Review: ‘The Fabelmans,’ starring Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Gabriel LaBelle and Judd Hirsch

November 11, 2022

by Carla Hay

Gabriel LaBelle, Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Keeley Karsten, Julia Butters and Sophia Kopera in “The Fabelmans” (Photo by Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures)

“The Fabelmans”

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1952 to 1965, in New Jersey, Arizona, and California, the dramatic film “The Fabelmans” (inspired by director Steven Spielberg’s own youth) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Sammy Fabelman’s parents have contrasting opinions about his childhood dream to become a movie director, and his home life becomes turbulent when he finds out an emotionally painful secret. 

Culture Audience: “The Fabelmans” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Spielberg and anyone interested in coming-of-age stories about famous filmmakers.

Gabriel LaBelle in “The Fabelmans” (Photo by Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures)

Steven Spielberg tells a very personal story of his youth in “The Fabelmans,” a drama that’s a partial biopic and a therapeutic life analysis. The movie’s overly long run time drags it down, but Michelle Williams gives a transcendent performance as the mother of the fictional version of Spielberg. “The Fabelmans” (which clocks in at 151 minutes) is yet another story about a young person who ends up going to Hollywood to pursue a dream. But in this case, the young person turned out to be the Oscar-winning Spielberg, who is frequently lauded as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.

Spielberg directed “The Fabelmans” and co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Tony Kushner. Spielberg and Kushner previously collaborated on the 2021 remake of “West Side Story,” 2012’s “Lincoln” and 2005’s “Munich.” Spielberg has made a wide variety of films, but many of his movies—especially the ones having to do with outer-space creatures, such as 1977’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” 1982’s “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and 2005’s “War of the Worlds” remake—have a few themes in common, such as people dealing with fractured families and/or families in conflict because one person in the family is determined to pursue a particular goal against tremendous odds. In “The Fabelmans,” there are no outer-space creatures, but protagonist Sammy Fabelman (a fictional character based on the real-life Spielberg) often feels like he’s a proverbial alien in his own family.

“The Fabelmans” begins in New Jersey, on January 10, 1952. Sammy is 5 years old (played by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord), and his parents have taken him to the movies to see director Cecil B. DeMille’s circus drama “The Greatest Show on Earth,” starring Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Charlton Heston, Dorothy Lamour, Gloria Grahame and James Stewart. Before they go into the move theater, Sammy’s mother Mitzi Fabelman (played by Williams) and Sammy’s father Burt Fabelman (played by Paul Dano) assure a fearful Sammy that the people who will look like giants on the big screen are just images from the movie. Sammy doesn’t know it yet, but seeing this movie will change his life.

This moviegoing scene in “The Fabelmans” also establishes from the beginning how Mitzi and Burt have two different parenting styles and contrasting outlooks on life. Burt, who is a computer engineer, tries to explain to Sammy the technical aspects of how a movie projector beams images on the screen and how a human brain processes those images. Mitzi, who is an on-again/off-again professional pianist for radio, explains movies to Sammy this way: “They’re like dreams.” In other words, Burt views life like a scientist, while Mitzi views life like an artist.

It’s later mentioned in the movie that young Sammy has anxiety and is prone to panic attacks. But since he’s a child in the 1950s, when people usually didn’t seek psychiatric care for this medical condition, Sammy doesn’t get therapy in his childhood for his anxiety. The person in his family who is most likely to calm him down is his mother Mitzi, who has mental health struggles of her own. She is the person in the family who is most likely to understand Sammy.

Sitting between his parents while watching “The Greatest Show on Earth,” Sammy is in awe and slightly afraid of what he’s seeing on the big screen. He is particularly impacted by the movie’s train-wreck scene. In this scene, a criminal who has just robbed a circus train, which is stopped on the tracks, drives his car onto tracks to frantically stop another circus train traveling right behind the first train. His plan doesn’t work, and the second train plows into his car and the first train, causing death and some of the wild circus animals to escape.

