Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the dramatic film “What We Do Next” features a racially diverse cast of characters (African American, white and Latin) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: An ambitious politician and a corporate lawyer face ethical dilemmas stemming from their connection to a murder committed by a recently released prisoner.
Culture Audience: “What We Do Next” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in suspenseful and above-average dramas that realisitically address uncomfortable issues related to crime and identity politics.
“What We Do Next” is a superbly acted and well-written drama that tackles issues of race, gender and social class in American politics and the U.S. criminal justice system. Michelle Veintimilla, Karen Pittman and Corey Stoll give compelling performances. The movie takes a hard-hitting look at all these issues from three different perspectives, without making the narrative too cluttered or messy. And with a total running time of 77 minutes, “What We Do Next” is just the right length to tell this gripping story.
If the movie looks like a cinematic version of a play, that’s because writer/director Stephen Belber originally intended “What We Do Next” to be a play, according to what Belber says in the “What We Do Next” production notes. There is a small number of locations in the dialogue-driven movie, while the cast has a small number of people. The three main characters get nearly all of the screen time. All the other cast members in the movie are extras.
“What We Do Next” (which takes place in New York City, but the movie was actually filmed in Louisville, Kentucky) begins with a scene of a concerned community organizer named Sandy James (played by Pittman) having a difficult conversation with a frightened and distraught Elsa Mercado (played by Veintimilla), who is 16 years old at the time. It’s a conversation that becomes the catalyst for the turmoil that happens in the three main characters’ lives.
Sandy asks teenage Elsa, “How does it make you feel?” Elsa replies, “Like I fucking hate him.” Sandy then asks Elsa, “Does he hurt your brother?” Elsa heistantly nods and then says, “But not what he does to me.” Sandy offers to contact child protective services for Elsa, but Elsa doesn’t want that to happen.
“They’re just going to split me and my brother up,” Elsa says of child protective services. Sandy tells Elsa, “You do what you need to do to survive. You need to be strong.” The details of what happened after this conversation unfold in layers throughout the movie.
“What We Do Next” fast-forward several years later. The movie doesn’t say exactly how many years, but based on conversations, it’s about 15 or 16 years after this conversation between Sandy and Elsa has happened. Sandy is now a highly respected city councilwoman for New York City’s 10th district. She’s a progressive Democrat who is currently running for the position of speaker of the city council. Her campaign is going well, and she is expected to win.
However, Sandy’s campaign could have a scandal that she doesn’t want people to know about, so she has called a private meeting in her office with corporate atttoney Paul Fleming (played by Stoll), one of only a few people who know about this secret. Elsa is the other person who knows the secret, and she’s recently been released from prison for murdering her father with a gun. Elsa claimed that she killed her father because he was sexually abusing her and physically abusing her younger brother. Elsa received a 16-year prison sentence but has been let out of prison early due to good behavior.
Paul and Sandy haven’t seen or spoken to each other in years. They share a connection with Elsa that is revealed in this conversation: Years ago, when Sandy found out that Elsa’s father was sexually abusing Elsa, Sandy asked Paul for $500 in cash, because she wanted to give Elsa the money. Sandy thought the money was going toward a down payment for Elsa and Elsa’s disabled mother to find a new place to live. Instead, Elsa took the money to buy the gun that Elsa used to kill her father.
During the trial, it was never made clear where Elsa got the money for the gun. However, Sandy is worried this information might come out and would result in Sandy being indirectly tied to the murder. Sandy is concerned because a reporter named Jim Feingold from Slate plans to do an article revisiting this high-profile murder case, not what Elsa has been released from prison. The reporter (who is never seen in the movie) has already contacted Sandy for an interview, but she’s declined to talk to the media about her connection to Elsa. Sandy is convinced that the reporter is trying to dig up dirt on her to ruin her campaign.
Sandy tells Paul: “I’m the council’s leading advocate on gun cntrol, and I unwillingly faciiltated a murder.” Paul knows that Sandy had no idea that Elsa was going to use the $500 to buy a gun. And he thinks that Sandy shouldn’t have her political career ruined over a misunderstanding that could be blown out of proportion. He volunteers to tell any media person who asks that he was the one who gave Elsa the cash, without knowing that she was going use the money to buy a gun.
Paul says to Sandy: “I’d like to help you on your misson, which is helping people, including Elsa, who’s done her [prison] time, and doesn’t deserve to get caught up in some bullshit scandal aimed at your integrity. You’re on the right side of every issue.” He adds this comment about this seemingly noble gesture to take responsibility for what Sandy did: “It’ll help me look good too.”
And just how do Sandy and Paul know each other? They had a fling years ago, around the time that Sandy knew Elsa. Paul was married at the time (he’s now divorced, with a 9-year-old son named Theo), and Sandy was apparently one of several women he was sexually involved with when he was married. Paul won’t reveal to Sandy the details over why he got divorced, but he tells Sandy that he was mostly to blame for the marriage’s failure, which is basically saying that his infidelity was one of the main reasons for the divorce.
Observant viewers will also notice a part of the conversation where Sandy mentions she was a “side piece” for a woman who was also sexually involved with Paul. Sandy doesn’t label her sexuality, but she tells Paul that she’s currently in a live-in relationship with guy named Dan, and she doesn’t divulge much more information about this relationship. Paul mentions that he lives alone in New Rochelle, and his ex-wife has full custody of their son Theo. Although Sandy and Paul compliment each other during their conversation, neither is interested in rekindling anything sexual between them.
And what is going on Elsa, now that she’s been released from prison? A pivotal scene in the movie shows Sandy and Paul meeting with a now-adult Elsa (also played by Veintimilla) in an unoccupied warehouse, not far from Sandy’s office. Sandy and Paul chose this location because it’s a secret meeting. Sandy and Paul tell Elsa that if anyone asks her who gave her the money for the gun, Elsa needs to say that it was Paul, not Sandy. At first, Elsa refuses this request. Elsa says she’s trying to turn her life around for the better and doesn’t want to get caught up in lies and a conspiracy that could send her back to prison.
But when street-smart Elsa sees that Sandy is somewhat desperate to cover up the truth, Elsa wants to know what’s in it for her if she does this favor for Sandy. After some shrewd questioning, Elsa finds out what Sandy’s salary is. And instead of taking the low-paying job that Sandy had initially offered to find for Elsa, this ex-con demands that Sandy find her a job that pays at least $75,000 a year. Elsa says she needs this job security because her prison record will make it hard for her to find a good job, and she has family members that she needs to take care of financially.
