West Side Story (2021)

I have a running joke about Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story with a cyber friend of mine. It seems he, my friend, was looking forward to it. I wasn’t necessarily. I kept reminding my friend that Steven Spielberg produced CATS.  That musical, released around this same time of year, was awful, just awful.

Fortunately, Mr. Spielberg didn’t just produce this modern West Side Story. He also directed it. I can give you my overall opinion before you read any further.  It’s better than CATS.

It has always been thought that Mr. Spielberg had a knack for directing musicals.  Our first inkling was the ballroom dance sequence in 1979’s 1941. The director staged a kinetic dance number and a fictional re-creation of the Zoot Suit riots.  The second clue was the opening sequence of 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a scene-setter for that movie.

However, for his first full-fledged musical, Mr. Spielberg decided to mount a brand new production of Jerome Robbins’ original Broadway play dealing with a modern version of the Romeo and Juliet story. Unlike the 1961 version directed by Robbins and Robert Wise, Spielberg gives his story some context, providing this writer with the grounding the story needed.

Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner, who previously collaborated with the director on Munich and Lincoln, set the film in the mid to late 1950s.  The area where the future Lincoln Center would be built was being razed, and inhabitants were being moved out. The neighborhood was once heavily Irish and Polish. Still, as the film opens, the area has become primarily Hispanic and, specifically, Puerto Rican. We come to learn that there’s a battle for turf between the Jets, who are white, and the Sharks, who are Puerto Rican.

Using the music of Leonard Bernstein, the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, and the choreography of Justin Peck, Spielberg introduces the Jets and the Sharks to his audience in a much more believable fashion than did Wise and Robbins. You understand right away why these two gangs are fighting a futile battle both are destined to lose.

Ansel Elgort plays Tony, a former co-founder of the Jets who now works in a drug store after a year in prison for a previous gang fight.  Tony professes that he wants no more of the gang life and is content with working for Valentina (Rita Moreno), the Hispanic owner of the drug store. The other founder of the Jets is Riff (Mike Faist), the current leader. The Jets are feuding with the Sharks, whose leader is boxer Bernardo Vasquez (David Alvarez). Unlike the 1961 film, the Sharks don’t appear to be outnumbered by the Jets, and when the Jets violate the Sharks’ turf, a rumble ensues only to be broken up by Lt. Schrank (Corey Stoll) and Officer Krupke (Brian D’Arcy James).  Later that night, there’s a community dance. Bernardo warns his sister, Maria (Rachel Zegler), that he’ll be vigilant about any gringos who want to dance with her.

Still, I guess you can’t have everything. The musical and dance set pieces all work for me. However, the characterization of the dance organizer in this film doesn’t stand up to the characterization of John Astin in the 1961 film. Maria’s date for the dance, Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera), is played a little differently in this film. It was better but still left something to be desired.

I get it. These stories, both in 1961 and 2021, are dance musicals; so, there’s a suspension of belief necessary to follow the story. I viewed the 1961 film before viewing the Spielberg film. I found it anachronistic and, frankly, a little bit silly. In this respect, Spielberg’s film is much, much better. Spielberg’s film makes the love affair of Tony and Maria a tad more believable than the 1961 film. Yet, I still find the romance, taking place over two days, somewhat far-fetched, although admittedly possible.

Bottom line: Spielberg brings dramatic tension to a story that is not wholly reliant on music and dance, and I found the story much more believable than the 1961 film. Rated PG-13 for some strong violence, strong language, thematic content, suggestive material, and brief smoking, you should enjoy Mr. Spielberg’s official entry into the genre if you like dance musicals.

Trailer

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Earlier this year, Lin Manuel Miranda teamed with director Jon M. Chu to adapt his Broadway play, In The Heights. It was a musical tour de force of a summer musical which introduced bright new stars, fabulous music, and a remarkable story about a neighborhood in transition and the people who live there. For whatever reason, it was largely ignored. In promoting the film, Miranda talked about how his play cum movie was partially inspired by the work of another young playwright. That playwright was Jonathan Larson, and the play was Rent.

Regardless of how his film was received, Miranda didn’t complain. He didn’t have time. He had other irons in the fire.  One of those irons was a film about that other young playwright, Larson. Miranda had a story to tell about how Larson dealt with being a struggling young playwright, all the while juggling a faltering romance, a distancing friendship, and all matter of turmoil swirling around him while trying to get his play, Superbia, produced.