After Sammy gets home, his parents notice that how he’s become obsessed with trains. As a Hanukkah gift, Sammy’s father gives him a train set. The other members of the Fabelman household are Sammy’s younger sisters Natalie Fabelman (played by Alina Brace) and Reggie Fabelman (played by Birdie Borria).

It isn’t long before Sammy is recreating the train wreck that he saw in “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Burt gets angry because he thinks Sammy isn’t respecting the toy train and is trying to ruin it, so he temporarily takes the train set away from Sammy as punishment. He orders Sammy not to simulate a train wreck when he plays with the toy train.

“I need to see them crash,” Sammy tells his parents to explain why he likes making the train crash into a toy car. Mitzi understands why Sammy has a fascination with creating a train wreck and explains it to Burt that it’s because Sammy wants control over the train. Burt doesn’t care to understand and just thinks Sammy is being a spoiled brat.

One night, after Sammy has gotten his toy train back, Mitzi takes him into the room where the train set is. She tells Sammy that he can crash the train one more time, but they will secretly use Burt’s film camera to film everything, so Sammy can watch the train wreck over and over without actually crashing the train. Mitzi tells Sammy that this film will be their little secret.

Of course, this film is the start of Sammy’s lifelong passion to become a filmmaker. By the following year, in 1953, the Fabelmans have a new addition to the family: a baby named Lisa. Burt gets a job working as a manager at General Electric (GE) in Phoenix, Arizona. Mitzi is supportive of the move, as long as Burt can get his best friend/co-worker Bennie Loewy (played by Seth Rogen) a job at GE too. It’s mentioned several times in the movie that Burt is an exceptional engineer and a computer visionary, while Bennie is an average employee who owes much of his career to getting help from Burt.

The Fabelman kids often call Burt’s best friend Uncle Bennie, even though Bennie isn’t biologically related to them. During a Fabelman family dinner, observant viewers will notice other dynamics in Bennie’s relationship to the Fabelmans. Bennie is a friendly jokester who likes to play harmless pranks and make people laugh, especially Mitzi. Burt’s outspoken, widowed mother Hadassah Fabelman (played by Jeannie Berlin), who is a frequent visitor in the household, isn’t too fond of Bennie, because she notices how Bennie and Mitzi have a playful banter with each other. Mitzi’s widowed mother Tina Schildkraut (played by Robin Bartlett), who is much more laid-back than Hadassah, doesn’t talk much and only has a few scenes in the movie.

Burt is mild-mannered, nerdy and slow to pick up on body language and social cues to figure out how people are really feeling. He’s a classic introvert who is more likely to consider facts when making a decision. Mitzi is impulsive, moody and very attuned to people’s unsaid thoughts. Mitzi is a classic extrovert, who is more likely to consider feelings when making a decision. Burt prefers to avoid confrontations. Mitzi isn’t afraid of confrontations and will often cause them.

It’s also implied that Mitzi has an undiagnosed mental illness, which is presented in “The Fabelmans” as looking a lot like bipolar disorder. In a scene that takes place in 1953, before the family moves from New Jersey to Arizona, a tornado strikes the area where the Fabelmans live. Instead of wanting to stay safe in their house or a secure shelter, like most people would, Mitzi spontaneously decides to take Sammy, Natalie and Reggie with her in the family car to drive toward the tornado so that they can get a closer look at it. (Mitzi at least has the sense to leave baby Lisa behind with Burt.)

Mitzi makes this decision so quickly, Burt doesn’t have time to stop her, and his protests are ignored. The kids are too young to understand that Mitzi could be putting them in danger, because she acts like this is a fun joy ride. As they get closer to the tornado and the rain storm gets worse, Mitzi stops the car, and the reality sinks in that this isn’t an adventure trip after all. She begins to cry but still pretends to the children that everything is just fine as she dejectedly drives home. You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to see that this incident looks like a manic episode from a person with bipolar disorder.

