West Side Story (2021)

The big budget Hollywood musical seems to be back in this year. Maybe the film financiers thought the world was due a bit of levity, but as far as I can tell from the box office stats, that’s not necessarily what’s been shifting the tickets. That said, I’m not a Hollywood financial analyst, nor do I care to be. We’ve already had one big bright spectacular set in New York City during the summer, which was In the Heights, and now here’s another, albeit with a slightly longer stage pedigree. Neither is perfect, but both are entirely competent at what they do, and both showcase a bright and wide talent pool drawn from Latinx musical performers (and Ansel Elgort, who is none of these things). Actually one of the standouts here is Mike Faist as Riff, a character who’s never really been the most interesting, but against the slightly damp central pairing, he and David Alvarez as Bernardo — the rival gang leaders — really do shine out.


This is a long film but it’s one that’s not short of high production values or visual inventiveness, as you’d expect from Spielberg and his team. It opens with some gliding and vertiginous camera movements around what feels like a bombsite but instead turns out to be a slum clearance to make way for the Lincoln Center, as the central groups of young men are introduced, finger-clicking their way down the street in classic style. They look foolishly young, but that’s the point of course: they are kids, somewhere on the cusp between playground fights and becoming proper hoodlums. So the baby face of Ansel Elgort isn’t really the problem, not even the absurd idea that he’s spent any time in prison. After all, this is a musical and there’s a certain expectation of stylisation and non-naturalism. A bigger problem is that he just isn’t very good, either as a singer or as an actor; he has a certain presence I suppose (he’s very tall), but against a cast of largely musical theatre kids, the lack of experience really shows. Newcomer Rachel Zegler as Maria is much better, but it’s the supporting characters like Mike Faist’s Riff, David Alvarez’s Bernardo and Ariana DeBose’s Anita who really steal the limelight, not least in the big showstopper “America”, which remains the highlight of this film as of any production. Just that strength and depth of minor roles is enough to carry the film, along with the polished set design and — another nice touch — the use of extended stretches of (untranslated) Spanish for the Puerto Rican characters. It’s a different beast from the 1961 film adaptation, and it makes some excellent changes too, but that’s also such an iconic juggernaut of 20th century American culture that maybe nothing could ever be fully satisfying. Still, this does a great job all the same.

West Side Story (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Steven Spielberg; Writer Tony Kushner (based on the musical by Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents); Cinematographer Janusz Kamiński; Starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Rita Moreno; Length 156 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 19 December 2021.

The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

I suppose it would be really easy to write a review about how this flagrantly tearjerking melodrama of two teenagers falling in love while living with terminal cancer is the worst kind of emotional heartstring tugging, but that would probably be because I somewhat fell victim to it. It’s very hard not to, after all, given the premise, even without the little flourishes that are added to help you along the path. Those flourishes, thankfully, generally steer clear of big string-laden orchestration or gloopily grandstanding sentimental speeches from the parents (at least, as far as I recall).

What’s interesting is that the story is very much told from the point of view of the central character, Hazel (Shailene Woodley), and this — along with just basic business sense on the part of the filmmakers — perhaps accounts for some of the peculiarly airbrushed depictions of the dying kids and their love affair. They are the heroes of their world; their friend Isaac (Nat Wolff) is almost rock-star like in his blindness, looking for all the world like Ferris Bueller in his prime. It’s directed by the maker of the most comfortably middle-class film I saw last year (Stuck in Love.), so everything’s just-so here as well.

In fact, without Hazel’s ever-present breathing apparatus and a few scenes in hospitals, you’d be hard-pressed to spot that they were terminal, and that, presumably, is precisely the point: this is a teen love story, first and foremost, a film about living. When Hazel and the always goofily grinning and cheerfully upbeat Gus (Ansel Elgort) finally share a kiss, the bystanders applaud. They APPLAUD. I might add that this takes place in the most allegorically-loaded of locations, but then the film is at pains to create a world of metaphor and allusion. “It’s a metaphor” is practically the film’s motto, a refrain used to refer specifically to Gus’s habit of keeping an (unlit) cigarette in his mouth. And then there’s Hazel’s quest to find out what happens after the abrupt end of her favourite novel within the film (a novel about cancer, of course), that sends her to Amsterdam to track down its prickly and reclusive author, Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe).

We might wonder what happens to her and her family when this particular story ends, but as Hazel discovers, that would be a mistake. The only thing that matters is what happens during the story’s telling. The key, then, is just to go with it, and as such it helps that Woodley is such a watchable and radiant presence at the heart of things. Many of us may know what happens when this story ends; it’s not worth thinking about.

CREDITS
Director Josh Boone; Writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (based on the novel by John Green); Cinematographer Ben Richardson; Starring Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Laura Dern, Nat Wolff, Willem Defoe; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Friday 20 June 2014.