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MOVIES: West Side Story - Review

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Steven Spielberg is one of the most reliable and stable veterans of Hollywood – and his West Side Story remake had the potential to be a fascinating modern retelling of the iconic film, but instead, it offers little new and very much plenty old – the film is a like-for-like retelling, stuck in the past as opposed to the present. A critique on toxic masculinity is appreciated as the gang war between the Jets, a white gang and their sworn rivals, the Puerto Rican Sharks – first through song and dance, and then through knives and guns is told before our eyes – there are plenty of damning scenes where the Jets are called out for their misgivings, but the film itself doesn’t quite ring true when focusing elsewhere.

The performances are mostly excellent aside from one glaring problem which is quite a big one: Ansel Elgort. The numerous allegations against him cannot be ignored when discussing a film with him in a role such as this, and Elgort’s performance otherwise tanks a well-stacked ensemble. Hot on the heels of musicals like In the Heights, Annette and Tick, Tick… Boom! A West Side Story could have capitalised on the recent success of the genre much like Halloween Kills on the recent wave of promising slashers, but instead it feels laboured and cumbersome as opposed to natural and earnest. It’s at its strongest when focusing on the female leads, Ariana DeBose is arguably the MVP of the whole film (America is by far the best song there, Tonight a close second), but when the film tries to focus on the short-lived, ultimately doomed romance between Rachel Zegler’s Maria and Elgort’s fresh-out-of-prison, supposedly reformed Tony, it falls apart. Zegler does much of the heavy lifting and is terrific in her own scenes removed from Tony, but the chemistry between the two leads feels stilted and awkward – much of the movie rests on whether you buy the lead relationship and through no fault of Zegler, who deserves so much better, it doesn’t quite take off with Elgort torpedoing the chemistry between them – outacted everytime the two share the screen together. If Zegler is an improvement on Maria, Elgort almost feels like a step back as Tony, forcing their relationship rather than allowing it to develop naturally.

The supporting cast are a delight. Non-binary actor Iris Menas as Anybodys, an aspiring Jet, is fantastic but underutilised. Rita Moreno’s Valentina is a star, especially in the final scenes of the film – being the main driving force for calling out the Jets for their horrific actions. David Alvarez gives a cocky, macho stance to boxer Bernado – opposite the quieter Josh Andrés Rivera as Chino. It’s a film full of great supporting talent who all get their moments to shine – even Corey Stoll and Brian d’Arcy James as police officers, feel like an appropriate nemesis for both the Jets and the Sharks to share. Mike Faist as Riff shines – his resemblance to John Mulaney is as uncanny as they come and he gives the character a real sense of personality and screen presence. More screentime for Iris Menas would have almost given the character a resemblance to the brilliant Linda Maz in Phillip Kaufman’s streetsmart The Wanderers, of which there are shades of the memorable street gang drama here – (see also: Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire – where Tony echoes Michael Pare’s Tom Cody, and Riff is reminiscent of Dafoe’s Raven Shaddock and Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause, the former pair both influenced by the original leading to a full circle comparison), and there are even shades of Visconti in the lavish costume design – think the more melodramatic Rocco And His Brothers, or The Leopard.

The cinematography and mise-en-scene in West Side Story is spectacular. Steven Spielberg’s recreation is authentic to the core, impeccably stylish. Much of that is due to the stunning shots from cinematographer Janusz Kamiński who makes even something as characters standing in a puddle look amazing, and he brings the rapidly gentrified streets of the neighbourhood of New York City to life. Kamiński has been a Spielberg regular for quite some time now and knows how to get the best out of him – yet West Side Story is one of his best shot films to date. The locations are lively and look lived in, and it’s a real treat to spend time with the Jets and the Sharks in their neighbourhoods – and the growing conflict between the two escalates, the film rapidly gives way from an optimistic tone into a darker, more mature second half. The film almost feels more at home stylistically with the gritty Scorsese-directed gangster movies like Gangs of New York than for example, the rawer In The Heights, and there’s plenty of influences from everywhere across a rich history of New York cinema evident in its cinematography.

Unfortunately, West Side Story never really justifies its need to exist as a remake. There are new storylines but they are few and far between and never given the depth that they deserve, with the remake stuck in the shadow of a far superior film that it can never truly escape from. Casting Rachel Zegler as Maria is a big improvement over casting Natalie Wood in the same role, but the portrayal of star-crossed lovers is a tale as old as time and the film ultimately feels like it has nothing new to say.

West Side Story is playing now in cinemas.

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