The rest of “What We Do Next” shows the tension-filled, high-wire act between these three people as their lives become further intertwined and their careers change. It’s enough to say that Elsa doesn’t stay out of trouble for long. She gets into a drunken bar fight with a man because she said that he sexually assaulted her by fondling her breasts without her consent. Elsa punched the man while wearing rings on her hand, and he fell down so hard, he bit off part of the tip of his tongue. (The movie does not show this fight, which is told only told from Elsa’s perspective.)
Elsa was arrested, the man she got in the fight with is pressing charges against her, and Elsa is terrified of going back to prison. And who did Elsa call to get bailed out of jail? None other than Paul. Elsa then goes to Sandy to ask Sandy for an even bigger favor, which leads to the story’s main conflict that becomes a maelstrom of how race, gender and social class play roles in how people are treated and what people are willing to do to overcome negative stereotypes.
“What We Do Next” is a fascinating character study of three “politically liberal” people and how they use prejudice against underprivileged people as both a self-serving stepping stone and as a weapon of guilt. The movie doesn’t pass judgment on any of its characters or the circumstances in which they find themselves. However, if “What We Do Next” had a subtitle for how the characters deal with certain problems, it could be that old saying: “The road to hell is sometimes paved with good intentions.”
Paul has family issues related to domestic abuse that he later reveals in the movie. Whether he wants to admit it or not, Paul likes to play the role of the “white male savior,” even when his own life is far from perfect. Sandy is an ambitious politician who is adamant about maintaining her integrity, because she knows she is under more scrutiny simply because she is an African American woman in a line of work that is dominated by white men. Elsa, who is Puerto Rican, comes from a low-income broken home, and her dysfunctional background might or might not have shaped her volatile personality. Elsa is highly manipulative, and it soon becomes obvious that she has untreated mental health issues.
“What We Do Next” has very authentic dialogue and scenarios that elevate the quality of this movie, which has no-frills direction from Belber. Without the outstanding performances of Veintimilla, Pittman and Stoll, “What We Do Next” would not have the emotional credibility that makes this film worthwhile to watch. Veintimilla has the movie’s most complex performance, since Elsa is a character who can inspire compassion and contempt, often in the same scene.
“What We Do Next” is a movie that doesn’t need a large budget, artsy visuals or elaborate locations to make an impact. The movie has some very powerfully charged scenes that just need the cast members and dialogue to keep viewers riveted to see what will happen. Most of all, “What We Do Next” will make viewers think about how privilege (or lack of privilege) can affect acts of kindness, which sometimes come at a heavy price.
Small Batch Studio Entertainment released “What We Do Next” in select U.S. cinemas on March 3, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place in an underworld universe called Quantumania, and briefly in San Francisco, the sci-fi/fantasy/action film “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” (based on Marvel Comics characters) features a cast of predominantly white characters (with some African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing superheroes, regular humans and alien creatures.
Culture Clash: Scott Lang (also known as superhero Ant-Man), his formerly estranged daughter Cassie Lang, Scott’s girlfriend Hope Van Dyne (also known as superhero The Wasp) and Hope’s parents get dragged into the Quantum Realm, where they have to battle evil forces, led by Kang the Conqueror.
Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of Marvel movie fans, “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and superhero movies that are very predictable, corny and formulaic.
“Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” is a quantum mess. It’s bad enough that it recycles tired clichés of Marvel movies. This uneven superhero movie also rips off 1977’s “Star Wars” in many ways. Jonathan Majors’ standout performance can’t save this substandard spectacle. “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” is supposed to be the start of Phase 5 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The movie will no doubt make blockbuster money, as all MCU movies have done so far. But in terms of creativity, this disappointing film is a stumble right out of the gate for the MCU’s Phase 5.
One of the biggest problems with “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” is how it awkwardly balances comedy with action. The jokes are the most juvenile, tackiest and least funny so far in the “Ant-Man” movie series, which began with 2015’s “Ant-Man” and continued with 2018’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp.” Peyton Reed is the director of all three movies, which makes his creative choices even more baffling for “Quantumania,” which has a drastically different tone (and lower quality as a result) than the first two “Ant-Man” movies.
When writer/director Taika Waititi directed 2017’s “Thor: Ragnarok” (the third “Thor” movie of the MCU), he radically changed the tone of the “Thor” movie series to make it fit his signature comedic style: goofy and slightly offbeat. Waititi did the same for 2022’s “Thor: Love and Thunder,” to less well-received results. But it doesn’t explain why the third “Ant-Man” movie has gone so far off-course when it’s had the same director for the first three “Ant-Man” movies.
Much of the blame for why “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” has turned into a hodgepodge of bad jokes, sci-fi rehashes and superhero triteness has to with the movie’s screenplay, which is the feature-film debut of Jeff Loveness. Loveness’ previous writing experience is for shows such as the Adult Swim animated series “Rick and Morty,” the ABC variety talk show “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” the 2012 Primetime Emmy Awards, the 2016 Primetime Emmy Awards and the 2017 Academy Awards, with these particular award shows all hosted by Jimmy Kimmel. All of these TV shows require a different skill set than what’s required to write an entertaining superhero movie. Unfortunately, hiring a TV writer with no experience in writing movies turned out to be a huge mistake for “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” and Marvel Studios.
In “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” the story begins right after the events of 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame.” Scott Lang (played by Paul Rudd), a former petty criminal also known as Ant-Man (whose superpower is being able to change the height of his body by wearing a special superhero suit), is a happily retired superhero living in his hometown in San Francisco. Scott has cashed in on his superhero fame by writing a memoir titled “Look Out for the Little Guy!,” where he talks about his superhero experiences and what they have taught him about life.
The movie shows Scott reading excerpts from his book at a book signing, but a few people there still mistake him for the more famous Spider-Man. Scott tells the small audience at this book signing, “From now on, the only job I want is to be a dad.” However, the movie unrealistically shows that middle-aged Scott, in his superhero “retirement,” has chosen to take a low-paying job as a customer service employee at a local Baskin-Robbins store. He has been named Employee of the Century because of his celebrity status as Ant-Man.
