes who’s always up to his neck in one mystery or another.

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