Review: ‘West Side Story’ remake technically sound but too familiar

West Side Story / 20th Century Studios

If you are interested in watching a remake of a remake, you could do worse than director Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story.”

The musical film is a remake of the the 1961 production, which airs at 7 p.m. Friday on Turner Classic Movies. That movie, of course, was an adaption of the 1957 Broadway musical with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by Arthur Laurents.

The Broadway smash that inspired the movie was itself a modernized take on Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliet.”

Spielberg retained Bernstein’s music, Sondheim’s lyrics, Laurents’ book, as well as Jerome Robbins’ choreography, from the original movie, but had Tony Kushner revamp the script.

So, the story is well worn, but still romantic, dramatic, and oh so familiar. Spielberg does shake things up a bit by switching the singers of some of the songs, and altering a role for Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her role as Anita in the 1961 original. However, if you are familiar with the play or the original movie, there’s really nothing that will surprise or stun you with this faithful redo.

There are no major issues with the film other than the fact that Ansel Elgort’s performance and singing as Tony is a little mundane compared to several dynamic performances by his co-stars.

Expect Ariana DeBose to be nominated for an Oscar for her performance as Anita, and don’t be surprised if Moreno doesn’t pick up an Oscar nod herself for her part as candy-store owner Valentina.

As rival gang leaders, David Alvarez as Bernardo and Mike Faist as Riff are veteran broadway performers like DeBose, and they dance and sing circles around Elgort, who isn’t bad, but just not up to the standard set by the rest of the cast with their Broadway experience.

Last but not least is Rachel Zeglar as Maria, the 18-year-old Puerto Rican girl who falls in love with Elgort’s white-bread Tony. She is absolutely enchanting in the part as the lovely, feisty young woman who captures Tony’s heart. I’d venture that she could be in contention for a Best Actress nomination.

Disney has already cast Zeglar as Snow White in its live action remake of its first animated classic from 1937, which is a bit ironic for the American-Columbian actress. She will probably be outstanding in the part.

The movie is beautifully staged by Spielberg, and his longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski shot another gorgeous movie, but the lack of surprises left me a little bit bored.

To be fair, had Spielberg altered the movie too much, I’d likely be complaining, as well.

Which begs the question, why a director who could make just about any film he wanted, exhaust so much time, energy and effort to remake what many feel was an almost perfect movie?

“West Side Story” is a quality movie and should be a treat for those who haven’t seen the original. However, those more familiar with the 1961 version might have varying opinions.

(PG-13) 2 hr. 36 min.
Grade: B+

A Boy Called Christmas (Netflix)

Kristen Wiig and Henry Lawfull in A Boy Called Christmas / Netflix

“A Boy Called Christmas” is British fantasy/adventure picture, playing on Netflix, that tells one version of the origin of young boy who grows up to be Father Christmas or Santa Claus, as we Americans like to call him.

The film is based on the children’s book of the same name by Matt Haig. While aspects of the movie will remind you of “Princess Bride” and “Edward Scissorhands” with a storyteller guiding three youngsters — as well as the viewer — through the ups and downs of the adventure, that’s not at all a bad thing. The familiarity is comforting and charming.

The tone of the movie might also remind you of the more recent “Chronicles of Narnia” movie series, which again isn’t original, but then again not drawback either.

The film’s framing sequence features Academy Award-winning actress Maggie Smith (Prof. McGonagall in the “Harry Potter” films) as Aunt Ruth, who entertains three children, whose mother recently passed, with a Christmas story about young Nikolas who attempts to save his father’s life after they both fall into jeopardy from a band of hunters seeking the land of Elfhelm, which can only be seen by true believers like Nikolas.

As Nikolas becomes entangled with the e,lves, the adventure turns madcap as he gathers two helpers Blitzen the reindeer, and a mischievous fairy named Truth Pixie, who always tells the truth no matter how much it hurts, to help him on his quest.

The film directed by Gil Kenan from a screenplay by him and Ol Parker is a rousing but melancholy adventure tinged with hope and sorrow. The film doesn’t shy away from sadness, but overall its theme is joyful.

The pristine cinematography by Zac Nicholson is a sumptuous feast for the eyes. Who ever thought snow and ice could look so thrilling and even inviting.

While the movie really offers nothing new for anyone who has read or viewed much fantasy material, the film is so well crafted that its familiarity is comforting rather than off-putting.

The movie might skew a bit too young for teens and adults who no longer enjoy the charms of children’s stories, but the movie has enough heart, humor, and adventure to capture the imagination of younger kids and maybe older folks who are still a childlike at heart.

