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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: Spielberg's 'West Side Story' triumphs over doubts

Screen Grabs: Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ triumphs over doubts

The Sharks and The Jets dance again. Plus: 'Being the Ricardos' misses Lucy's wit; 'Red Rocket' shoots some sparks

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While it’s a big weekend for awards-bait cinema, those whose taste runs in an entirely different direction are in luck: It’s also the weekend for the 7th edition of Camera Obscura, an annual showcase for “unique, antique and experimental” films curated by former SFFilm and Fandor staff, named in honor of the local film society founded sixty-four years ago by Bruce Conner, Lawrence Jordan, and other famous makers.

This year’s mix of recent and restored titles includes a new work by Jordan, a long-lost 1971 short shot by Les Blank, the new Indian documentary feature A Night of Knowing Nothing, and restorations of 1984 Romanian sci-fi cartoon Mission Space Delta as well as Wendell B. Harris Jr.’s 1989 African-American indie cult favorite Chameleon Street. Programs for the three-day event Fri/10-Sun/10 will take place at the Roxie Theater and 518 Valencia in SF. Schedule and ticket info here.

Steven Spielberg’s version of West Side Story has been awaited with a mix of curiosity and dread for a few years now—curiosity to see how he’d fare with what is (rather shockingly) his first-ever musical, and dread because…well, why remake West Side Story? There may always be good reasons to revive the show onstage, but the 60-year-old prior film remains one of the very best of its famous-Broadway-hit-in-translation type. (One need only look at the celluloid mediocrities from Oklahoma! and South Pacific to WSS lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, to realize how good Robert Wise’s movie is.) So, what’s the point? To bring it to a new generation that won’t watch something old? To update the material (which was pretty forward-thinking at the time) for today’s greater cultural sensitivities?

Those were undoubtedly factors, to a degree. But what’s shocking about Spielberg’s WSS is how excellent it is… and how stubbornly old-fashioned. In a sense, you could say his film is redundant, because its strengths really aren’t all that different from those of the ’61 version. Yet it never feels like a copy, even if stylistically and tonally the two aren’t all that far apart. Mostly, the movie affirms what a great work of popular art West Side Story is by pointedly not fixing what ain’t broke: The arrangements of Leonard Bernstein’s score are very little altered from their brilliant original orchestration, and Justin Peck’s exuberant choreography doesn’t stray far from Jerome Robbins’ template.

The setting remains the late 1950s, and there’s no attempt to interpolate more “modern” pop sounds or movement styles like the widely disliked Broadway revival that opened just before COVID shutdown last year. Even the digital sleight-of-hand that turns back the clock on the Upper West Side (whose imminent gentrification is a major point in Tony Kushner’s discreetly more-nuanced take on the stage book) ultimately adds not “realism” so much as a different kind of hyperreality, not too distant from the earlier film’s hothouse soundstage abstraction of urban life.

There’s more ethnic accuracy to the casting this time, more critical detail to the central racial conflict (as well as specificity to the “tomboy” character Anybodys being non-binary), as well as a fair amount of unsubtitled Spanish dialogue that’s easy enough for nonspeakers to suss in context. But the basics remain unaltered: This is Romeo and Juliet de la slums, the war between street-gang delinquents rather than rival aristocratic houses. As has so often been the case (esp. in 1961), the young lovers are the least compelling thing about West Side Story, because they remain blandly conceived ingenues (esp. Rachel Zegler’s pure-voiced Maria), and because Ansel Elgort is a bit miscast as Tony. Looking like a smirking young Val Kilmer, he seems more slumming Ivy Leaguer than reformed j.d., particularly alongside Mike Faist’s poignantly angry runt of a Riff—a guy who might turn into Ratso Rizzo if he lives that long, which of course he won’t.

Nonetheless, you can’t help but feel a familiar thrill when Elgort sings “Something’s Coming,” or Maria the playful “I Feel Pretty” (though that number again feels oddly placed, coming after the tragic “Rumble”). The supporting turns are first-rate, particularly Ariana DeBose’s Anita and David Alvarez’s Bernardo. Rita Moreno (1961’s Oscar-winning Anita) is fine in the gender-swapped role of Valentina, the storekeeper who employs and protects Tony. But one must also grudgingly admit that as heartfelt as the performance and the gesture of that casting is, it’s also a sole area in which this otherwise zero-fat version seems a tad belabored, giving her material that spells out the script’s accommodations to a woke era.

Such relatively minor quibbles aside, however, Spielberg’s West Side Story may be the best movie musical in years, one that offers considerable joy in itself, as well as the joys of what it’s not: Cut/shot like a music video, a flimsy “jukebox” excuse to exploit a preexisting pop song catalog, or burdened by the compositional limitations (which are admittedly nirvana to some) of Broadway wallpaper hangers from Lloyd Webber to Larson to all those Disney guys. Those things have their place. But let’s hope generations largely raised on musical-theater Spam recognize caviar when they taste it, and demand more.

