Steven Spielberg

West Side Story

16/12/21

Cineworld, Edinburgh

Though an admitted fan of musicals, Steven Spielberg has never attempted one: until now, that is.

It’s perhaps typical of the man that he’s taken on one of the most acclaimed musicals in history and he’s quick to point out that this reboot isn’t based on Robert Wise and Jerome Robin’s 1961 motion picture, but on the original stage version, created by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents. In essence, the great director hasn’t changed so very much. The setting is still New York, some time in the 1950s, but here, we’re made aware from the opening sequence that the neighbourhood is undergoing major demolition in order to accommodate the building of the swishy new Lincoln Centre. The place is already doomed.

Spielberg has also settled some worries from the original film version, where white actors wore brown makeup in order to look ‘authentically’ Puerto Rican. He’s also added a non-binary character called Anybodys (Iris Menas) and has left some stretches of Spanish dialogue un-subtitled, relying on non-Spanish-speaking audiences being able to work out what’s actually being said. But mostly he’s left it to the sweeping cinematography of Hanusz Kaminsky and of course that series of solid gold songs to carry us through a world of finger-clicking dance routines and declarations of eternal love.

There’s part of me that wishes he’d tinkered a bit more than he has. But still…

I won’t waste time on needless plot details. If you’re familiar with Romeo and Juliet, you pretty much know what to expect.

The Romeo figure here is Tony (Ansel Elgort), recently released from prison after one punchup too many and literally towering over his diminutive love interest, Maria (Rachel Zegler). But of course, Tony is a former member of The Jets gang, while Maria’s brother, Bernardo (David Alvarez), is the leader of their Puerto Rican rivals, The Sharks, who hate all Jets as a matter of principle – and the feeling is mutual.

It can only end in bloodshed.

West Side Story 2021 is handsomely mounted and uniformly well acted – Ariana DeBose as Anita is a particular standout – and it’s also lovely to see Rita Moreno (who played Anita in the 1961 film) cast here as Valentina, the owner of the local drug store, from where she delivers her own haunting version of Tonight. But the film is at its best during the big ensemble numbers – a rousing rendition of America, played out on the busy streets of New York is fabulous and the climactic rumble between the two gangs, in a deserted salt warehouse is also visually striking.

What’s more, Spielberg even manages to make the cheesy I Feel Pretty – a song that has previously brought me out in hives – much more palatable, by the simple expedient of setting it in the flashy department store where Maria and her girl friends work – as cleaners.

So why does the film fail to thrill me? It could be, I suppose, that there are simply too few surprises. Perhaps if I were seeing the story for the very first time, I’d be more excited, but apart from some judicious airbrushing and those magnificent production values, I’m suffering from a bad case of ‘seen it all before.’ Viewers who weren’t even born in 1961 will doubtless have an entirely different view of it.

In the end, I admire it… but I don’t love it.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Gremlins

06/12/19

If ever I were given the task of choosing the grimmest Christmas-themed movie in existence, Gremlins would have to be a strong contender for the title. This weird yet strangely entertaining fantasy, with its back story of a dead dad stuck up a chimney and dressed as Santa Claus, is (unbelievably) thirty-five years old – and here’s the anniversary re-release to prove it. Produced by Steven Speilberg shortly after the success of ET had powered him to prominence, it’s directed by his protégée Joe Dante.

Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Ashton) is an inventor of (mostly useless) kitchen gadgets. It’s coming on Christmas and he finds himself in an unfamiliar town, desperate to purchase a last minute gift for his ‘kid,’ Billy (Zachary Gilligan). The fact that Billy is in his twenties, with a dull but responsible job in a bank, feels decidedly odd. Why not make him a teenage boy? Surely that would be more convincing?

Anyway, in a bizarre little shop on a quiet back street, Randall buys Gizmo – a cute little animal called a ‘Mogwai’ – and he comes away with just three care instructions. He must never expose Gizmo to bright light, never get him wet and, most importantly of all, he must never NEVER feed him after midnight. (This third instruction is annoyingly vague. At what time after midnight is it OK to start feeding him again? Go figure.)

Of course, Billy blithely disregards all the instructions, whereupon the little ‘Wonderful Life’-style town he lives in finds itself overrun with voracious, scaly beasties who seem determined to over-indulge in all the vices associated with the festive season, half destroying the town in the process.

I haven’t seen this film since its cinematic release in 1984 and my memories of it were that it was ‘quite scary,’ but, in 2019, it plays more like the the Muppets on acid. It’s great fun provided you can overlook the sheer unlikelihood of the plot and the inescapable fact that the majority of characters here act like no real person ever would in such a situation. Also, there’s fun to be had spotting things you might not have been quite so aware of first time around. Isn’t that Steven Spielberg making a silent cameo as an inventor at a convention? Look how young Corey Feldman is! (I’d like to kid myself this is his screen debut but according to IMDB, it’s actually his 28th.) And wait… that hopelessly inept local cop with the oddly shaped nose. Isn’t that Jonathan Banks, AKA Mike Ehrmantraut from Breaking Bad? With hair! It is, you know! (And just for the record, this is his 48th screen appearance.)

