Movie Review ~ West Side Story (2021)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An adaptation of the 1957 Oscar-winning musical explores forbidden love and the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds.

Stars: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Rita Moreno, Ariana DeBose, David Álvarez, Josh Andrés Rivera, Corey Stoll, Brian d’Arcy James, Mike Faist, Ana Isabelle, Jamila Velazquez, Paloma Garcia Lee, Maddie Ziegler, Talia Ryder, Ben Cook, Kevin Csolak, Annelise Cepero, Kyle Allen, Kyle Coffman, Kellie Drobnick, Brittany Pollack, Yurel Echezarreta, Curtiss Cook, Jamie Harris

Director: Steven Spielberg

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 156 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: Much like movie fans are oft-asked what their favorite movie is, musical theater aficionados get put in the difficult position of having to select their most beloved work from the stage and let me tell you…it does get hard to choose at times.  Any number of landmark pieces can be put into the top slots but in all fairness to the modern greats like Hamilton, RENT, HAiR, and yes, even London invasions like The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables, there’s nothing quite like what I feel are the crown jewels: 1959’s Gypsy and 1957’s West Side Story.  It’s no coincidence that both share several of the same creative minds, both were directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins and had lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Arthur Laurents.  It’s the music that sets them apart, though, and while Jule Styne’s tunes for Gypsy have stood the test of time, it’s impossible to imagine a world without the gorgeous West Side Story compositions from Leonard Bernstein.

The 1961 film version of West Side Story was a boffo hit, nominated for a mother-lovin’ load of Oscars (11) and winning 10, including Best Picture.  While it hasn’t aged the best in certain areas (some of the Puerto Rican characters were played by white actors in brown face), much of the movie remains a high-water mark in movie musical history for many film and musical fans alike.  Though it was itself a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, set in the streets of what was then considered a gritty take on New York, sequences and images from the movie have been lifted in whole or in part for other projects over the years.  Revivals have even borrowed some elements but from what everyone reports, the magic of that original production (which actually lost the Best Musical Tony Award to The Music Man, another finely crafted work) has never been matched. 

Leave it to what many consider the best director working today to give modern audiences, really a new generation, their own version of West Side Story that isn’t a remake and isn’t a revisionist take on what has come before.  Oscar-winner Steven Spielberg has long wanted to direct a musical and the dream is fulfilled for him and us with this absolutely glorious re-interpretation of West Side Story that breathes new life into a show that’s well over 60 years old.  With a new script from Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner (Lincoln) that fleshes out characters that once were barely one dimensional, the film is deeper, more dangerous, and therefore more courageous in its risks and greater in its ultimate reward for the viewer.

I must admit I was more than a little dubious when I heard Spielberg and Kushner were taking this on as a project, for a few reasons.  Why, of all the films to remake, would Spielberg (JAWS) want to go down this route and take Kushner along for the ride?  I’m to the point where I think the best case for a remake is only where the original was left lacking in major areas and therefore a fresh set of eyes/ears/hands could function as a way to fix it.  Admittedly the ’61 film lived in a kind of patina of my memory and I didn’t want anyone (even one of my favorite directors) to mess around with it. So…perhaps I was being a bit precious with it. Then again, it’s West Side freaking Story!

Why did I ever doubt that Spielberg had this type of movie in him?  From the moment (the very moment) the movie begins, with that shiver-inducing whistle, I felt something release inside me and I knew instantly this West Side Story was something special.  Kushner’s script doesn’t just improve upon the original screenplay, it enhances it to the point where it could function wonderfully independent of the songs that have had their Bernstein orchestrations masterfully retained.  Yet musically it remains tied intrinsically as a star-crossed tale of two sweethearts from opposite sides that meet by chance, fall in love by fate, and are united by the power of those that oppose their union.

