Film reviews: West Side Story | Being the Ricardos | Wrath of Man | Clifford the Big Red Dog
Steven Spielberg breathes new life into West Side Story, but Nicole Kidman’s turn as Lucille Ball in Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos falls disappointingly flat, writes Alistair Harkness
West Side Story (12A) ****
Being the Ricardos (15) ***
Wrath of Man (N/A) ***
Clifford the Big Red Dog (PG) ***
Steven Spielberg has always wanted to do a musical but apart for the opening scene of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom he’s waited until this late stage to scratch that itch. But scratch it he has with West Side Story. Not so much a remake of the 1961 film as a new adaptation of the original Broadway staging, he approaches Jerome Robbins’ Romeo and Juliet-inspired story with virtuosic flair, breathing new life into those magnificent Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim songs by setting the film’s melodramatic tale of gang warfare and racially charged romantic entanglements against the backdrop of Robert Moses’ controversial plans to reshape New York by tearing down minority populated neighbourhoods and relocating their inhabitants. Indeed, as the opening notes of Bernstein’s jazzy, finger-snapping overture fill the soundtrack, a wrecking ball is among the first images we see – an ominous symbol of the destruction that will be wrought on the young lives at the story’s centre.
Mercifully, Spielberg isn’t interested in destroying what’s come before so much as he is in finessing, deepening and celebrating what’s already there in ways that make sense for more enlightened times. Along with screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America), he brings a modern sensibility and sensitivity to issues of race, class and sexuality simply in the make-up of the cast and the linguistic realities of a story set in a city teaming with different cultures. And yet he also manages to make it feel like you’re watching a Golden Age Hollywood musical, one with dazzling routines thrillingly captured by a filmmaker steeped in movie lore.
Part of that movie lore is, of course, Spielberg’s own and it’s a joy to get it from the source. When, for instance, star-crossed lovers Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (newcomer Rachel Zegler) meet for the first time at a dance, Spielberg stages it like a scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with spotlights cutting through the bleachers to illuminate this definitive moment in their lives as if each character is experiencing first contact with an alien species, which they kind of are. Through it all Zegler is fantastic as Maria, the Puerto Rican girl whose love for the Polish-American Tony will so enrage her brother Bernardo (David Alvarez), leader of Puerto Rican street gang the Sharks and thus the sworn enemy of Tony’s former crew the Jets. She’s complimented by Ariana DeBose as Anita, her brother’s no-nonsense girlfriend, and Rita Moreno (who played Anita in the 1961 film) as Valentina, a new character whose fairy godmother-like presence allows Spielberg to pay tribute to Moreno’s legacy while bolstering the story’s theme about the need for integration.
Sadly Elgort's Tony is the weak link. He can sing and dance passably enough, but compared to the Broadway graduates Spielberg drafts in for the supporting roles (Mike Faist as Jets leader Riff is a stand-out) he doesn’t really bring the songs alive and his pseudo Brando schtick is too watered down to convince as an edgy romantic hero. But the star of the show is really Spielberg: he makes this sing.
Zeroing in on a week in the life of 1950s American sitcom superstar Lucille Ball, Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos uses the production of a single episode of Ball’s TV show I Love Lucy as a conduit to explore cancel culture in an era in which anti-Communist witch hunts posed a very real and dangerous threat to creative expression. Though you can practically hear Sorkin working himself up into a self-righteous tirade in the film's opening minutes of quick-fire dialogue, he soon widens his scope to explore the personal and artistic pressures facing Ball while working so closely with Desi Arnaz, her husband in real-life and on the show. Respectively played by Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem, Lucille and Desi have a tempestuous relationship, but Sorkin’s main interest is the extent to which they supported and understood each other creatively, if not always personally. Structured as a dramatised documentary, it’s interesting up to a point, but Sorkin isn’t always the best director of his own material and Kidman’s performance is weirdly restricted by some distracting prosthetics.
Re-teaming with Jason Statham for the first time since 2005’s gibberish Revolver, Guy Ritchie’s new film Wrath of Man is taut action movie undercut by Ritchie’s propensity for terrible dialogue. It stars Statham as a taciturn bad-ass who infiltrates a security firm as part of an elaborate plan to exact revenge for a tragedy in his past. Mercifully, Ritchie does know how to stage inventive and hard-hitting action and it’s fun to see Statham back on stripped-down, throat-punching form after all those bloated Fast and Furious movies.
Based on the Norman Bridwell kids’ picture books, Clifford the Big Red Dog is a likeable family movie in the Paddington mould, though not as charming or well made. Rendered in CGI, the titular pooch is a magical puppy that grows in proportion to the love his new owner, a lonely 12-year-old called Emily (Darby Camp), bestows upon him. Naughty dog chaos duly ensues as Emily and her feckless uncle (Jack Whitehall) try to keep the dog’s existence a secret from Emily’s over-worked mother (Sienna Guillory) while a sinister biotech company also tries to get its hands on him.
West Side Story and Clifford the Big Red Dog are in cinemas from 10 December; Being the Ricardos is on limited release from 10 December and streaming on Amazon Prime from 21 December; Wrath of Man streams on Amazon Prime from 10 December.
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