It’s no secret that in real life, Spielberg’s parents got divorced when he was a teenager. Spielberg has also been open about the reason why they got divorced. He talked about it in director Susan Lacy’s 2017 documentary “Spielberg,” as well as in some interviews that he’s given over the years. But the reason why is parents got divorced will be a surprise to many people who watch “The Fabelmans” for the first time, so those details won’t be revealed in this review.

However, it’s enough to say that by the time the family moves to Phoenix, the cracks in the marriage are already starting to show. “The Fabelmans” then fast-forwards to the family’s life in Arizona during the early-to-mid-1960s. Sammy is now a blossoming teenage filmmaker (played by Gabriel LaBelle), who makes short films (mostly Westerns) with his schoolmates and members of his Boy Scout troupe. Sammy gets a lot of praise and admiration from most people around him for his filmmaking. Bennie is in Arizona too, working at GE with Burt and often accompanying the Fabelmans on family gatherings.

After some initial skepticism, Sammy’s father Burt eventually becomes impressed with Sammy’s talent for filmmaking, but Burt is not entirely convinced that filmmaking is a good career choice for Sammy. He often tells Sammy to pursue a more “practical” profession. Burt also keeps calling Sammy’s filmmaking a “hobby,” and Sammy is offended by Burt not taking Sammy’s filmmaking seriously as a future career. By contrast, Mitzi is Sammy’s first and biggest filmmaking fan, and she never wavers or has doubts in encouraging Sammy to become a filmmaker.

Natalie (played by Keeley Karsten), who’s about two or three years younger than Sammy, is intelligent, assertive and opinionated. She’s also the sister who has the closest emotional bond to Sammy, and he values her opinion. (Natalie is based on Spielberg’s real-sister Anne, who became a screenwriter.) For example, while Steven is editing his short films, he sometimes shows Nancy early cuts of the films and asks her what she thinks.

Reggie (played by Julia Butters), who’s about four years younger than Sammy, is a polite and obedient kid. She’s based on Steven Spielberg’s middle sister Sue, who’s actually seven years younger than he is. Sammy’s youngest sister Lisa (played by Sophia Kopera), who’s six years younger than Sammy, doesn’t have much of a personality in the movie at all. (Lisa is based on Steven Spielberg’s youngest sister Nancy, who’s actually 10 years younger than he is.)

With the Fabelman kids at an age where they are all now in school, Mitzi begins to take up professional piano playing for radio again. The family members (with Bennie) often gather in their living room to watch Mitzi practice. Burt is reluctant to give any criticism to Mitzi, while Bennie is more forthright and isn’t afraid to tell Mitzi what he thinks.

There’s a telling scene where Mitzi’s long fingernails cause a clacking noise when she plays the piano. Burt denies there’s anything wrong with that, but Bennie says it’s going to be a problem for radio listeners to hear this clacking noise during Mitzi’s piano playing. Mitzi takes pride in her long, well-manicured fingernails and doesn’t want to cut them. She eventually relents when Bennie and some of the kids playfully tackle her, and Bennie cuts her nails.

One of the most memorable sequences in “The Fabelmans” is a fateful camping trip that the family takes while living in Arizona. Everything is going well. Everyone seems to be happy. Sammy is filming everything that he can during this trip.

One night during a campfire, Mitzi spontaneously decides to do a ballet dance in front of Burt, Bennie, Sammy and Natalie while she’s wearing a thin-fabric nightgown. Sammy is filming it, of course, In order to get better lighting, Bennie turns on the headlights of a car parked nearby. The bright lights essentially cause Mitzi’s nightgown to become see-through, and it’s obviously she’s completely naked underneath the gown.

Natalie is mortified, and she runs up to her mother to tell her discreetly that everyone can see through Mitzi’s nightgown. Mitzi ignores her and keeps dancing, while Natalie pleads for her mother to stop. Mitzi keeps dancing, while an annoyed Natalie runs away and says that everyone there is crazy.

