Steven Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ Will Revive Your Love of Cinema

With ‘West Side Story,’ Steven Spielberg has made his best film in decades. Plus, reviews of a shopworn ‘House of Gucci’ and powerful Norwegian Holocaust drama ‘Betrayed’

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
A scene from Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story."
A scene from Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story."Credit: Niko Tavernise / Twentieth Century Fox
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
  • Movie name:
    West Side Story
  • Director:
    Steven Spielberg
  • Year:
    2021
  • Genre:
    Musical
  • Country:
    USA
  • Rating: 5 StarsClick here to rate 1Click here to rate 2Click here to rate 3Click here to rate 4Click here to rate 5

Of all the ways the coronavirus has changed us, two in particular have surprised me.

First is the way so many of us have seamlessly switched from office life to working from home. Now, not only does my daily commute take three seconds (five if the dog gets in the way), but I’ve also used the time saved to develop a profitable sideline: teaching robots how to identify yachts and traffic lights.

Second, on a very personal note, there’s the ease with which I have been able to turn my back on one of my greatest loves: cinema.

Before the pandemic, I used to see three or four films a month at my local movie theater. Yet until last week, in the six or so months since cinemas reopened, I’d seen a grand total of four: “Tenet,” “Cruella,” “No Time to Die” and “King Richard.” Out of those, there was only I truly loved – and trust me, no one was more surprised than your writer that it was “Cruella.”

I was thinking about that last week when the Writers Guild of America quietly released its list of the 101 greatest screenplays of the 21st century (so far).

While the list serves as an excellent aide-mémoire for movies you really must see, it’s striking how front-loaded it is with films from the first decade of the century.

Of the top 50 films, 33 (exactly two-thirds) were released between 2000 and 2010 – which suggests to me not that scripts were better in the aughts, but that Hollywood was making a different type of movie 10 to 20 years ago than it does nowadays.

The demise of the “mid-budget” Hollywood pic has been well documented – the “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” type (that’s No. 2 on the list, by the way, just behind Jordan Peele’s “Get Out”) that combines star wattage with memorable characters and imaginative plots: the type of film it was increasingly hard to get middle-aged audiences to turn out for in numbers, meaning that the only numbers that really mattered – those on the studios’ balance sheets – counted against them.

In the past decade, directors trying to make these smart, ambitious, character-driven movies have increasingly abandoned the big studios and found a new home at the Netflixes, Amazons and Apple TVs of this brave new world – auteurs like David Fincher, Sofia Coppola, Alfonso CuarónSpike LeeBarry Jenkins and Jane Campion, leaving the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Steven Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan, Wes Anderson and Ridley Scott as the last of a dying breed.

As it happened, I returned to the cinema last week to watch the latest films from two on that latter list: Spielberg’s “West Side Story” and Scott’s “House of Gucci” (and was also thrilled by the trailer for PTA’s upcoming “Licorice Pizza”).

Based solely on the two trailers, I had gone in with very high expectations for “House of Gucci” and incredibly low ones for “West Side Story” – but couldn’t have been more mistaken.

‘West Side Story’

At the risk of breathless hyperbole, “West Side Story” single-handedly rekindled my love for the cinematic experience. I haven’t been so moved by a Spielberg movie since “Schindler’s List” back in 1993, and can’t remember the last time I heard so much sniffling and sobbing in an auditorium – I just hope it wasn’t due to omicron.

On a personal level, I was strangely pleased to see that Spielberg had dedicated the film to his dad – because I haven’t been in such an emotional state since I said my farewells to my own father earlier this year.

It’s apt that the world’s most famous Jewish director and one of the best-known Jewish screenwriters (Tony Kushner) adapted the musical, because for me “West Side Story” is probably the peak collective Jewish achievement in popular American culture. Composer Leonard Bernstein – a name it’s impossible to even write nowadays without hearing Michael Stipe shouting it – lyricist Stephen Sondheim, choreographer Jerome Robbins and book writer Arthur Laurents were all Jewish New Yorkers (an adopted one in Bernstein’s case).

And, of course, Robbins’ original idea for the musical was a “Romeo and Juliet”-esque tale involving feuding Catholic and Jewish gangs – the Jets and the Emeralds – in the Lower East Side during the Easter-Passover season. In addition, the female lead was initially set to be a Holocaust survivor who had moved to New York from Israel (hence Laurents’ original title of “East Side Story”).

The Jewish gang famously morphed into the Puerto Rican Sharks after the Emeralds were deemed “too white,” and Spielberg and Kushner’s smartest decision here is to make only mild modifications to the classic storyline – now literally set against the backdrop of gentrification as slum tenements are being cleared in the Lincoln Square neighborhood. (Work on the actual Lincoln Center in the heart of that quarter did indeed start in 1955, when the action is set.)

Steven Spielberg at the New York premiere of "West Side Story." Credit: Charles Sykes/AP

The changes they do make generally work, like moving the showstopping “Gee, Officer Krupke” number much earlier in the storyline, allowing the high drama to flow uninterruptedly at the end. And only occasionally do the choices feel overly sentimental – such as the casting of Rita Moreno (Anita in the multi-award winning 1961 movie) as Valentina, here the widow of the store-owning Doc character from the original. She also gets to perform “Somewhere,” with the Consuelo character who sang it in the original completely dropped.

Due to the dumpster-fire nature of most high-profile musical adaptations recently – best summed up by the words “cat’s butt” – it was clearly no given that this evergreen piece would be such a glorious success. After all, this is a work where dance is an integral part of the action, and it’s to Spielberg’s immense credit that during the famous “rumble” scenes between the Jets and the Sharks, I only thought of “Anchorman” twice.

The film really does look sensational and there are numerous breathtaking moments, including the dance sequence where Tony and Maria first meet and some genius overhead shots that are worth the price of admission alone.