It’s really the movie’s obvious brand placement for Baskin-Robbins, but viewers are given the weak explanation that Scott took the job because he loves ice cream. It all looks very awkward and fake. The movie’s overload of Baskin-Robbins brand promotion is extremely annoying. There’s even a scene where a Scott Lang look-alike named Jack, who’s a Baskin-Robbins employee, gets in on the fight action. It’s all so crass and stupid.
Get used to seeing a lot of “look-alikes” in this movie, because much of it takes place in an alternate universe where clones of people and clones of creatures can show up randomly. Scott is trying to reconnect with his 18-year-old daughter Cassandra “Cassie” Lang (played by Kathryn Newton), who was raised primarily by Scott’s ex-wife while Scott was off doing other things, such as being a criminal-turned-superhero. Cassie has turned into a social justice warrior who’s involved in civil protests.
In the beginning of the movie, Cassie has landed in the San Francisco County Jail, because she was arrested for shrinking a police car because the police were trying to clear out an illegal homeless camp. Scott and his intelligent and sassy girlfriend Hope Van Dyne (played by Evangeline Lilly), also known as superhero The Wasp (she can turn into a wasp mutant and can also shrink her body height), have arrived at the jail to retrieve Cassie. It’s how Scott finds out to his dismay that Cassie is also an aspiring scientist who invented her own shrinkage suit. She hasn’t given herself a superhero name though.
Scott thinks Cassie is too young to get involved in superhero antics. Cassie thinks Scott has become too complacent and thinks he should care more about making the world a better place. Hope and Cassie have bonded with each other because Hope is now the leader of the Pym Van Dyne Foundation, which uses Pym Particle (the body morphing invention used by Ant-Man and The Wasp) for humanitarian causes. Of course, it’s already been revealed in the “Quantumania” trailer that Scott will literally be sucked back into superhero activities, whether he likes it or not.
Hope’s parents are scientists Hank Pym (played by Michael Douglas) and Janet Van Dyne (played by Michelle Pfeiffer), who were the original Ant-Man and The Wasp. As the movie over-explains and over-repeats in pedestrian dialogue, Janet was trapped in an alternative universe called the Quantum Realm for 30 years and doesn’t like to talk about what she experienced there. Janet returned to Earth when Hank rescued her from the Quantum Realm, as shown in “Ant-Man and the Wasp.”
However, “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” makes a big misstep by giving away in an opening scene that Janet actually was acquainted with the movie’s chief villain: Kang the Conequeror (played by Majors) while she was in the Quantum Realm, where Janet and Kang are seen escaping an attack from a giant insect-like creature. The movie should have left it a mystery until the right moment to show that Janet already knew this villain. Instead, this part of the plot is revealed too early in the film.
At any rate, Scott finds out that Hank, Janet, Hope and Cassie have been studying ant science. Hope and Cassie in particular want to use this science to explore the Quantum Realm, but Janet has no interest in going back there. Janet won’t say why, but she will eventually make a confession later in the movie.
Janet describes the Quantum Realm as a “place with no time and space. It’s a secret universe beneath ours.” To Janet’s horror, Cassie announces to Janet, Scott, Hank and Hope (while they are all in the scientific lab) that Cassie has been secretly sending signals to the Quantum Realm. Janet frantically tries to turn off the signal machine.
And faster than you can say “inferior Marvel movie sequel,” all five of them are sucked into the Quantum Realm, which looks like a half-baked “Star Wars” universe. For much the first third of the movie, Scott and Cassie are separated from Janet, Hank and Hope. Scott and Cassie spend a lot of time bickering over how much Cassie might or might not be ready to use her superhero suit. (Too late. We already know she will.)
Janet, Hank and Hope spend much of their time talking in vague tones about a mysterious “he” and “him” leader who has wreaked havoc on the Quantum Realm. Anyone can easily figure out that the “he” and “him” is Kang the Conqueror. There’s no reason to make him sound like “Harry Potter” villain Voldemort, also known in the “Harry Potter” series as He Who Shall Not Be Named. It’s yet another way that “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” takes ideas from other sci-fi/fantasy franchises.
Reed says in the production notes for “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” where he got some of the visual influences for the movie: “We pulled together a lot of visual inspiration—everything from electron microscope photography to heavy metal magazine images from the ’70s and ’80s. I collected all of these images from old science-fiction paperback book covers—artists like John Harris, Paul Laird, Richard M. Powers. Those paintings were evocative and really moody. We liked that feel and tone for the look of the Quantum Realm.”
Reed curiously didn’t mention “Star Wars,” which is undoubtedly the biggest influence on “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.” The Quantum Realm’s terrain looks like a desert in some areas and looks like a crater-filled planet in other areas. The desert scenes look too much like the desert realm of Tatooine in “Star Wars,” while the hooded costumes worn by the Quantum Realm residents look an awful lot like the costumes worn by Tusken Raiders from “Star Wars.”
And if the “Star Wars” similarities for the production design and costume design weren’t enough, “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” also imitates the Mos Eisley cantina scene in “Star Wars,” but doesn’t make it nearly as fun and interesting to watch. Hank, Janet and Hope end up in a place called Axia Restaurant, which is basically a “Star Wars” cantina look-alike filled with unusual-looking creatures. There’s no memorable music at the Axia Restaurant, like there was in the Mos Eisley cantina. Christophe Beck’s musical score for “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” is serviceable and unremarkable.
It’s at Axia Restaurant where Hope and Hank meet the smirking Lord Kylar (played by Bill Murray) for the first time. Janet already knows Lord Kylar, who says he is neither a human nor a machine. Lord Kylar, who is the governor of the Axia community, hints that he and Janet used to be lovers when she was in the Quantum Realm.
“I had needs,” Janet tells Hank and Hope in a somewhat defensive and uncomfortable tone. Hope then has to hear Hank talk about an ex-girlfriend. And she acts like a prudish teen who doesn’t want to think about her parents having love lives before they met each other. This is the type of time-wasting dialogue that’s supposed to pass as “comedy” in the movie.
Even though Murray shares top billing for “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” his role in the movie is just a cameo that lasts for less than 15 minutes. It’s ineffective and misguided casting because he’s not convincing as this fictional character. All viewers will think is that this is Murray in a space-alien costume playing a version of himself.
