At The Movies: Spielberg's West Side Story retains the exuberance

Still from the film West Side Story starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler and more. PHOTO: THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY

West Side Story (PG13)

156 minutes, opens Jan 6, 3 stars

Three-time Oscar winner Steven Spielberg has made his passion project an update of the 1957 stage production - the one adapted into the famed 1961 movie musical.

The driving idea here is that to do justice to the stage production, it has to be set in a real New York. Key scenes, especially the ones featuring dance-sequence face-offs between the rival Sharks and Jets gangs, are filmed on location - against alleys and shopfronts.

As ideas go, it is barely enough, especially when the alleys and buildings are the idealised 1950s versions anyway.

But whether he means to or not, Spielberg's greatest contribution is to erase the legacy of brownface. The 1961 film version might be a classic, but like so many classic films, it is blotted by the use of white actors darkening their skin with make-up so as to appear more Latino.

Viewers can now enjoy the songs of Leonard Bernstein and the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim in a guilt-free package. This might sound like a trite reason, but to dismiss it would be to downplay cinema's importance as a shaper of values.

Based loosely on Shakespeare's romantic tragedy Romeo And Juliet, the story takes place in the 1950s, when two New York City gangs - the Sharks and the Jets - vie for dominance. The Sharks are Puerto Ricans and the Jets the white locals who see the migrant families as a threat to their way of life.

One night, Tony (Ansel Elgort), a friend of the Jets, and Maria (Rachel Zegler, making her feature debut), a disaffected Puerto Rican migrant, fall in love. Ignoring the warnings from everyone around them, they pursue their affair.

The key songs are here - including the love ballad Tonight, sung on the balcony by Maria and Tony, and the rousing America, performed by an ensemble - with barely noticeable changes to the original lyrics and the placement of musical segments within the story.

Spielberg's gifts as a storyteller do not quite cover the movie's biggest ask - that viewers accept that dangerous gangs work out their differences through the medium of modern dance - but he fully captures the exuberance that made the 1961 film such a hit.

The Hand Of God (M18)

130 minutes, Netflix, 4 stars

Stills from the film The Hand Of God starring (from left) Filippo Scotti, Teresa Saponangelo, Marlon Joubert and Toni Servillo. PHOTO: NETFLIX

This comedy-drama clinched the Grand Jury Prize at the 2021 Venice International Film Festival.

Italian writer-director Paolo Sorrentino, awarded an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for the drama The Great Beauty (2013), shows that any coming-of-age story is a winner if it includes a large, rambunctious family - with bonus points awarded if the clan includes a potty-mouthed elderly person, a sibling who is a struggling artist and a snob everyone dislikes and who is eventually humbled.

The standard family comedy characters are here. The only tropes this film does not have are the beloved pet that is also a destroyer of furniture and the family car that requires a push to start.

Despite its over-familiar set-ups, Sorrentino's film, based loosely on his own experiences growing up in the city of Naples in the 1980s, is an attention-grabber. There is genuine warmth in the story of Fabietto (Filippo Scotti), an artsy teen in the embrace of a fractious middle-class family. Male and female relatives pity him because of his lack of sexual experience, when sex has wrecked their own lives.

The film gets its title from the late Argentinian football player Diego Maradona, nicknamed The Hand Of God for a notorious handball incident in a 1986 World Cup match. In the 1980s, he played for Napoli, which is Fabietto's hometown team in the film.

As much as this film is an ode to Fabietto's family, Naples is more of a spur to his growth than his relatives could ever be. Wandering along its beaches and streets - every frame lovingly arranged by Sorrentino for maximum beauty - the ancient southern Italian city and its citizens offer the teen the only education that matters.

The Lost Daughter (M18)

122 minutes, Netflix, 4 stars

Stills from the film The Lost Daughter starring Dakota Johnson (left) and Olivia Colman. PHOTO: NETFLIX

This anxiety-triggering psychological thriller covers the side of parenting no one talks about.

American actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is making her debut as a film-maker, adapts the 2006 novel of the same name by Italian author Elena Ferrante.

College professor Leda is holidaying in Greece alone. She is played by English actress Olivia Colman in the present day, with frequent flashbacks to a younger Leda played by Irish actress Jessie Buckley.

Interrupting the quiet of Leda's beach resort is the sudden arrival of a large, noisy Greek-American family. In their midst is the young mother Nina, played by American actress Dakota Johnson. Resort caretakers Lyle (Ed Harris) and Will (Paul Mescal) warn Leda to steer clear of the newcomers, who appear to have criminal connections, but an incident causes the women's paths to cross.

The story is seen through Leda's point of view, but there are hints that she is not the well-behaved academic she appears to be, especially when she is around Nina and her toddler daughter. Nina's family might be crude, even obnoxious, but Leda's quiet intensity is equally disturbing.

In this study of maternal guilt and the paradoxical, maddening demands of womanhood, there will be comparisons to Lynne Ramsay's We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011). Both are excellent, disturbing films about the things people bury within themselves in order to be good parents and how, given time, a price has to be paid.

Embrace Again (PG)

125 minutes, opens Jan 6, not reviewed

Screengrab from Embrace Again trailer starring Huang Bo. PHOTO: FAR EAST FILMS/YOUTUBE

A group of citizens living in Wuhan, China, responds to the events of early 2020, when strict lockdowns were imposed to curb the spread of Covid-19.

Huang Bo and Jia Ling star in this heartwarming drama, which topped the box office in China last weekend over the New Year holidays.

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