In the Upper West Side of New York (given even more clever specificity by Spielberg, Kushner, and production designer Adam Stockhausen, The Grand Budapest Hotel), the Jets and the Sharks are gangs of hothead teenagers in a constant battle for ownership of their neighborhood.  The white American Jets don’t like the Puerto Ricans Sharks moving in with their families and taking over the shops that once belonged to theirs.  Systemic racism, likely passed down by their parents and reinforced by daily life, have developed the boys from both sides into hard-nosed youths forced to take on problems that far exceed their age.  According to Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll, First Man), most of them will end up dead or in prison…but if this is the neighborhood where they will spend their days, both gangs want to be in control.

Reformed Jet Tony (Ansel Elgort, The Fault in Our Stars) has seen the worst of himself and vowed not to follow that path. Working for Valentina (Rita Moreno, Rio 2, an Oscar-winner for the first movie now playing a role created by Kushner, replacing the former one known as Doc), his focus is to get good, make right, and leave his former life behind.  Easier said that done.  When he’s convinced to join his friend and current Jet leader Riff (Mike Faist) at a mixer with a promised heavy Shark presence, he can’t know he’s about to meet a force that will change his life in unexpected ways. 

Maria (Rachel Zegler, making one of the more impressive debuts in memory) is a recent arrival to America, living with her brother Bernardo (David Álvarez) and his girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose, the role for which Moreno won her Oscar), a seamstress.  She’s tagging along to the dance with her date, Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera), but locks eyes with Tony in one of the musical’s more famous moments and what Spielberg turns into a real stunner.  That electricity the two feel seems to crackle right off the screen, making it easier for us to understand what’s happening for the soon-to-be-couple.  Of course, a boy from the Jets loving a girl from the Sharks is not acceptable and the consequences for such a choice extend far beyond the simple street brawls the teens have been used to.

Those that know the show won’t have to worry about their songs being messed around with too much.  Only several have been altered in any major way and I think the effect is more positive than blasphemous.  I won’t spoil it for you but one of the most famous numbers in the show, always a huge dance performance, has been given to a totally different character with their own agenda and it works so well because Kushner and Spielberg have done their work setting it up before we get there.  America, Gee, Officer Krupke, I Feel Pretty, etc, all are performed beautifully by a cast that vibrates with energy and freedom of spirit, and it doesn’t hurt they are easy on the eyes as well. 

Having seen the film often and even taken in the controversial Broadway revival back in 2020 (which, side note, I thought was incredible and should have re-opened in NYC so more people could have experienced its risk-taking changes), I was still an emotional wreck not just at the end but throughout the film.  Even knowing what will transpire I remained on the edge of my seat at all times, and I can’t remember the last time that happened while watching West Side Story.  What Spielberg and this extraordinary company of actors, musicians, and technicians have done is one for the record books.  I’m excited to see this one again with a larger audience to hear how it goes over and I have a feeling it could be a solid winner when awards are handed out – possibly even snagging the most Oscar nominations of the year.  How wonderful would it be for Moreno and the film to again take Best Picture.  And you know what?  They’d both deserve it.

Movie Review ~ The Map of Tiny Perfect Things

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A teenager contentedly living the same day in an endless loop gets his world turned upside-down when he meets a girl who’s also stuck in the time warp.

Stars: Kathryn Newton, Kyle Allen, Jermaine Harris, Anna Mikami, Josh Hamilton, Cleo Fraser

Director: Ian Samuels

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: It must be soul crushing to be involved in a movie waiting to be released and then seeing one with similar plot elements show up to rapturous fanfare not too long before you are set to arrive on the scene.  It’s no one’s fault here, just a case of bad timing, but one movie is bound to be compared to the other and it’s likely not going to be the one that is sitting with a high critical and audience score on the aggregator websites.  There’s no way of bypassing that comparison, however, so the best that second arrival can do is to focus on what makes their project unique and sell that over anything else.  It’s going to be an uphill battle, but it’s absolutely worth the effort seeing that it’s possible both films can wind up winning in the end.  Then consider what would happen if yet another like-plotted movie found its way into the mix after yours was released…now you’re the pickle in the middle and in a, well, pickle.   

I’m not totally sure The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is running victory laps two months after it was released by Amazon Studios.  While I saw it back in February, I sadly am only getting to this review now as I wrestle with a backlog that was unavoidable.  I didn’t want to ignore this one, though, seeing that it fits into a worthy place in a discussion on similar time loop films released over the past year.  First with Palm Springs in July 2020 and then in March’s Boss Level.  All three are different styles of film with their own pros and cons but if Palm Springs is aimed at the frat crowd, then The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is meant for that audience’s tween brothers and sisters.   

Based on the short story by Lev Grossman who also wrote the film’s screenplay, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things thankfully starts up after Mark (Kyle Allen, the upcoming remake of West Side Story) has already found himself caught in an endless loop for thousands of days where he relieves the same mundane day repeatedly.  As in every other film that has a similar set-up, the rules are the same.  The moment Mark sleeps, everything resets, and he wakes the next day with knowledge of what he learned the day before but no one else retains the same information.  The opening moments show how he’s made some good use out of this time by finding ways to help/assist his family and others in town as they go about their daily life. What he’s mostly trying to perfect now is getting a pretty girl at the town’s pool to notice him but no matter how suave, humble, polite, or impressive he comes off, he isn’t getting anywhere. 

On his latest attempt, out of the blue something changes when Margaret (Kathryn Newton, Ben is Back) intervenes, shocking Mark who thought up until now he was stuck alone in this crazy cycle.  Turns out Margaret has also been in her own loop for some time, watching Mark from the sidelines and only got his attention because of her own boredom.  That doesn’t necessarily mean she wants to buddy up with Mark because Margaret has her own reasons for wanting to stay in this circle of time that are as strong as the ones Mark has for finding a way out.   His family life is stuck in a rut and can’t change until he can get to the next day and her family life is…complicated. Together, they decide that until something changes, as a way to pass the time and perhaps a way to break the repeating day they should take the time to step back and look at all the “perfect” things/moments that happen throughout the day and map them out so they know where to find them.   

Ok, so perhaps it doesn’t mine a well that is super deep for ideas or emotional nuance but there is some nice message in Grossman’s script that reminds us to stop periodically and remember to recognize the importance in small victories and what others might deem insignificant.  Bolstering those up might help change your attitude, leading to greater happiness.  It’s rather perfect for the YA crowd and I can see the film being a dark horse suggestion at slumber parties by those in the know of good films that aren’t just about kissing, boys, prom, or a terminal illness given to one of the leads.  The light touch of director Ian Samuels also gives the film a bounce and I almost wonder if The Map of Tiny Perfect Things was pushed out for public consumption too early in the year.  It has such a summer spring in its step that an April or early May date might have made more sense. 

Another fine piece of this puzzle is the casting throughout, starting with Allen and Newton as the incredibly appealing leads.  We already know that Newton is a star on the cusp of something big and its earthy roles like this that she makes seem effortless that will continue to make casting directors put her at the top of their lists.  It’s also a nice showcase of Allen who has the looks of a football quarterback but the sensitivities of the tortured poet when you get right down to it.  Rounding out the cast are Jermaine Harris as Mark’s video game obsessed friend who might always be glued to a game but still can dish out expert advice when called upon, and Cleo Fraser as Mark’s sister.  Fraser and Allen have a nice sibling arc throughout that takes a nice, believable turn and both mesh well with John Hamilton (Frances Ha) as their dad who might appear to be aimless but, like Margaret, has secrets he keeps bottled up. 

Lacking the creative zing that made Palm Springs such a riot and missing the more audacious go-for-broke attitude which gave Boss Level extra bonus points, The Map of Perfect Things finds itself in third place but don’t look at that bronze medal as a sign of a lack of confidence.  Like the recent slate of YA films put out by Amazon Studios (Selah and the SpadesWords on Bathroom Walls, Chemical Hearts), the film fulfills on what it promises by sending out appealing leads jumping through multiple loops to get their day right.  What it might lack in originality it more than makes up for with a casual air of unpretentious self-confidence.