As for the other inhabitants of the Quantum Realm, it’s a random mix of beings who look like humans and those who are very non-human in appearance, including a lot of jellyfish-like creatures that float around in space. As soon as Scott and Cassie arrive in the Quantum Realm, they are force-fed a red ooze by a creature named Veb (voiced by David Dastmalchian), because this red ooze will help these humans understand the language of the Quantum Realm residents. Dastmalchian had the role of Kurt (a member of Scott’s posse) in the first two “Ant-Man” movies. Veb is an underdeveloped character that is meant to be comedic, but Veb’s jokes fall very flat.
The Quantum Realm residents predictably greet these newcomers from Earth with reactions that range from curiosity to hostility. Jentorra (played by Katy O’Brian) is an anti-Kang freedom fighter who scowls a lot and has to learn to trust these Earth heroes to be her allies. Xolum (played by James Cutler, also known as Jamie Andrew Cutler) is a loyal soldier and totally generic sidekick of Jentorra.
Quaz (played by William Jackson Harper) is a psychic/telepath, whose only purpose in the movie is to make people uncomfortable by reading their thoughts and saying their thoughts out loud. His revelations are supposed to be amusing, but they’re not really all that funny. Randall Park has a small and non-essential role as FBI agent Jimmy Woo.
Corey Stoll returns as “Ant-Man” villain Darren Cross, also known as Yellowjacket, who has now been shrunken by Kang into a subatomic lackey with an oversized head known as M.O.D.O.K., which stands for Mechanized Organism Designed Only for Killing. M.O.D.O.K. looks like a floating head and delivers some of the few genuinely comedic moments in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.” Various characters in the movie have horrified reactions to seeing Darren look so drastically different as M.O.D.O.K., but this gag is repeated too much and loses its impact by the middle of the movie.
As for Kang, Majors’ performance is the only one that brings a certain gravitas to the rampant foolishness and smarm that stink up “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.” Majors brings a combination of menace and melancholy to his role, but it’s wasted in a movie that is hell-bent on trying to be more like Waititi’s “Thor” movies. The rest of the cast members’ performances aren’t bad, but they’re not special either. Kang’s soldiers are Quantumnauts, which are as anonymous and soulless as the mostly CGI creations that they are.
Unfortunately, the big showdown fight scene is lot more montonous and unimaginative than it should have been. It ends abruptly and in a way that has been done already (and done much better) in many other sci-fi/fantasy/action movies. As for the movie’s visual effects, it’s a shame that a movie with this big budget can make visual effects look so cheap and shoddy. There are scenes that make it obvious where the “blue screens” and “green screens” were.
A mid-credits scene and end-credits scene basically show the return of a major character from the movie. The end-credits scene is a nod to the Disney+ series “Loki.” As an example of how “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” has a sitcom tone to it, the movie uses John Sebastian’s 1976 hit “Welcome Back” (the theme from the sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter”) as bookends to the movie. A big-budget superhero movie should not look like a second-rate sitcom, which is what “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” has turned out to be.
Marvel Studios will release “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” in U.S. cinemas on February 17, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place from 1967 to 1972, in New Jersey and New York, the mobster drama film “The Many Saints of Newark” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class involved in mafia activities.
Culture Clash: Members of the Moltisanti and Soprano families of “The Sopranos” TV series rise through the ranks of the Italian American mafia in New Jersey while having conflicts with each other, as an underage Tony Soprano is groomed to learn the family’s crime business.
Culture Audience: “The Many Saints of Newark” will appeal primarily to fans of “The Sopranos” and predictable mobster movies with good acting.
As a movie prequel to “The Sopranos” series, “The Many Saints of Newark” disappoints by not making Tony Soprano the main character. However, the cast members are so talented, they elevate this typical mobster drama. You don’t have to be familiar with “The Sopranos” to understand “The Many Saints of Newark,” although the movie is more enjoyable to watch for anyone who has a basic level of knowledge about “The Sopranos,” which won 21 Primetime Emmy Awards during its 1999 to 2007 run on HBO. At times, “The Many Saints of Newark” looks more like it’s trying to be a Martin Scorsese mafia film than a “Sopranos” prequel.
Directed by Alan Taylor and written by “The Sopranos” showrunner David Chase and Lawrence Konner, “The Many Saints of Newark” opens with a scene of a graveyard that shows the gravestone of Christopher Moltisanti, Tony Soprano’s troubled protégé, whom Tony killed in Season 6 of the series. Christopher (voiced by Michael Imperioli) is briefly a “voice from the dead” narrator to explain to viewers that this story will go back in time (from 1967 to 1972), to show how Christopher’s father Dickie Moltisanti (played by Alessandro Nivola) became a mafia mentor to Tony.
It’s not the ghost of Christopher who really haunts “The Saints of Newark.” It’s the ghost of James Gandolfini, the actor who made Tony Soprano an iconic character in “The Sopranos.” Gandolfini died in 2013, at the age of 51. Any TV show or movie that’s about “The Sopranos” saga has a huge void to fill without Gandolfini playing the role of the adult Tony Soprano. It’s a void that really can’t be filled, but “The Many Saints of Newark” makes an attempt to create another “larger than life” mafia character for “The Sopranos” saga, but it’s extremely difficult for any “Sopranos” character to overshadow Tony and his legacy.
“The Many Saints of Newark” is about Dickie (Tony’s first mentor) more than anyone else. The movie reveals the family tree in bits and pieces for any viewer who doesn’t know the family background. Dickie’s father is Aldo “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (played by Ray Liotta), who has an identical twin brother named Salvatore “Sally” Moltisanti (also played by Liotta), who is in prison for murder. Dickie is a cousin of Carmela De Angelis (played by Lauren DiMario), Tony’s high-school sweetheart who would later become his wife. Even though Dickie is not related to the Sopranos by blood, he becomes so close to Tony, Dickie is eventually referred to as Tony’s “uncle.”
Tony’s parents are Giovanni Francis “Johnny Boy” Soprano (played by Jon Bernthal) and Livia Soprano (played by Vera Farmiga), who have very different personalities. Johnny is gregarious and fun-loving, while Livia is uptight and judgmental. During the five years that this movie takes place, Tony is seen when he’s 11 years old (played by William Ludwig) and when he’s 16 years old (played by Michael Gandofini, the real-life son of James Gandolfini).