Mitzi’s only audience is now Bennie, Burt and Sammy, who keeps the camera focused on Mitzi. All of them are looking at Mitzi, almost as if they’re in a trance. Their fascination with her is for different reasons, which can all be seen on the expressions on their faces. Sammy being in awe isn’t incestuous, although it does come across as a little creepy that he’s staring at his mother’s nearly naked body.

This scene shows that Sammy is so enthralled with his filmmaking and what he’s getting on camera, it’s almost as if he forgot that the woman in the see-through gown in front of him is his own mother. When Mitzi ends the dance, she looks at everyone staring at her with a expression of satisfaction but also a tinge of sadness. Later, when the family looks at the footage, Mitzi praises Sammy by telling him, “You really see me.”

Another pivotal sequence in “The Fabelmans” happens when Mitzi’s much-older brother Boris (played by Judd Hirsch) shows up at the Fabelmans’ home in Phoenix for a surprise visit. This visit happens after Mitzi had a nightmarish dream that her mother told her that something is coming. According to Mizti, Boris used to bully Mitzi when she was a child. And so, when Boris arrives at the home, Mitzi greets him with a lot of apprehension, but she eventually relaxes when she sees that Boris is nice to her and her family.

Boris, who is now an elderly man, spent much of his life as a lion trainer in the circus. He has a personality that is eccentric and “in your face.” He’s a raconteur who likes to tell stories about himself, and he has a voice that compels people to pay attention to him. In other words, it’s impossible to ignore Boris when he’s in a room.

When Boris finds out that Sammy is an aspiring filmmaker, he begins to give Sammy advice on what to expect in life if Sammy wants to be an artist. Sammy doesn’t see the connection between being an artist and a circus lion trainer, until Boris explains that there’s no art in putting your head in a lion, but there’s an art in keeping the lion from biting your head while in a lion’s mouth.

Boris warns Sammy that artists will have always have a tug of war between art and family. He also tells Sammy that being an artist also means often being very lonely. Sammy is both awed and intimidated by Boris, especially after Boris puts Sammy in headlock in an awkward way to show Sammy to remember that physical pain every time Sammy has to suffer as an artist.

The last third of “The Fabelmans” could have been its own movie because of all the things that happen. In this part of the film, the Fabelmans move once again—this time to California’s Santa Clara County, because Burt has gotten a major job offer to work for IBM. Mitzi and Sammy (who is in his last year of high school) are very unhappy with this move, and the family starts to crumble over various things. Unlike their life in Arizona, where they lived near several other Jewish families, the Fabelmans are the only Jewish family in their California neighborhood.

At school, Sammy is a misfit loner who gets bullied by the school’s star athletes, led by a conceited pretty boy named Logan Hall (played by Sam Rechner), who is also in his last year of high school. Logan has a weaselly sidekick named Chad Thomas (played by Oakes Fegley), who openly hates Jewish people. Sammy experiences some cruel antisemitism from Chad, Logan and other students who stand by and laugh when Sammy gets bullied for being Jewish.

Sammy also gets caught up in some drama between Logan’s girlfriend Claudia Denning (played by Isabelle Kusman) and Logan. It leads to Sammy getting to closer to Claudia and Claudia’s best friend Monica Sherwood (played by Chloe East), who is a self-described Jesus freak. Monica is fascinated by Sammy being Jewish, so her interest in him is a combination of teenage lust and a desire to turn him on to Christianity.

The last third of “The Fabelmans” is the best part of the movie, but it’s also the messiest. It mostly chronicles Sammy’s last year in high school in California, and it offers a glimpse into his life after high school. (Real-life filmmaker David Lynch has a noteworthy cameo as legendary filmmaker John Ford.) Sammy’s life after high school and during college is so truncated, it’s obvious to viewers that a significant part of the story is missing, to the detriment of the movie, which is already too long. In other words, this story should have been a miniseries, not a feature-length film.