The other big prestige releases this weekend offer much more mixed rewards. Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos (which opens in theaters Fri/10, then goes to Amazon Prime Dec. 21) imagines a week in the early 1950s when tensions behind the scenes on I Love Lucy boiled over. That’s partly because Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) has just found out she’s pregnant with her second child, news bound to trigger panic among the show’s skittish sponsors. But then there’s also fear induced by her faint, long-ago association with the Communist Party surfacing in gossip at the height of “Red Scare” hysteria. Combined with the usual hectic rehearsal/production schedule, antagonism between the show’s writers, and other issues, it’s a nerve-rattling week that Sorkin attempts to spin into nostalgic yet barbed seriocomedy.

Being may be an eye-opener for those oblivious to the widely disseminated knowledge that in real life Lucille Ball was closer to the caustic tough broad of her prior film roles than wacky Lucy Ricardo; that Desi Arnaz (played here by Javier Bardem) was a peacemaker on-set but a compulsive philanderer everywhere else; that Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) and William Frawley (J.K. Simmons) couldn’t stand each other. It’s the kind of film that assumes prickly people yelling at each other for two hours is high entertainment…rather than something that will simply leech our pleasure from one great, simple thing (I Love Lucy) by painting its creators as a nest of vipers.

As ever, Sorkin can’t help spelling every last emotion and message out in nonstop dialogue, which may have worked for The West Wing or several of his prior film projects, but here simply erodes further any sense of period veracity. (Which a number of clumsy factual errors exacerbates.) He also has the bad idea of inserting Reds-style interview commentary from central participants several decades later, only they’re not the real people either, just actors (like Linda Lavin) playing them. Sorkin was presumably attracted by the McCarthy era political issue, but he can’t make it central—apolitical Ball once “checked a box” on a voting ballot simply to please a socialist-leaning uncle, no more.

Bardem feels apt enough, but the formidable Kidman is miscast. Perhaps Cate Blanchett (originally set for the role) might have come closer to Ball’s special fizz, an admittedly daunting task. But this fine actress has none of her character’s facility for loopy physical comedy. It is perhaps unkind but accurate to observe that if the recreations staged here were representative of what I Love Lucy was actually like, that show would have flopped—instead of being the program that more than any other turned Americans into television watchers. With its boring arguments about what’s funny, and expensive but unconvincing period flavor, Being the Ricardos feels like exactly the misfired prestige cable movie it is, a promising talent package that just doesn’t gel.

More satisfying to a point is the latest from Sean Baker, who from his early, under-radar features though the recent successes of Tangerine and The Florida Project has carved out a distinct niche chronicling the more marginal stratas of 21st century American society. Red Rocket stars SF native Simon Rex, who actually got his start in the adult film industry a quarter-century ago, as XXX legend Mikey, returning to his podunk Texas hometown after many years in Los Angeles.

We quickly glean that Mikey is a motormouthed hustler unaccustomed to telling the truth about himself—let alone about whatever recently burnt bridges landed him back on former costar and still-legal wife Lexi (Bree Elrod)’s doorstep after a long eastward bus ride. She’s not at all happy to see him; nor is her crusty, TV-addict mother Lil (Brenda Deiss). Nonetheless, they reluctantly let him occupy the couch for a night, then longer… even as Mikey shows no signs of getting a job, contributing to the rent, or doing any of the other upstanding things he’s sworn to really do this time. They know he’s a con artist. Still, they can’t help being a little conned, yet again.

Mikey experiences an epiphany upon laying eyes on Rayleen aka Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a freckle-faced, all-American beauty found behind a donut shop counter. He thinks she might be his own personal Traci Lords, albeit “legal as an eagle” at age 17—a nymphet he can promote into porn stardom, while orchestrating his own triumphant re-entry to that industry. But, of course, there are complications.

Baker’s films invariably have a rich sense of place, and the dusty oil town of Texas City here is no exception. He gets humor from his hapless characters (largely played by non-professionals) sans condescension, conveying how poverty, desperation, and enterprise (that last represented by Brittney Rodriquez as the neighborhood drug queenpin) play out for them, minus any sermonizing.

But while offbeat and frequently energizing, Red Rocket lacks the startling insight into an unfamiliar milieu that Tangerine had, not to mention the heart that made The Florida Project so memorable. Rex is something of a wonder, but his manic energy alone can’t sustain 129 minutes—or fail to wear us out over that span, as it does his welcome amongst the locals here. Son brings a sparky naturalism to her role, but Raylee remains more girl-next-door male fantasy than a credible human being. Despite an amusing subplot or two, the film still ends up feeling like an overextended anecdote that leaves us, and Mikey, right where we started. It was almost impossible to believe that great-looking Tangerine was shot on an iPhone; Baker’s latest ultimately seems so slight, maybe it would benefit from being watched on one.

West Side Story and Being the Ricardos open in theaters nationwide this Fri/10. Red Rocket opens December 17.

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