Tony, his parents and his two younger sisters live in the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey. Tony’s sisters Janice and Barbara are doted on by their parents, while Tony feels negelcted in comparison. (Mattea Conforti portrays Janice as a child, Alexandra Intrator portrays Janice as teenager, and Lexie Foley portrays Barbara as a child.)
A family party celebrating Janice’s confirmation in the Catholic religion shows how much Tony feels like an ignored outsider in his own family. Dickie is one of the people who’s a regular at the Soprano family gatherings because members of the Soprano family and the Moltiscanti family work for the DiMeo crime family that rules this part of New Jersey. It’s at Janice’s confirmation party that Tony sees his father Johnny and Dickie talking about some mafia business. Tony is intrigued.
Tony is intelligent, but his academic grades don’t reflect that intelligence because Tony doesn’t really like school. It’s the first sign that he’s not comfortable with authority figures or following rules. Livia is overly critical of Tony and thinks he’s not as smart as Tony actually is. At one point, Tony’s teacher Mrs. Jarecki (played by Talia Balsam) tells Livia that Tony is intelligent and has leadership potential. Livia’s reaction is to say that there’s a difference between being smart and being a smart aleck.
Johnny’s older brother Corrado John “Junior” Soprano Jr. (played by Corey Stoll) is more stoic and serious-minded than Johnny. (Dominic Chianese played Junior in “The Sopranos” TV series.) Johnny and Junior eventually have a rivalry over who will rise the highest in the DiMeo crime family. But when this story takes place, Dickie’s father Hollywood Dick has more seniority than Junior and Johnny.
Much of the family drama in “The Saints of Newark” is about the tensions between Dickie and his father. Hollywood Dick abused his first wife (Dickie’s mother), who is now deceased. It’s implied that she was killed by her husband, who got away with the crime. Dickie’s father was abusive to him too when Dickie was a child. Dickie’s childhood is not shown in flashbacks, but it’s described in conversations. As an adult, Dickie has a love/hate relationship with his father.
In 1967, Hollywood Dick arrives back in Newark from a trip to Italy and has someone with him: a much-younger Italian woman named Giuseppina (played by Michela De Rossi), whom Hollywood Dick impulsively married in Italy. Giuseppina, who is described as a beauty queen, barely knows English and is young enough to be her new husband’s daughter. She’s really a trophy wife who doesn’t hide the fact that she married Hollywood Dick so that she could live in America as the wife of a man who can take care of her financial needs.
Hollywood Dick introduces Giuseppina to Dickie for the first time after she has already become Hollywood Dick’s wife. Dickie and his wife Joanna (played by Gabriella Piazza) eventually become parents to Christopher, their first child. Even though Dickie and Giuseppina are married to other people, it doesn’t take long for Giuseppina and Dickie to start looking at each other lustfully. Their feelings are also accelerated when Dickie finds out that his father is abusing Giuseppina. Dickie feels very protective of her, and he wants to help Giuseppina in her dream to own her own hair salon.
Meanwhile, Dickie is in regular contact with some of the African Americans who are part of the criminal underground in Newark. Harold McBrayer (played by Leslie Odom Jr.) collects bets for the mafia. In an early scene in the movie, Harold is shown beating up Leon Overall (played by Mason Bleu), the leader of an African American gang called the Saints, because Leon is suspected of stealing from Harold.
“The Many Saints of Newark” makes some attempt to be more racially diverse than “The Sopranos” by having a subplot about how Harold’s relationship with Dickie changes over time. The movie also has scenes depicting racial tensions, such as the Newark race riots and what happens when Harold’s relationship with Dickie is tested for another reason. But because the African American people in this movie are supporting characters, issues of racism are not at the forefront of this story.
And where is Tony Soprano during all of Dickie’s family drama? The movie trailers for “The Many Saints of Newark” make it look like the teenage Tony Soprano will be in nearly all of the film. He’s not. The teenage Tony Soprano doesn’t appear until 51 minutes into this two-hour movie.
Tony is a rebellious teen who needs a father figure more than ever when his father Johnny is arrested and sent to prison for assault with a deadly weapon. The arrest takes place in front of Tony and Janice. During Johnny’s incarceration, Dickie becomes even more of an influence on Tony.
Viewers who are looking for more insignt into Tony and Carmela’s teenage relationship won’t really get it in “The Many Saints of Newark.” There’s a scene where Tony and a few friends show off to Carmela by stealing an ice cream truck and giving away free ice cream to people in the neighborhood during this theft. At this point, Tony and Carmela aren’t officially a couple. He’s showing a romantic interest in her, but she’s not really all that impressed with him.
“The Many Saints of Newark” gives more background information about Tony’s rocky relationship with his mother Livia. There’s a minor subplot about Livia being in therapy (it’s implied that she might have bipolar disorder), she’s prescribed Elavil, and Tony wants some of the Elavil too. The only point to this subplot is that it’s a foreshadowing nod to a well-known “Sopranos” story arc about an adult Tony being in psychiatric therapy. Tony’s sessions with his therapist Dr. Melfi (played by Lorraine Bracco) were among the most-praised aspects of the TV series.
In addition to Tony and his sisters, “The Many Saints of Newark” has the younger versions of some other “Sopranos” characters, but they aren’t given much to do in this movie. John Magaro portrays a younger Silvio Dante, who was played by Steven Van Zandt in the TV series. Billy Magnussen depicts Paulie Walnuts, a role played by Tony Serico in the TV series. Samson Moeakiola is in the role of Pussy Bonpensiero, who was played by Vincent Pastore in the TV series.
However much “The Many Saints of Newark” might have been marketed as a Tony Soprano origin story, this movie is really a Dickie Moltisanti story, with Tony as a supporting character. The movie’s tagline is “Who Made Tony Soprano?,” but it still seems like a “bait and switch” marketing ploy. Throughout much of the movie, viewers might be asking instead, “Where is Tony Soprano?”
Fortunately, the performances by all of the movie’s cast members (especially Nivolo, Liotta, Odom and Farmiga) maintain a level of interest, along with the suspenseful aspects of the story. However, people who’ve seen enough American mafia movies will find a lot of familiar tropes in “The Many Saints of Newark.” Taylor doesn’t do anything spectacular with the movie’s direction. Chase and Konner approached the screenplay as if delving into Tony Soprano’s underage youth ultimately wouldn’t work as the central focus of a movie that showcases very adult crimes.