Like many films from the 80s, there are elements that don’t pass muster now. Making the proprietor of the shop where Gizmo is found, an ‘exotic,’ half-blind, pipe-smoking, Chinese man, for instance, is not something that any responsible filmmakers would attempt in this day and age. But there’s also plenty to enjoy, not least the extended sequence where Billy’s Mom, Lynn (Frances Lee McCain), takes on five Gremlins that have invaded her house and uses a range of electrical kitchen implements to despatch them. I love the fact that the evil invaders personify everything that’s wrong with seasonal over-indulgence. And Chris Walas’s scaly creations – while representing what was state-of-the art animatronics thirty five years ago, and now looking a littly bit shonky – are still never less than a delight.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Ready Player One

31/03/18

If ever there was a man to qualify as ‘World’s Greatest Living Film Director,’ Steven Spielberg would surely be a strong contender for the title. Few movie makers have his longevity – his first cinematic release, Duel, was released in 1971. Even fewer can boast his extensive range. Here is a man who is happy to film pure popcorn crowd pleasers like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Jurassic Park, but who is equally at home helming powerful dramas of the ilk of Munich or Schindler’s List. Recently the recipient of Empire Magazine’s ‘Legend of Our Lifetime’ Award, it’s hardly surprising that few people have bothered to put up voices of dissent. He really is that accomplished. With his latest release, he takes on the world of virtual reality gaming and it would have been so easy to come a cropper here, an older man desperately trying to be ‘down with the kids.’ But, as ever, Spielberg passes his self-appointed test with flying colours.

Set in the year 2045, the story is set in a dystopian vision of America (has there ever been an optimistic cinematic view of its future, I wonder?). Most of the population is addicted to virtual gaming and, like our hero, Wade (Tye Sheridan), spend nearly all of their leisure hours in a pixellated environment called The Oasis. Wade competes there using his more handsome avatar, Parzival, and he’s not just playing to escape from the drudgery of his life, oh no. He’s in search of three special keys, hidden there by the Oasis’s late creator, Halliday (Mark Rylance). The finder of those keys will inherit his world and the billions of dollars it generates in revenue.

Whilst in the Oasis, Wade regularly interacts with the avatars of gamer friends who he has never actually met in real life. Then he meets a new one, Art3emis (Olivia Cooke), who, he soon realises, is somebody he really would like to know better. Their introduction – during a riotous vehicle chase – sets the tone for the story that follows and makes The Fast and the Furious look like a Sunday drive in the suburbs. In the midst of all the excitement, Wade is blissfully unaware that he has a major adversary in the real world. Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) is a ruthless businessman, intent on securing the Oasis for himself and ready to go to any lengths to eliminate his competitors.

In terms of plot, that’s pretty much all you need to know. Suffice to say that Spielberg and his team have concocted a dazzling, fast-paced riot of sound and fury, with visual references to so many of Spielberg’s movie influences (plus several images from his own films) that you will be constantly trying to spot them all. Some are obvious, and actually contribute to the story, while others are onscreen for the briefest of glimpses. If ever a film demanded repeat viewings, this is the one – if only to allow the geeks in the audience to tick the various references off their list. If I may be allowed to single out one particular  sequence for praise, it’s the extended homage to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

Okay, so this is definitely one to go on the ‘popcorn’ side of Spielberg’s resumé, but oh my goodness, what succulent popcorn it is! After the relatively lacklustre BFG, and the rather straight laced The Post, this puts him back where he belongs, as the foremost purveyor of cinematic wonder. Where will he go next? Well, that’s anybody’s guess, but I would venture to suggest that, close to fifty years since his low budget debut, Spielberg’s well seems a long way from running dry.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

The BFG

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22/07/16

It sounded like a marriage made in heaven – Steven Spielberg takes on one of Roald Dahl’s best-loved tales, with a screenplay by ET author Melissa Mathison (who recently died of cancer and to whom this film is respectfully dedicated). And there’s surely much to admire in this handsomely mounted, big screen production. Newcomer Ruby Barnhill, who plays the role of Sophie, is leagues away from the usual cheesy Hollywood starlet and, as the titular big friendly giant, Mark Rylance is perfectly charming, his features projecting a whole range of emotions to camera. And yet… there’s something curiously inert about this film. Every image might look like something you could put in a gilt frame but the story itself is… dare I say it? A bit dull. There’s none of the peril that you’ll usually find in a Dahl story; indeed, the plot here is thin and, at times, downright illogical. And then, of course, there’s Spielberg’s inevitable proclivity for the sentimental, something that Dahl (bless him) could never have been accused of.

In 1980s London, young Sophie dwells in a peculiar sort of orphanage. In the small hours of the morning, she looks out of the window and spots a giant wandering the alleyways of the city and, because she has seen him, he grabs her and takes her away to ‘Giant Country,’ where she quickly discovers that this big friendly giant is, in fact, a bit of a runt, constantly bullied by other, bigger giants. She accompanies him to his work, where he catches dreams and stores them in bottles – it’s never really clear why.

The audience this afternoon is largely made up of youngsters but it’s quickly apparent by all the restless trips to the toilet that the film isn’t really grabbing them. An extended farting sequence at Buckingham Palace has them laughing but it’s over much too quickly,  and they’re soon back to fidgeting and chatting. I’m afraid I am in total agreement with them. Spielberg is the closest you could reasonably expect to provide  a capable set of hands at the tiller of any celluloid voyage but this particular journey soon finds itself becalmed and that’s a genuine shame.

3 stars

Philip Caveney