(PG) 1 hr. 46 min.
Grade: B-

8-bit Christmas (HBO Max)

Steve Zahn, Bellaluna Resnick, and June Diane Raphael in 8-Bit Christmas / Nine Line Cinema

“8-bit Christmas,” the new HBO Max holiday film starring Neil Patrick Harris, is a modern remake of 1983’s “A Christmas Story.”

Just switch the decade from the 1940s to the 1980s and substitute a Nintendo video game system for the Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model BB gun, and there you go.

That’s more of an observation than a criticism. After all both the 1961 and current versions of “West Side Story” are updates of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Spielberg’s remake is likely to win several Oscars next year.

The same can’t be said of “8-bit Christmas,” but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit enjoying the movie. A few scenes made me laugh out loud, but then again I’m a sucker for “Our Gang” type humor.

As exaggerated as the movie is — don’t we all spice up our childhood stories just a wee bit — the plot truly nails some of the struggles we all dealt with in some form or fashion while growing up squarely on the head.

Harris is warm yet acerbic as the narrator Jake Doyle, and Winslow Fegley is a naturalistic find as Jake when the character was a boy. June Diane Raphael is great as a harried mom and teacher, who is trying to hold it together during the Christmas season, and Steve Zahn is a funny caricature of a dad with all his sit-com ways.

The conclusion of the movie is heartwarming and family affirming, which is a sentiment close to most people’s hearts this time of year.

By no means is “8-bit Christmas” a must-watch, but I didn’t regret screening the movie either.

(PG) 1 hr. 37 min.
Grade: C

  New in Local Theaters

West Side Story (watch trailer) / (PG-13) 2 hr. 36 min. / AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Pinnacle, Malco Towne, Skylight

Don’t Look Up (watch trailer) / (R) 2 hr. 25 min. / Malco Razorback, Malco Pinnacle

National Champions (watch trailer) / (R) 1 hr. 56 min. / (PG-13) 1 hr. 37 min. / AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback

Classic Corner – 3 Godfathers

John Wayne, Dorothy Ford, and Hank Worden in 3 Godfathers / Argosy Pictures

John Ford is one of the greatest directors of all time, and even his minor efforts are worth watching because of his craftsmanship.

“3 Godfathers” isn’t one of Ford’s best films. It’s not even one of his best Westerns, but it remains an entertaining bit of sentimentalism that fits in well with the Christmas season. Turner Classic Movies airs the movie at 1 p.m. Saturday.

The story, adapted by Ford from a Peter B. Kyne novella of the same name, features three cattle rustlers on the lam after robbing the town bank of Welcome, Ariz. A posse led by Sheriff Buck Sweet (Ward Bond) chases the culprits Robert (John Wayne), William (Harry Carey Jr.), and Pedro (Pedro Armendariz) into the desert.

The film is the debut of Harry Carey Jr. as William. Wayne was friends of his dad and used the younger Carey in many of his films over the next two decades, including “The Searchers,” perhaps Ford’s best Western.

In that film, Wayne pays tribute to the elder Carey in a shot framed through a doorway with Wayne in semi-silhouette holding his right forearm with his left hand. It was the signature stance of the elder Carey, who was a stunt man and silent-film Western star.

Ford and Wayne dedicated “3 Godfathers” to Carey, who died in 1947 and starred in Ford’s first adaption of Kyne’s novella “Marked Men” in 1919. No known copies of “Marked Men” exists.

The trio of owlhoots lose their water from a bullet hole in their water bag and then lose their horses in a sandstorm. Coming upon what appears to be a camp, the trio find a woman ready to give birth in the back of a wagon. Of course she dies after the three help deliver the baby, but not before getting the crooks to promise to take care of the child, which she names Robert William Pedro.

William, who was shot in the shoulder during the escape, likens their predicament to the Three Magi in the Nativity Story. The connection is loose. I guess the Magi did protect the baby Jesus from Herod by not informing the ruler of the babe’s whereabouts. The trio of bank robbers take a much more active role in securing the safety of little Robert William Pedro as they try to get him to the nearest town named, of course, New Jerusalem.

As stated earlier “3 Godfathers” isn’t among Ford or Wayne’s best films, but it is an entertaining movie if you enjoy Wayne, Bond, and even a young Ben Johnson as a member of the posse.

The movie does take a sentimental turn after depicting some dire circumstances, but to me that works in the movie’s favor, and is a part of its charm.