“The Saints of Newark” is not a bad movie, but it’s not a great one either, considering the high bar set by “The Sopranos.” The movie’s technical aspects, including the cinematography and production design, are perfectly adequate, but everything about “The Many Saints of Newark” looks like a made-for-TV movie, not a big event movie that was made for a theatrical release. As long as viewers know in advance that Tony Soprano is not the central character of “The Many Saints of Newark,” they have a better chance of enjoying this watchable but not essential entry in “The Sopranos” saga.
Warner Bros. Pictures released “The Many Saints of Newark” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on October 1, 2021.
Culture Representation: Taking place in 1957 in New York City, the musical drama remake “West Side Story” features a cast of white and Latino people representing the working-class.
Culture Clash: A young Puerto Rican woman and a young Polish American man fall in love with each other, despite having people close to them who are in rival, warring gangs that are opposed to this romance.
Culture Audience: Besides the obvious target audience of fans of the original “West Side Story” movie musical, this 2021 version of “West Side Story” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of director Steven Spielberg and movie adaptations of Broadway musicals.
The 2021 remake of “West Side Story” is exactly the glossy spectacle that you might expect from director Steven Spielberg. The movie is a bonafide crowd-pleasing epic that makes some interesting changes from the 1961’s “West Side Story” movie, a classic that was directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. In the 2021 version of “West Side Story,” some of these changes work better than other revisions to the original movie. The original “West Side Story” movie was based on a Tony-winning musical that debuted on Broadway in 1957. The Broadway musical was written by Arthur Laurents, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Ernest Lehman wrote the screenplay to the 1961 “West Side Story,” while Tony Kushner wrote the screenplay to the 2021 “West Side Story.”
The original “West Side Story” movie starred Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno and George Chakiris as four young people in New York City who are caught in the middle of gang warfare, ethnic bigotry and risky romance. Moreno and Chakiris won Oscars for their supporting roles in the movie, which won a total of 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. (Moreno’s Oscar victory was groundbreaking, as she became the first Latina to win an Academy Award.) Is the 2021 version of “West Side Story” worthy of 10 Academy Awards? No, but there are some standout performances that should bring more attention to some very talented cast members. They do all their own singing, unlike some of the stars of the original “West Side Story” movie.
Most fans of musicals already know the basic premise of “West Side Story,” which is set in New York City (specifically, in a working-class area of Manhattan’s West Side) in 1957. It’s a story inspired by William Shakeapeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” In “West Side Story,” a sweet and innocent Puerto Rican woman named Maria, who’s in her late teens, falls in love with a slightly older, streetwise Polish American man named Tony, who is an ex-con trying to start a new and reformed life away from an all-white gang that he used to lead called the Jets. Maria’s domineering older brother Bernardo is the leader of an all-Puerto Rican rival gang called the Sharks. Bernardo is dating Maria’s sassy best friend Anita. Needless to say, the romance of Maria and Tony sparks a war between the Jets and the Sharks.
In the original “West Side Story” movie, Wood was Maria, Beymer was Tony, Moreno was Anita and Chakiris was Bernardo. In the 2021 “West Side Story” remake (which also takes place in 1957), Rachel Zegler is María, Ansel Elgort is Tony, Ariana DeBose is Anita and David Alvarez is Bernardo. Unlike the original “West Side Story” movie, Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake avoids any criticism of “whitewashing” racial casting, by casting the people of color characters with actors who are also people of color. Zegler is a Latina of Colombian heritage. DeBose is multiracial; in interviews, she sometimes identifies herself as African American. (DeBose’s father is Afro-Latino, and her mother is white.)
Perhaps the biggest and best change to the “West Side Story” remake is the clever idea to cast original “West Side Story” movie co-star Moreno in the role of a new character: Valentina, the no-nonsense but kind-hearted owner of a drugstore called Doc’s Chemists, where Tony works. In this version of “West Side Story,” Valentina is the widow of Doc, the store’s owner in the original “West Side Story” movie. (Doc was played by Ned Glass.) Considering all the racial discord in the story, the Valentina character gives the movie added poignancy because a Latina woman has given Tony a chance to redeem himself and start a new life.
Valentina represents the bridge between the divides caused by racism and xenophobia in the community that’s depicted in the movie. And there’s an extra layer of female empowerment/solidarity in a pivotal scene in the movie, when Anita defends herself from being attacked in the store by members of the Jets, and Valentina intervenes to put a stop to the assault. This scene has a greater impact than in the original “West Side Story,” when the upstanding but somewhat wishy-washy Doc was the one who stopped the attack.
Rather than putting the scene in a stereotypical context of a man coming to the rescue of a woman, this “West Side Story” movie has a woman in charge (Valentina), who is the unflinching moral compass in a maelstrom of hate and chaos. The scene is also symbolic of all the racism and sexism that women of color have had to experience and what happens when women help each other in moments of distress and pain. Moreno has talked extensively in interviews about how this scene was the most emotionally difficult one for her to film in the original “West Side Story,” and she has said it was a surreal experience to film it again in the “West Side Story” remake—this time, as the rescuer instead of the one being attacked.
Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake stays true to the main elements of the story. The movie opens with the Jets in a rubble-filled area that’s undergoing reconstruction to make way for higher-priced homes. The Jets, led by Tony’s best friend Riff (played by Mike Faist), are hoodlums who come from dysfunctional families and are hostile toward non-white immigrants whom they feel are taking over the city. Since 1917, Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory, and people born in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens. But that doesn’t stop people like the Jets (and many other xenophobic and racist people) from thinking that Puerto Ricans aren’t “real Americans.” If Tony had any past racism when he was in the Jets, it’s not directly mentioned in the movie. What’s clear is that Tony is now a reformed person and very much against racism.
Meanwhile, many of the Sharks, including Bernardo, dislike white people, whom they see as racist oppressors. Puerto Ricans such as Bernardo, María and Anita are U.S. citizens but feel like immigrants in the United States, where English is the dominant language and there’s open hatred and discrimination against people who aren’t white. Bernardo feels that the Sharks are superior to the Jets because, as he tells Riff in one of their many confrontations, at least most of the Sharks have jobs. The Jets—who are U.S.-born, mostly unemployed descendants of white European immigrants—are fueled by anger in their perception that the American Dream has been ripped away from them.
