West Side Story (2021)

Steven Spielberg | 146 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English & Spanish | 12 / PG-13

West Side Story

I remember when I first heard about this remake, I couldn’t quite understand what they were going to add by redoing it. The original is a widely-acclaimed classic — why remake it? I should’ve remembered one of the golden rules of cinema: always trust Spielberg.

If you’re somehow unfamiliar with West Side Story, it’s a reimagining of Romeo and Juliet set in 1950s New York City, with the two warring families replaced by two warring street gangs. Although the teenage love story is still present, obv., the strength here is more in its depiction of cultural clashes between different groups of immigrants — essentially, the heart of the American experience. Like most musicals, it started out on the stage before being filmed in 1961. I’m not going to dispute the classic status of that film, but it has dated — most problematically in the use of brown face to depict Puerto Rican characters, but also in its overall style, which, though shot in part on the real streets of New York, is quite stagey. Plus it made various changes to the original work, primarily in the order and therefore context of multiple musical numbers; something that Spielberg, as a fan of the stage production, sort to restore.

In short, it worked. Well, I’ve never seen the stage production, so I don’t know if this film is more faithful to it, but it feels like a superior execution of the constituent elements. Primarily, it deepens some of the characters and their motives, most especially Tony (the Romeo figure) and Chino (his ostensible love rival, though you’d be forgiven for missing that entirely in the ’61 film). In the original film, I almost felt like Tony and Maria were a subplot, only being regarded as the leads because they’re Romeo and Juliet in what we know is an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Here, they get more screen time, both together and apart, and more shades to their characters, so it actually feels like they’re the leads. That doesn’t suddenly make them the most interesting characters, but you can’t have everything.

Dance in the streets in America

This added depth comes from the screenplay as much as the performances, which were great in the original but are fantastic here too. The Oscar-winning turn by Ariana DeBose as Anita is indeed the standout, but Rachel Zegler is perfectly sweet as Maria, and Rita Moreno thankfully has more to offer than just a tribute cameo in the Doc role. There was a lot of talk that Mike Faist was snubbed by awards for his Riff. He’s good, but doesn’t quite equal Russ Tambyln for me. The weak link is clearly Ansel Elgort as Tony. I had wondered if people were just saying that because of the allegations against him, but he’s not ideal for the role. That said, I do think he’s adequate, and the only reason to find his presence actively distasteful is if you can’t set aside the real-life stories.

All these comparisons are inevitable, and it’s mostly in the eye of the beholder which individual aspect is better in which version; but I think it’s undeniable that Spielberg’s film looks more cinematic. It’s not just superior to the ’61 film, but a masterclass in itself: the lighting, the shot composition, the camera moves, the blocking; several songs are more excitingly staged than in the original, not least arguably the most famous, America. DoP Janusz Kaminski has been doing sterling work with Spielberg for decades now, so perhaps it’s easy to overlook just how talented they both are. In an era when mega-budgeted films increasingly look like TV shows that lean on green screen to scrape by, this is Cinema at its purest.

Perhaps that’s why, overall, I prefer this version. Sure, the original is a classic, but Spielberg’s film is ultimately more cinematic (less stage-minded), less campy (though it doesn’t entirely ditch that aspect), and more modern, but appropriately so (with race-appropriate casting instead of awkward brownface). It’s perhaps proof that any remake can be worthwhile if done for the right reasons by the right people.

5 out of 5

The Slapping Monthly Review of March 2022

In my last post, a little over three weeks ago, I wrote that it had been “a hectic time, both at work and in my personal life, these past few weeks.” Well, that didn’t really let up, hence the extended period of radio silence here. Hopefully that is now behind me, however, and both posting and film watching can return to the decent pace I’d established in the first two months of the year.

If it doesn’t, maybe I need a jolly good slap… or not, eh?

Alright, that’s what amounts to “topical satire” for now. Let’s get on with how March’s film viewing went…



This month’s viewing towards my yearly challenge

#21 Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) — Decades #10
#22 West Side Story (1961) — Rewatch #3
#23 Cobra (1986) — WDYMYHS #3
#24 Django & Django (2021) — New Film #3
#25 A Man Escaped (1956) — Blindspot #3


  • I watched nine feature films I’d never seen before in March.
  • Four of them counted towards my 100 Films in a Year Challenge, along with one rewatch.
  • That means I end the month bang on target: we’re a quarter of the way through the year, and I’m a quarter of the way to #100.
  • My overall viewing is going less well, failing to reach ten new films in a month for the first time since November. (You can see all my latest viewing, both Challenge-related and not, on my Recently Watched page.)
  • That said, while it didn’t reach the magic double figures, it’s not that far short of 2022’s other months: the year’s monthly average only drops from 12 to 11.
  • That said, in the world of viewing averages, a whole film drop is moderately large. For comparison, the rolling average of the last 12 months dropped by 0.9 films (from 14.8 to 13.9), and the all-time average for March by just 0.46 (from 15.79 to 15.33).
  • For the third month in a row, my “2022 film” is a 2021 film that didn’t get a UK release until 2022. This should’ve been the month to buck that trend, with The Batman, but unfortunately I haven’t had a chance to get to the cinema.
  • This month’s Blindspot film was Robert Bresson’s World War 2 prison drama A Man Escaped — or, to fully translate its original French title, One Condemned to Death Escaped, or, The Wind Blows Where It Wants. Classy.
  • This month’s WDYMYHS film was ’80s Sly Stallone actioner Cobra. That doesn’t have an intelligent-sounding extended title. Or much intelligence on the whole, really. It’s kinda fun, though.
  • From last month’s “failures” I watched The King’s Man.



The 82nd Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
I watched both versions of West Side Story this month, and, heretical as it may sound, I think I thought Spielberg’s was better. (As a rewatch, the original isn’t eligible for this award anyway). Not only that, but Spielberg’s pure cinematic skill sees it stand out easily from the rest of the month’s viewing.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
I actually quite enjoyed The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee — certainly more than most other people seem to have — but there’s also no doubt it was the weakest film I saw this month.

Film You’d Most Like to Hang Out In of the Month
Who wouldn’t want to spend time nattering with the grandes dames of British theatre and cinema in Nothing Like a Dame? Not only would you get fabulous anecdotes, but they seem like a right giggle.

Film You’d Least Like to Hang Out In of the Month
No one said life in a Nazi prison would be fun, and A Man Escaped certainly bears that out.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
Just three posts to choose from, last month, and the victor of those was 2022 Weeks 7–8. Of the other two, my ‘failures’ proved more popular than my general monthly review for the second month running. Could just be the appeal of the title, I suppose.



Every review posted this month, including new titles and the Archive 5


The much-discussed Spider-Man: No Way Home finally hits disc next week, so I’ll see if it has any surprises left for me (I don’t think I’ve been totally spoiled, but it’s been impossible to avoid certain big stories). Also, hopefully I’ll also finally see The Batman, one way or another. And also some films that don’t involve men dressing up as critters to fight evil.

West Side Story (1961)

2007 #53
Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins | 146 mins | DVD | PG

West Side Story“Everything’s free in America,” goes the famous line; but this film is probably more accurately summed up in its following line: “For a small fee in America”.

For, surprisingly, underneath the song and dance numbers (some impressive, some embarrassing), the Shakespearian romance story, and the vibrant and beautiful cinematography, beats the heart of a gritty, political, social drama about gangs, racism, immigration, and more — issues that seem as pertinent today as ever.

It’s a brilliant film, which falls short of full marks only thanks to some of those weaker song & dance bits (and I might be being a tad unfair there).

4 out of 5