DALLAS — You know the movie rule: never touch a classic. Allow new audiences to discover the original, especially when it's one of the most acclaimed movie musicals of all time.
Well, tell all that to Steven Spielberg, and be prepared to change the rule!
He'd never directed a musical before but has loved "West Side Story" since he was a boy. The release of his reimagined classic was held back months due to the pandemic. Now it opens appropriately on the 60th anniversary of the original, and the master director does not hold back. New York City in the 1950s is beautifully recreated and captured, with exquisite lighting and camera work.
Spielberg wasn't the only rookie on set. Among other newcomers, Rachel Zegler, fresh out of high school as "Maria," and she is absolutely wonderful!
In case you've lived under a rock for the past 60 years, "West Side Story" is an update of "Romeo & Juliet." Here, the forbidden lovers are Maria and Tony, Puerto Rican and Caucasian. It's love at first sight at a dance. But, we all know, that it's ill-fated. "Fault of Our Stars" actor, Ansel Elgort, plays Tony. He doesn't have the zip of his girlfriend, but he does have the look and the voice. (No ghost singers here.) Tony is newly-paroled and on his best behavior until his gang, The Sharks, draws him back in. The head of the rival Puerto Rican gang is none other than Maria's brother, Bernardo - and the plot thickens! He's played solidly by a one-time star of Broadway's "Billy Elliott," David Alvarez. His girlfriend, Anita, is played by former "Hamilton" cast member Ariana DeBose. She hits on all cylinders.
What about the film's original Anita, Rita Moreno? Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner of "Angels In America" fame developed a role for her, as Doc, the drug store owner's widow. She turns 90 years old this weekend and still shines! (On a musical re-shuffle, she gets a signature song and adds even deeper significance.) Any other updates only enhance the classic. There won't be a dry eye in the house, not just because of the tragic romance, but tears of joy for how Spielberg pulled this off. It's fantastic!
(20th Century Studios. Rated PG-13. Running Time 2 hrs. 36 mins. In Theaters Only)
BEING THE RICARDOS
Social media went crazy when Oscar winner Nicole Kidman was cast as Lucille Ball in "Being the Ricardos." "She was a horrible choice!"
Well, naysayers, bite your tongues! She's terrific as the Queen of Comedy, navigating her way through one of the most dramatic weeks of her life. Gossip writers accused the famous redhead of being "red" - a Communist. Meantime, she's trying to figure out how to share her pregnancy with the world all the while staging an episode of the top show in TV, "I Love Lucy." That's a busy week!
Oscar winner Javier Bardem plays Lucy's partner in life and business, Desi Arnez. It's more of a stretch for him, but his natural charisma carries him through. Oscar winner J.K. Simmons plays the cranky William Frawley, a.k.a. Fred Mertz, perfectly. And we learn that the miserable marriage he shared with wife Ethel on screen, was reflected in real life. He and his much younger co-star, played by Broadway actress Nina Arianda, couldn't stand each other!
Aaron Sorkin directs from his own screenplay, of course. The story is told in flashbacks through testimonials from the show's production staff. Remember, this is a behind-the-scenes look. If you go in expecting a recreation of all those hysterical scenes from the sit-com, you'll be disappointed. In fact, the movie would benefit from some more laughs. Watching one of the happiest Hollywood marriages crumble before your eyes, turns out to be heartbreaking.
(Amazon Studios. Rated R. Running Time 2 hrs. 5 mins. In Theaters Only)
How about a football movie with no football in it? That's what you get in "National Champions," executive produced by Seahawks star Russell Wilson.
J.K. Simmons headlines, this time, as a college coach in pursuit of his first national title. The setting is New Orleans three days before the big game, and his Heisman winning quarterback, played with passion by Stephen Jones, isn't in his room for bed check. That's the first clue that something's amiss. The next morning, the QB records a statement threatening a boycott unless the players get a financial share in the multi-billion dollar business which is college football. His roommate/teammate backs him up. Soon, so do others. That sets up tense meetings among the conference heads, boosters, etc., exposing all sorts of secrets and inequities. An NCAA lawyer, played by Uzo Aduba, also digs up dirt on the QB that might work as leverage. (Meantime the coach's wife, played by Kristen Chenowith is tired of being a football widow and cozies up to a professor. Sidebar, yes, but some nice flavor.)
You might say, wait, the NCAA just ruled that college athletes may now profit from their likenesses. Doesn't that date the story? Mind you, this is all fiction, but the story still works because the call here is for all athletes to profit, not just the stars. The movie offers some crisp insight but also a lot of talking in hotel rooms and suites. Not a fumble, but not a touchdown dance either.
(STX Entertainment. Rated R. Running Time 1 hr. 56 mins. In Theaters Only)