María, Bernardo, and Anita (who all pay rent and share the same apartment in this “West Side Story” remake) represent the American Dream of people whose first language is not English, which they’ve had to learn in order to get certain opportunities. María, Bernardo and Anita also represent Puerto Ricans who come to the United States in search of a better life while the majority of their families still live in Puerto Rico. Coming to a place like New York City—where the cost of living and is higher and the living spaces are smaller than most other U.S. cities—can be a rude awakening that can be handled with optimism or pessimism. This dichotomy is represented in one of the musical’s most famous song-and-dance numbers: “America,” with Anita taking the lead for the optimistic side, and Bernardo taking the lead for the pessimistic side.
A noticeable difference in this “West Side Story” remake is that the Puerto Ricans speak a lot more Spanish—and there are no subtitles. It’s a clear indication that Spielberg (who is one of the movie’s producers) wanted this version of “West Side Story” to be more inclusive to Spanish-speaking audiences and present a more realistic depiction of people who speak more than one language. Although the 2021 version of “West Side Story” has no subtitles for the Spanish-language dialogue, it’s easy for people who don’t know Spanish to figure out what what’s being said, based on the cast members’ tones of voice, body language and facial expressions.
In this movie remake, the Puerto Rican characters are less concerned about assimilating in English-speaking America than their counterparts were in the 1961 version of “West Side Story.” Valentina even says so, when she makes this comment about her interracial marriage: “I married a gringo. He thinks that makes me a gringo. I ain’t.”
“West Side Story” was ahead of its time for having the androgynous Anybodys character, who is presented in both movies as a young transgender man, during an era when the word “transgender” did not exist. In the “West Side Story” remake, Anybodys (played by Iris Menas) is a lookout for the Jets. Anybodys is sometimes referred to as a “girl,” but Anybodys would rather be just one of the guys.
There’s a point in the movie where people start using male pronouns to describe Anybodys—and that makes Anybodys very happy. In the 2021 “West Side Story” remake, Anybodys has less screen time than the Anybodys in the first “West Side Story” movie. The character is depicted with more subtlety and less-exaggerated mannerisms in the remake.
Just like in the original “West Side Story,” the movie begins with the introduction of the Jets, followed by the Sharks, and the tensions between the two gangs. The Jets are first seen emerging from the rubble with paint cans, which they use to commit vandalism on an outdoor wall mural of the Puerto Rican flag. (This vandalism of a Puerto Rican flag mural is new to the remake.) The Sharks see this vandalism, are offended, and a brawl ensues between the two gangs until police arrive to break up the fight.
On the scene is Officer Krupke (played by Brian d’Arcy James), a “regular Joe” cop who would like nothing more than for the Jets and the Sharks to stop fighting each other, even though he knows that’s not very realistic. Krupke’s swaggering boss is Lieutenant Schrank (played by Corey Stoll), who’s even more impatient with these rival gangs than Krupke is. Schrank gruffly insults the Jets by calling them “the last of the can’t-make-it Caucasians,” and he barks this order: “Evict yourself from my crime scene, Bernardo!”
The Jets and the Sharks don’t trust each other, but both gangs have even less trust of the police. It’s why no one in either gang will snitch when the police try to find out who started the violent fight. No one is arrested this time, but the fight’s not over. As soon as the cops leave, Riff and Bernardo agree that there should be a rumble to decide which gang will come out on top. Anita and María openly express their disapproval of Bernardo’s gang activities, but he doesn’t pay attention to them, and there’s not much María and Anita can do to stop him.
Riff is somewhat of a reluctant chief of the Jets because he became the default leader when Tony was sent to prison for attempted murder of a young man during a gang fight. Now on parole, Tony is keeping his distance from the Jets because he truly wants to turn his life around and no longer be a criminal. Tony will not rejoin the Jets, despite Riff’s constant pleas.
Faist’s version of Riff has an insecure scrappiness to how he handles his gang leadership, indicating that Riff craves and fears power. He looks like he’s got a more fascinating and harrowing story to tell than Russ Tamblyn’s version of Riff in the first “West Side Story” movie. Tamblyn’s Riff looks like a frat boy gone bad. Faist’s version of Riff looks like a real street survivor who’s had a rough life and has the facial scars to prove it.
Riff has a platinum-blonde girlfriend named Velma (played by Maddie Ziegler), who is loyal and loving to him, but she disapproves of him getting involved in violent crimes. It’s a change from the Velma in the first “West Side Story” movie, where Velma was much more of a gang moll who looked the other way or encouraged Riff to be a violent thug. Ziegler became an actress after years as a professional dancer. Her dance expertise shows in Velma’s feisty and eye-catching dance moves.
In this “West Side Story” remake, Tony goes into more details about his life in prison in ways that weren’t in the original “West Side Story” movie. He still talks more about how prison changed him and made him determined to lead a law-abiding and productive life, but he expresses more guilt about the crime and more remorse about how he hurt the victim. After he was released from prison, Valentina gave Tony a job and a place to stay. (He lives in the store’s basement.) Valentina has known the members of the Jets since they were children. She has become a mother figure to Tony, who is estranged from his parents.
Just like in the original “West Side Story,” Tony and María meet and have a “love at first sight” encounter at a dance attended by local young people, including the members of the Jets and the Sharks. The dance’s chaperone announces at the dance that it’s a “social experiment” to better integrate white people and Latinos who live in the area. “And then you can all go back to your feral lives,” the chaperone cynically adds. However, racial segregation is still a fact of life that the attendees find difficult to change at this dance. They still congregate in groups according to race, including the inevitable dance-off where Anita and Bernardo outshine everyone else.
As an example of how much slicker this version of “West Side Story” is, the dance is held at a shiny-looking, well-lit school gymnasium, compared to the somewhat dark and grimy-looking dancehall in the original “West Side Story” movie. It’s a setting that looks a little too polished and well-kept for an area that’s supposed to be populated by people who are struggling financially and has public schools that are more run-down than they should be.
Tony has come to this dance reluctantly, after much persuasion from Riff, who wants to use the dance as away for Tony to see all of his former gang pals again. But once Tony and María lock eyes, meet cute behind the gym bleachers, and exchange some smitten dialogue, Tony can’t think of anything else but being with María. Tony and María couple up immediately by dancing together and having their first kiss just a few minutes after meeting that night. They agree to meet the next day at a museum.