I only had two problems with the film. The first is the casting of Ansel Elgort as Tony. He may look like a mix of a youthful Jeff Bridges and Marlon Brando, but it was the latter’s miscasting in “Guys and Dolls” I kept thinking of here. Unfair a thought as it is, I kept wishing that they’d allowed Elgort do all of the acting during the shoot, and then replaced him with a singing tennis ball on a stick in postproduction.

Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler as Tony and Maria in "West Side Story." One of them is a brilliant singer.Credit: Niko Tavernise / Twentieth Century Fox

Luckily, while Elgort proves blander than a white marshmallow, newcomer Rachel Zegler is stunning as Maria – and forgive me for mixing my musical Marias here, but her on-screen radiance really does feel like holding a moonbeam in your hand.

Ariana DeBose is almost as impressive as Anita, and if there’s a dry eye in the house during their “A Boy Like That / I Have a Love” duet, it can only be due to conjunctivitis.

The film’s other problem? The urge you’ll have to jump to your feet after every song and shout “Bravo!” As the lights came on at the end, I found myself thinking: So this was why I fell in love with cinema.

‘House of Gucci’

By contrast, “House of Gucci” was a sapping bore, despite the spirited efforts of Lady Gaga to breathe life into a surprisingly inert drama.

I used to consider myself a Ridley Scott fan – with the likes of “Alien,” “Blade Runner” and “Thelma & Louise,” who wouldn’t be? But his work has become disappointingly mundane over the years, solid rather than inspired, workmanlike rather than artisanal.

I thought he did an average job dramatizing the Getty kidnapping story in 2017’s “All the Money in the World.” But that feels like a masterpiece in comparison to his latest Italian job, which utterly fails to capture the craziness of its real-life story.

“House of Gucci” arrived with a reputation as a true-crime camp classic – an “I, Tonya” for the fashion world, I was hoping. However, other than the ridiculously over-the top performances by Jared Leto and Al Pacino – how is it possible for Pacino, of all actors, to portray such an unconvincing English-speaking Italian? – this is a film that repeatedly mishandles all the big moments.

Bad romance: Lady Gaga in "House of Gucci."Credit: Fabio Lovino/AP

I felt sorry for Lady Gaga, who tries to inject some much-needed energy as Patrizia Reggiani, whose character is as tough as the leather on those famous Gucci bags but whom we never get close to deciphering. Is she a gold digger seduced by the name when she meets a geeky Gucci (Adam Driver) who just so happens to be the heir to the family fortune? Or is she a woman in love/scorned seeking a crazily drastic solution to her problem? Hard to know from this film, which simultaneously manages to meander yet charge through all of the key moments in an unsatisfactory manner.

At the risk of sounding like my teenage daughters, I’ll watch Adam Driver in anything. But we never get beneath the skin of his Maurizio Gucci, meaning his increasingly left-field actions feel like the whims of screenwriters rather than being borne out of character.

I do admire Scott’s work ethic – this is the 84-year-old’s 27th movie in just over 40 years, which is particularly impressive when you factor in all the TV production work he has also done in recent years (the somewhat overlooked HBO Max sci-fier “Raised By Wolves” returns for a second season in February).

But “House of Gucci” feels like a torturous shopping expedition, at the end of which you’re left empty-handed and with only bad Italian accents ringing in-a your head-a.

Adam Driver as a geeky Gucci in Ridley Scott's "House of Gucci."Credit: Courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer

‘Betrayed’

In 2010, French cinema recounted one of the most shameful incidents in its country’s history with “La Rafle” (“The Roundup”), about the July 1942 Paris roundup and subsequent deportation of some 13,000 Jews by the French authorities on behalf of the Nazis.

A lesser known but equally disturbing incident took place in Nazi-occupied Norway later that same year, and that traumatic story is retold in the powerful Norwegian film “Betrayed.” (The original title was “Den største forbrytelsen,” or “The Greatest Crime.”)

We should note that nearly 70 Norwegians have been honored as Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum for their efforts to save Jews during the war. But as the title suggests, “Betrayed” is most definitely not about them.

Instead, it shames the Norwegians who happily collaborated – most notably the police officers who conducted the actual roundup, when on November 26, 1942, 773 Jews were driven to Oslo’s harbor, packed onboard the SS Donau and taken to Auschwitz. Only 38 would survive.

Then there was the Liquidations Board, whose officials assembled a detailed list of Jewish assets and either took them for the state or pocketed them themselves, meaning that when Norway’s surviving Jews returned in 1945, everything had been taken from them. There were also Jewish internment camps where the “lucky” ones who were married to “Aryans” had some chance of surviving the war.

“Betrayed” specifically follows Oslo’s Braude family, whose four siblings include prize boxer Charles (Jakob Oftebro) – prone to angry statements around the Shabbat table like “Being Jewish has caused us nothing but trouble!” Sadly, the film will not disprove his view.

A scene from the Norwegian Holocaust drama "Betrayed."Credit: Samuel Goldwyn Films

I was frequently reminded of David Wilkinson’s passionate, recent documentary “Getting Away with Murder(s),” which showed how 99 percent of war criminals escaped punishment. That’s true here of Norwegian police official Knut Rød (Anders Danielsen Lie), who organized the roundup yet escaped any form of postwar retribution, eventually retiring on a police pension in 1965. What a Knut, indeed.

“Betrayed” is similar in some respects to “The Auschwitz Report,” being a modest but vital film that shines a necessary light on a dark moment in a country’s wartime history.

“West Side Story” and “House of Gucci” are in cinemas now. “Betrayed” is available via video on demand and at select cinemas in the United States.

Click the alert icon to follow topics:

Comments