Miranda, the producer, teamed with producer Julie Oh and executive producers Brian Glazer, Ron Howard, and screenwriter Steven Levenson (who wrote the screenplay earlier this year for the dismal Dear Evan Hansen). He assigned himself as a first-time director to bring this adaptation of Larson’s autobiographical play to the screen. Miranda, who had masterfully adapted his own music for In The Heights, has done the same for Larson’s music in tick, tick… BOOM!

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Those of you sitting around waiting for him to appear or not in a forthcoming movie about a web-slinger are missing the boat. The he in him is Andrew Garfield, who puts on a masterful performance as Jonathan Larson. I don’t know about anybody else, but I never realized that Garfield could sing. Sing he does, for if you read the credits as I usually do, you’ll find that Garfield performed all the songs in the film.  He was ably backed by Alexandra Shipp, who played Susan, his dancer girlfriend, who is dealing with her own career choices, and a boyfriend unable to have a difficult conversation. The voice of Susan is played by Vanessa Hudgins in Larson’s play, Superbia.

Wait, what?

Yes, you see, Miranda has staged a musical within a musical because Superbia is the device that drives the plot of tick, tick… BOOM! forward. It takes a little bit to realize what is happening but when you do, the drama that unfolds before our eyes is deft and compelling without being maudlin. Robin de Jesus plays Larson’s childhood friend, Michael. He and Jonathan have known each other since the age of eight, and now Michael is dealing with Jon’s crisis of turning 30 —this was a thing in the 20th century— while dealing with a personal crisis of his own.

De Jesús gives such a heartfelt performance that it makes me want to cry every time I think about it. (Those are tears of joy and trepidation all mixed up together.) Two other noteworthy performances from the main cast. The first is Joshua Henry (Roger), whose powerful voice propels many of the songs in Superbia. The other is Jonathan Marc Schwartz, who plays Ira Weitzman, the owner of the rehearsal space who takes a chance on Larsen’s apparently over-produced musical.

The film is populated with a variety of cameos in the movie. You’ll be sitting there enjoying the story when you realize… wait a minute… isn’t that…?  It doesn’t matter.  Most, if not all, of the cameos are identified in the credits at the film’s end.  Two significant “guest stars” of note: Judith Light, who plays Jon’s agent Rosa Stevens and a nearly unrecognizable Bradley Whitford playing playwright Stephen Sondheim. Whitford plays the role so understated that you hardly realize that it’s Whitford in there. Oh, and see if you spot Miranda’s Hitchcock moment in the film.

I’ve so enjoyed Lin Manuel Miranda’s productions this year that I’m eagerly anticipating the release of Encanto, which is premiering in theatres next Wednesday.

tick, tick… BOOM!, as far as I’m concerned, only suffers from a tad bit of confusion from what story is being told, but once you catch onto the story structure, it’s smooth sailing until the end.  Rated PG-13 for some strong language, some suggestive material, and drug references, tick, tick… BOOM! played in theatres and is now appearing on Netflix.

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21 Bridges

I first planned to see this movie in July when it was first scheduled. For whatever reason, STX, the distributor, decided to postpone its release until September. Later, they postponed it again to this weekend against movies like Frozen II and It’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. So, despite my excitement at wanting to see a crime flick headlined and co-produced by the star of Black Panther, Chadwick Bozeman, my expectations fell to a low.

Bozeman is André Davis, the son of a decorated NYPD police officer killed in the line of duty. 19 years after his father’s death, Davis is under investigation by Internal Affairs because he’s been involved in a lot of officer-involved shootings.

One night, two dudes raid a drug gang’s cache at a restaurant in Brooklyn. However, instead of finding 30 kilos of cocaine, they find 300. They decide to take 50, but before they can get away, four policemen show up at the door to the restaurant. One of the dudes, Ray Jackson (Taylor Kitsch), rather aggressively takes out of the four cops, but backup arrives, and Jackson takes them out as well. Jackson and his partner, Michael Trujillo (Stephan James), leave Brooklyn and head over to Manhattan to meet up with their contact.

Meanwhile, back in Brooklyn, precinct captain McKenna (J.K. Simmons) drafts Davis to find and dispatch Jackson and Trujillo with extreme prejudice to spare, as we saw in the trailer, the policemen’s families the trauma of “trials, appeals and parole hearings.“ It would seem that someone like Davis with his reputation would be the perfect judge, jury, and executioner.

The FBI tries to take over the case, but Davis and McKenna convince them to give Davis until morning to find the shooters. Davis has a plan: shut down all transportation in and out of Manhattan. He also has lots of questions: questions about why things went down the way they did.  So, he and a narcotics detective, Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller), set out to find the two shooters before dawn breaks.