Tony and María’s attraction to each other doesn’t go unnoticed. Bernardo orders Tony to stay away from María . Bernardo would rather that María date someone who’s Puerto Rican, such as his mild-mannered best friend Chino (played by Josh Andrés Rivera), who is not a member of the Sharks, although Chino would like to be. Chino was sort of Maria’s date at this dance, but Chino and María’s relationship has always been about platonic friendship only.
At the dance, Bernardo gets a little rough by pushing Tony away when he sees that Tony is interested in María. Riff and the rest of the Jets come to Tony’s defense, which leads the Sharks to get in on the dispute. María and Anita are disgusted with all of this seemingly never-ending fighting between the Sharks and the Jets, so they leave the dance. However, Tony doesn’t join his former gang cronies in this fight and instead runs out of the dance to look for María , but she is long gone.
The next day at Doc’s store, Tony has told Valentina about this new romance. He asks Valentina how to say, “I want to be with you forever” in Spanish, so that he can make this declaration of love to María on their first date. These kids move fast. Even Valentina notices how quickly Tony wants to commit to María, by cracking this joke: “You sure you don’t want to ask her out for coffee first?” Because this movie is set in the 1950s, when it was more common for people in the U.S. to get married in their late teens and early 20s, this swift courtship is easier to believe than if the movie had been set in the present day.
María and Tony are blissfully happy together in the short time that they’ve known each other, but their romance is threatened by the growing hatred between the Jets and the Sharks. The “West Side Story” remake keeps the sentiment that María and Tony have a pure love for each other. It’s a love that borders on obsession, especially in a scene where María gets some very bad news about something Tony did to hurt one of María’s loved ones, and her priority is to comfort Tony. However, there’s a slight but noticeable difference in how the remake presents this scene, which is in a better way than the first “West Side Story” movie.
The “West Side Story” remake has no drastic revisions to the songs’ tempos or arrangements. The movie also doesn’t add any original songs that were written specifically for this remake, in an attempt to get awards for new and original movie music. The song placements mostly stay true to the original, with some notable exceptions.
“I Feel Pretty,” Maria’s joyous ode to romance and self-confidence, has a different setting. In the original “West Side Story” movie, Maria sang “I Feel Pretty” in a private room with three seamstresses. In the “West Side Story” remake makes this musical number a much more public spectacle.
María works as a cleaning woman at a boutique. She sings “I Feel Pretty” while dancing through the rooms of the boutique with several other cleaning women during after-hours. This setting gives the scene a more aspirational tone to what the characters do, as they let loose in a boutique where they work but probably can’t afford the clothes that are sold in the boutique.
Fans of Moreno will have to wait until the last third of the movie for Valentina’s big musical moment: the show-stopping tune “Somewhere,” which she performs solo. It’s an absolute exquisite rendition that might make some viewers more than a little misty-eyed. All of the cast members rise to the occasion to make this “West Side Story” very entertaining and emotion-filled. There isn’t a mediocre performer in the movie’s principal cast.
Zegler carries her scenes as María with an eager-to-please demeanor. She doesn’t have the star power of Wood, but Zegler and Elgort have nice chemistry together as María and Tony. Elgort doesn’t always sound like the working-class New Yorker that he’s supposed to be as Tony when he speaks, but Elgort gives Tony the type of heartthrob charm that makes it easy to see why María falls so hard and fast for him. Elgort and Zegler have singing voices that are very good, but not particularly distinctive.
DeBose lights up every scene that she’s in and is the breakout star of the movie. Her version of Anita has a commanding presence and the flashiest dance movies. Debose’s larger-than-life portrayal of Anita is ideal for this type of splashy movie musical. Anita has a big personality, but she also has a more realistic view of life and love than starry-eyed María. And that’s why, for adults with enough life experience, Anita is a more relatable character than María.
Alvarez’s Bernardo has more machismo, as well as a little more emotional depth, than the Bernardo of the original “West Side Story” movie. Bernardo uses his arrogance to cover up his insecurities over feeling like he’s someone who’s “not good enough,” so he over-compensates. What he sees as being over-protective of María is really being over-controlling. What he sees as pride in being a Shark is really an endorsement of violent racism.
In the original “West Side Story,” Anita and Bernardo were an attractive couple, but you never got the impression that they had much romantic passion for each other. There’s more believable sexual heat with Anita and Bernardo in this “West Side Story” remake. DeBose and Alvarez seem to have natural chemistry with each other as Anita and Bernardo, who sees himself as the ultimate alpha male. Sex in the movie is hinted at but not explicitly shown. For example, Anita and Bernardo kiss passionately before slamming a bedroom door behind them; María and Tony wake up together half-dressed in bed.
As for the dazzling dance numbers, “West Side Story” movie remake choreographer Justin Peck brings his ballet background to the movie, with dance moves that are more complicated but a little more graceful, enhancing the stellar work by choreographer/director Robbins for the first “West Side Story” movie. DeBose is a standout in the dance scenes, which have a more sensuous and unbridled energy than the original “West Side Story” movie. (And that’s probably because depictions of sexuality in movies had more restrictions in movies released in 1961, compared to 2021.)
For the “West Side Story” remake, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and production design make things look bigger and more over-the-top in scale. An overcast night can’t just be an overcast night. It looks like a fog-filled, full-moon scene out of a horror movie. A crumbling slum area can’t look like a crumbling slum area. It looks like a bombed-out war zone. It’s all very impressive, in terms of visuals.
And yet somehow, this more ambitious, bigger-budget version of “West Side Story” loses some of the neighborhood intimacy that the original “West Side Story” movie had. Everything looks professionally done in the remake, but just a little too staged and calculated. And maybe that’s because the movie was filmed and built on soundstages. (The “West Side Story” remake was filmed at Steiner Studios in Brooklyn.) Sometimes bigger isn’t always better.
The ending of the “West Side Story” remake doesn’t end as abruptly as the first “West Side Story” does. Without giving away too many details, it’s enough to say that the remake has a more melodramatic ending with some preachiness. It’s a revision that some “West Side Story” fans might like, while others won’t. This slightly new ending doesn’t take away from the overall spirit of “West Side Story,” which is a celebration of life and love, with the knowledge that both can be precious, fleeting and experienced with a lot of heartache.
20th Century Studios will release “West Side Story” in U.S. cinemas on December 10, 2021.