However, there’s no denying that “the Fabelmans” does a stellar job of depicting Sammy coming to terms with the fantasies that he escapes to in filmmaking and the harsh realities of life. The movie also skillfully shows that the two most impactful relationships that Sammy had in his youth are Sammy’s relationship with filmmaking and Sammy’s relationship with his mother. The reasons for the family unraveling are heartbreaking but very realistic.

And it’s why Williams is such a standout in a very talented cast. Her portrayal of Mitzi is far from stereotypical and shows many depths and layers to this complicated person. Mitzi has wonderful qualities as well as damaging flaws. Williams makes this character a full, authentic human being, not just someone reciting lines and emoting on screen.

The other principal cast members do well in their roles. Dano is convincing in playing a character who represses a lot of emotions and denies a lot of problems until it’s too late. LaBelle also turns in an admirable performance, considering it’s not easy for any actor to know that he’s playing a young version of Steven Spielberg. Rogen is perfectly fine as family friend Bennie, but this character doesn’t have a lot of screen time, and Rogen (who’s mostly known as a comedic actor) has had better roles to show his dramatic abilities.

“The Fabelmans” is a specific story but it’s also universal to anyone who can relate to pursuing dreams, even when people doubt that certain goals can be accomplished. The movie’s tone has a middle-class American sheen to it that will get some criticism for glossing over a lot of American society problems in the 1950s and 1960s that still exist today. Antisemitism is part of the story, but racism, sexism, poverty and other social ills are completely erased in this movie.

This omission of any of society’s problems outside of Sammy’s limited world in the 1950s and 1960s speaks to how his young life had its share of turmoil, but it was still in a certain “bubble” where he was blissfully unaware or chose to ignore a lot of society’s problems that weren’t about him. It’s a blind spot that many people carry throughout their lives, but “The Fabelmans” offers no real or meaningful introspection about that blind spot.

“The Fabelmans” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, where the movie won the People’s Choice Award, which is the festival’s top prize. Even with any accolades that this movie receives, when people look back on Steven Spielberg’s most beloved films, “The Fabelmans” won’t be at the top of the list for most people. However long-winded this movie can be, it still showcases Spielberg’s talent for telling emotionally genuine stories about families, as well as expressing why people fall in love with filmmaking.

Universal Pictures released “The Fabelmans” in select U.S. cinemas on November 11, 2022, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on November 23, 2022.

Review: ‘West Side Story’ (2021), starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Brian d’Arcy James and Rita Moreno

December 2, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler in “West Side Story” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

“West Side Story” (2021)

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Some language in Spanish with no subtitles

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.

Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez in “West Side Story” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

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.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound’

April 29, 2019

by Carla Hay

Making Waves
“Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound” interviewee Walter Murch re-recording mixing of “Apocalypse Now” (Photo by W.S. Murch)

“Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound”

Directed by Midge Costin

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 29, 2019.

“Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound” is the type of documentary that is best seen in a movie theater, where the film’s impressive sound editing and sound mixing can be best appreciated.  It’s also the kind of documentary that some might consider too technical for their tastes, but it’s a must-see for cinephiles, film students or anyone who cares to find out more about the history of sound in film.

The movie does a quick run-through of the transition between silent films and “talkies” to get to the heart of the film—the movies and filmmakers who’ve had the most influence on today’s cinematic experiences. Like a classroom presentation at a film school, “Making Waves” takes a somewhat academic approach in describing the different components of sound in cinema. And that’s probably because “Make Waves” director Midge Costin is an Oscar-nominated sound editor who’s also a professor of sound at USC Film School. The movie divides the discussion intro three categories: voice, sound effects and music. In the voice category are production recording, dialogue editing and ADR (automated dialog replacement). In the sound effects category are SFX, Foley and ambience.

“Making Waves” also interviews many of the top filmmakers in the industry, including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Christopher Nolan, Alfonso Cuarón, Sofia Coppola, Ang Lee, Ryan Coogler, Robert Redford, David Lynch and Barbra Streisand. Sound designers/editors interviewed in the documentary Walter Murch (a longtime collaborator with Francis Ford Coppola), Ben Burtt (a favorite of George Lucas), Bobbi Banks (“The Fate of the Furious,” “Straight Outta Compton”), Anna Behlmer (“Moulin Rouge!”, 2009’s “Star Trek”) and Gary Rydstrom, who’s worked on numerous Steven Spielberg movies.