Director Brian Kirk revs up the tension from the moment the drug heist begins, and he doesn’t let go until the movie ends.  That’s not easy to do when he’s directing from the script by Adam Mervis and Matthew Michael Carnahan. Not that the script is weak, but it’s somewhat predictable. However, Kirk has some advantages from the score by Henry Jackman and Alex Belcher and the stellar cast headed up by Boseman, Simmons, Miller, Kitsch, and James.  There are some other recognizable faces including Keith David and Alexander Siddig. The cinematography by Paul Cameron is excellent, not burdened with a lot of CGI, and there’s a stellar performance by the city of Philadelphia as Manhattan.

This is one of the first productions from Joe and Anthony Russo’s AGBO Films; they brought the script to Boseman, who also produced the movie along with his partner, Logan Coles and others.

Unfortunately, this film opened against Frozen II and It’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, but hopefully, you’ll head back to the theatre and take in 21 Bridges. It’s a welcome treat for adults.

Trailer:

Marvel’s Hero Project

the cover of Issue #1 of Marvel's Hero Project featuring Jordan Reeves

I’ve watched several things this morning since Disney Plus went live but the most impactful was Marvel’s Hero Project. The first episode about Jordan, a young girl who was born without a portion of her left arm, was inspiring. Her narrative immediately brought to mind the following nerd reference: IDIC. That’s a Star Trek phrase meaning Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.

If the rest of the series is as awesome as this episode, it’ll be one of the best things to grace this service.

They’ll be a lot of talk about The Mandalorian and The World According to Jeff Goldblum and there should be, but if you miss out on Marvel’s Hero Project, you’ll be missing out on something that can lift your spirits any time you watch it.

Holiday Egg Nog

Ingredients

  • 12 large eggs
  • one 12-oz container of Domino Quick Dissolve Superfine Sugar
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 half-gallon of Maple Hill Creamery Organic Whole Milk, divided
  • 2 tablespoons of McCormick Extra Rich Pure Vanilla Extract (a/k/a “Small Batch”)
  • 1 teaspoon of McCormick Gourmet Organic Ground Nutmeg
  • 1 pint heavy (whipping) cream
  • Additional nutmeg, optional

Instructions

  1. In a heavy saucepan, whisk together eggs, sugar and salt.
  2. Gradually add 4 cups milk.
  3. Cook and stir over low heat until a thermometer reads 160°-165°, 30-35 minutes.
    Do not allow to boil.
  4. Immediately transfer to a large bowl.
  5. Stir in vanilla, nutmeg and remaining milk. 
  6. Place bowl in an ice-water bath, stirring until milk mixture is cool.
    (If mixture separates, process in a blender until smooth.) 
  7. Refrigerate, covered, until cold, at least 3 hours.
  8. To serve, beat cream until soft peaks form.
  9. Whisk gently into cooled milk mixture.
  10. If desired, sprinkle with additional nutmeg before serving.

Tips

  • Eggnog may be stored, covered, in the refrigerator for several days.
    Whisk it before serving.
  • If you’re entertaining the 21-and-over crowd, spike this easy eggnog recipe with bourbon or dark rum.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold

Perhaps this would be better if your kids reviewed this movie, but for some unknown reason, I was intrigued when I first saw the film on the release schedule. Unable to catch it when it was first released, it’s now on home video; so I’ve given it a viewing.

Based on the children’s educational series, Dora The Explorer, this movie isn’t afraid to be self-aware. Very early on, Dora (Isabela Moner) brakes the fourth wall and addresses the audience a couple of times to the bewilderment of her father Cole (Michael Peña) and his wife Elena (Eva Longoria).  They are explorers who have been living in the jungles of Peru with Dora. Cole and Elena figure out the location of Parapata, the lost Incan city of gold and decide to set off to find it.  However,they also choose to send Dora to Los Angeles to live with her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) and his parents, who left Peru ten years earlier.

The film plays with Dora exploring life in “the city,” which she is thoroughly unfamiliar with, and she continually embarrasses Diego with her unfamiliarity. Dora doesn’t understand because she and Diego were quite close when he lived in Peru, but Diego has grown quite accustomed to life in the city, and he’s less than enthused in guiding his cousin through the process of acclimation.

Dora and her classmates go on a field trip to a museum, and when she wanders off to explore some off-display exhibits in the museum basement, she, Diego and two other classmates are locked in a crate and shipped off to Peru by a group of mercenaries.  These mercenaries plan to use Dora to find her parents and convince them to find the lost city of Parapata.

It’s all somewhat goofy and transparent, but kids will probably enjoy it.

Trailer: