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.

Bridge of Spies (2015)

Spielberg by this point is pretty adept at crafting a solid historical drama with period details and excellent ensemble acting. In this case, his current ‘everyman’ Tom Hanks is in the lead role as James Donovan, an insurance lawyer called on to defend an accused Russian spy in late-1950s New York. Donovan does what he can with an open-and-shut case, ensuring that the accused, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is not executed, an insurance policy which pays off years later (somewhat telescoped by this film) when surveillance pilot Gary Powers is shot down over the Soviet Union and the two men are exchanged by their governments, with Donovan acting as the intermediary. There are, then, essentially two acts, with Hanks stepping up to the courtroom drama with aplomb, the screenplay hitting hard on ‘what it means to be American’ (i.e. follow the guiding light of the Constitution), although at the very least not in a way as facilely patriotic as in some other US films. The real revelation is theatre actor Mark Rylance, whose acting style notably contrasts with Hanks’ familiar good-natured shtick (although the character of Donovan has a hard edge in negotiations — if not in action — that Hanks does bring out well). The second act of the film is set in snowy Berlin, and is almost comedic in its portrayal of the competing bureaucracies of the Soviet Union, East Germany (rather sore at not being a recognised state) and the US, with a foolish university student pulled into the mix. There’s nothing shabby about the production as a whole and it’s put together with all of Spielberg’s well-honed craft, aided by the Coen brothers sharpening up the screenplay. It will probably win awards, and why not, eh?

Bridge of Spies film posterCREDITS
Director Steven Spielberg; Writers Matt Charman, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen; Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski; Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda; Length 141 minutes.
Seen at Omnia, Rouen, Saturday 5 December 2015.

Jurassic Park (1993)

One of the more successful of summer blockbuster tentpole films is now 20 years old, and with some small caveats it has aged very well, all things considered. A lot of this is down to Steven Spielberg’s very sure directorial hand: he has been one of the industry’s most successful directors, and for the good reason that he exhibits well-honed craft and even a bit of flair, but not the kind that constantly draws attention to itself, with swift editing, big setpieces, noise and action (sorry, Michael Bay).

The most remarked-upon aspect of the film at the time was of course the CGI dinosaurs, but technology has changed a lot in 20 years, and viewing the film in retrospect is to indulge in some of that wistfulness you get while watching, say, Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion figures from the 1950s. The CGI is still grappling with conveying a sense of the weight and physicality of these creatures in a way that recent films have only just started to master (with Pacific Rim the current high-water point, though who knows how that will look in a few decades). Nevertheless by the time things kick off, you barely notice the dinosaurs aren’t real anymore.

What’s impressive then — what remains impressive — is the firm hold Spielberg has over the narrative tension, as the characters are first introduced and then gradually put into perilous situations. Just to backtrack a little for those that don’t know the film, an eccentric billionaire, John Hammond (played by Richard Attenborough), has been able to clone dinosaurs, bringing them back to life to repopulate an island he owns as a prospective theme park. After the death of one of his workers, he recruits a number of experts — including palaeontologist Alan (Sam Neill), palaeobotanist Ellie (Laura Dern), as well as mathematician and chaos theorist Ian (Jeff Goldblum) and his own grandchildren — to come and certify the park is safe. Naturally of course it’s not, though this is only exacerbated by the corrupt machinations of one of the key staff members (it does not appear to be a particularly well-staffed park, and the scientists and gamekeepers we do glimpse earlier on seem to quickly disappear as storm clouds approach).

Neither Sam Neill nor Laura Dern were ever A-list film stars, but that’s always been one blockbuster strategy: use seasoned character actors in the lead roles (often where the initial draw is something else, such as, well, dinosaurs). It also pays dividends in the long run, as successive generations of viewers don’t have to cringe so much at the one-dimensional action heroics of whoever was the biggest star at the time. Richard Attenborough too gets to be dependably avuncular, so it’s Jeff Goldblum that stands out as the nervy, black-clad mathematician, a sort of Cassandra figure whose prophecies are disregarded until it’s too late. It’s interesting too to see an early Samuel L. Jackson performance as a slightly nerdy, anxiety-prone and put-upon engineer, a year before the Pulp Fiction role that made his name and largely fixed his screen persona.

In any case, Spielberg gets to pursue a few of his favourite themes. There are the fatherless children seeking and finding a surrogate father figure, with Sam Neill’s reluctant Dr Grant by the end stepping up to this role. There’s also a familiar sense of wonder at the natural world (those swooping shots of the island and its lush jungle ecosystem, or the vast hordes of dinosaurs causing our heroes to take shelter under a log), but it’s allied here with some concerns about the limits of scientific endeavour.

Ultimately, though, by bringing into conflict two quite different eras of the planet’s history (not a million miles from the premise of Pacific Rim mentioned above, with its weirdly primordial monsters), it addresses some of the ethics of cloning — a debate that would only increase with Dolly the sheep a few years after the film — while remaining a taut and effective thriller for adults and kids alike. This ability to balance different levels of a debate within a populist mode of filmmaking, more than anything, is Spielberg’s real talent.

CREDITS
Director Steven Spielberg; Writers Michael Crichton and David Koepp (based on the novel by Crichton); Cinematographer Dean Cundey; Starring Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 13 August 2013 (and in the cinema in Wellington, back when it was first released).

Lincoln (2012)

I was talking in my last post about how Argo fits into one manifestation of the ‘Oscar-baiting film’ subgenre. Well Lincoln is an example of the other type of Oscar film: the big, portentous, historical epic. As far as such films go, however, this is a good example, both of the form’s strengths — top-notch character acting from the supporting cast, a firm grasp of the period, and a fine performance by Daniel Day Lewis (who has previous with this kind of project and is always dependable) — as well as its weaknesses. However, aside from that general sense of being shown something ‘important’, the main weakness for me was the big, clanging John Williams score that underlines every significant decision and emotion.

For the most part we are given a well-focused story of Lincoln’s struggle to have the 13th Amendment to the US constitution passed (regarding the abolition of slavery). There’s plenty of detail about the political machinations and processes that went into this, culminating in a lengthy sequence whereby members of the Congress individually vote on whether to pass the amendment. For all that minute focus, it remains gripping over its 150 minutes, though I found distracting the scenes featuring Lincoln’s family (Sally Field as his wife, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as his son). It also avoids hagiography for the most part, though a scene near the end when Lincoln leaves his home while being watched admiringly by a black servant is probably taking it a little far.

This film will no doubt enjoy a long afterlife as an educational film in history classes, but for all that, it’s still an enjoyable film, worth sitting down with.


CREDITS
Director Steven Spielberg; Writer Tony Kushner; Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski; Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Sally Field; Length 150 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Monday 11 February 2013.