The documentary takes the position that sound in cinema really began to hit its stride in the 1970s, with movies like “The Godfather” and “Star Wars.” There are several movies that are singled out for their pioneering sound. The 1976 version  of “A Star Is Born” is credited with being the first to fully utilize stereo effects in sound editing. Streisand, who starred in the movie and was one of the film’s producers, tells a story in “Making Waves” about how she had to pay $1 million of her own money for the sound, and Warner Bros. Pictures ended up being so impressed with the movie’s sound quality that the movie studio ended up covering the $1 million cost.

Coppola’s 1979 masterpiece “Apocalypse Now” pioneered surround sound, while 1995’s “Toy Story” is considered a breakthrough animated film for sound. Other movies whose sound is given a spotlight in “Making Waves” include “Jurassic Park,” “Argo,” “Top Gun,” “Selma,” “Inception,” “Ordinary People,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “A River Runs Through It.” As for music in movies, the Beatles are credited with being pioneers on screen, as well as being major influences on filmmakers who were fans of the band. “Making Waves” also has interviews with famous composers such as Hans Zimmer and Ludwig Goransson, who gives a demonstration of how he crafted his Oscar-winning score for “Black Panther.”

Although a few of the people interviewed in “Making Waves” come across as bit dull, “Making Waves” is still worth seeing for the way it gives valuable history lessons in cinema. Just don’t watch this movie on a phone or a computer, or you’ll be missing out on the full sound experience of the movie and the reason why this documentary exists.

UPDATE: “Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound” opens in New York City and Los Angeles on October 25, 2019. The movie expands to more cities in the U.S. and Canada, beginning November 1, 2019.

Apple announces Apple TV+ with Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston and more

March 25, 2019

The following is a press release from Apple:

Apple today announced Apple TV+, the new home for the world’s most creative storytellers featuring exclusive original shows, movies and documentaries, coming this fall. Apple TV+, Apple’s original video subscription service, will feature a brand new slate of programming from the world’s most celebrated creative artists, including Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Octavia Spencer, J.J. Abrams, Jason Momoa, M. Night Shyamalan, Jon M. Chu and more. On the Apple TV app, subscribers will enjoy inspiring and authentic stories with emotional depth and compelling characters from all walks of life, ad-free and on demand.

“We’re honored that the absolute best lineup of storytellers in the world – both in front of and behind the camera – are coming to Apple TV+,” said Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Internet Software and Services. “We’re thrilled to give viewers a sneak peek of Apple TV+ and cannot wait for them to tune in starting this fall. Apple TV+ will be home to some of the highest quality original storytelling that TV and movie lovers have seen yet.”

Additionally, Apple debuted the all-new Apple TV app and Apple TV channels coming in May 2019. The all-new Apple TV app brings together the different ways to discover and watch shows, movies, sports, news and more in one app across iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, Mac, smart TVs and streaming devices. Users can subscribe to and watch new Apple TV channels – paying for only services they want, like HBO, SHOWTIME and Starz – all on demand, available on and offline, with incredible picture quality and sound; enjoy sports, news and network TV from cable and satellite providers as well as purchase or rent iTunes movies and TV shows all within the new, personalized Apple TV app.

Beginning in May, customers can subscribe to Apple TV channels à la carte and watch them in the Apple TV app, with no additional apps, accounts or passwords required. Apple TV channels include popular services such as HBO, Starz, SHOWTIME, CBS All Access, Smithsonian Channel, EPIX, Tastemade, Noggin and new services like MTV Hits, with more to be added over time around the world.

The new Apple TV app personalizes what viewers love to watch across their existing apps and services while developing a secure and comprehensive understanding of users’ viewing interests. The app will offer suggestions for shows and movies from over 150 streaming apps, including Amazon Prime and Hulu, as well as pay-TV services such as Canal+, Charter Spectrum, DIRECTV NOW and PlayStation Vue. Optimum and Suddenlink from Altice will be added later this year.*

Additionally, the Apple TV app will become the new home to the hundreds of thousands of movies and TV shows currently available for purchase or rent in the iTunes Store.

Availability

Pricing and availability for the Apple TV+ video subscription service will be announced later this fall.

The all-new Apple TV app is coming to iPhone, iPad and Apple TV customers in over 100 countries with a free software update this May, and to Mac this fall.

Through Family Sharing, users can share Apple TV+ and subscriptions to Apple TV channels.

The Apple TV app will be available on Samsung smart TVs beginning this spring and on Amazon Fire TV, LG, Roku, Sony and VIZIO platforms in the future.

Later this year, customers with eligible VIZIO, Samsung, LG and Sony smart TVs will be able to effortlessly play videos and other content from their iPhone or iPad directly to their smart TVs with AirPlay 2 support.

Apple revolutionized personal technology with the introduction of the Macintosh in 1984. Today, Apple leads the world in innovation with iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple Watch and Apple TV. Apple’s four software platforms – iOS, macOS, watchOS and tvOS – provide seamless experiences across all Apple devices and empower people with breakthrough services including the App Store, Apple Music, Apple Pay and iCloud. Apple’s more than 100,000 employees are dedicated to making the best products on earth, and to leaving the world better than we found it.

Editor’s note: The shows on Apple TV+ include:

  • Steven Spielberg’s reboot of the “Amazing Stories” anthology
  • Oprah Winfrey projects, including a documentary titled “Toxic Labor” about workplace harassment; a documentary (title to be announced) about mental health; and a book club-oriented program whose title is to be announced.
  • “The Morning Show,” a drama series about morning television, starring Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell, with Aniston and Witherspoon among the executive producers
  • “See,” a post-apocalyptic drama series starring Jason Momoa and Alfre Woodard
  • “Little Voice,” a musical drama series, executive produced by J.J. Abrams, with original songs written by Sara Bareilles
  • “My Glory Was I Had Such Friends,” starring Jennifer Garner and executive produced by J.J. Abrams
  • “Peanuts” content, based on the beloved comic-strip characters
  • “Swagger,” a drama series based on the life of basketball star Kevin Durant, with Durant executive producing the show with Ron Howard and Brian Grazer
  • “Defending Jacob,” a drama series starring and executive produced by Chris Evans, about a father whose teenage son is suspected of killing a classmate
  • “Pachinko,” a drama series based on Min Jin Lee’s book, with Soo Hugh as the showrunner
  • A comedy series (title to be announced) about video-game company, executive produced by “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” co-stars Rob McElhenney and Charlie Day
  • “Are You Sleeping,” a drama series about how a podcast affects a cold murder case, starring Octavia Spencer, Lizzy Caplan and Aaron Paul
  • “Dickinson,” a drama series about Emily Dickinson, starring Hailee Steinfeld
  • “Bastards,” a drama series about war veterans, starring Richard Gere
  • A drama series (title to be announced) about CIA operative Amaryllis Fox, starring and executive produced by Oscar-winning actress Brie Larson
  • “Little America,” a comedy series about immigrants, executive produced by Oscar-nominated “The Big Sick” writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon
  • “Helpsters,” a children’s show from Sesame Workshop
  • “Calls,” an American remake of a French drama series that does reenactments of 911 calls
  • “For All Mankind,” a space drama series starring Joel Kinnaman
  • “Central Park,” an animated series from “Bob’s Burgers” creator Loren Bouchard, with a voice cast that includes Kristen Bell, Tituss Burgess, Daveed Diggs, Josh Gad, Kathryn Hahn, Leslie Odom Jr. and Stanley Tucci.
  • “Homes,” a docuseries about unusual homes
  • “Losing Earth,” a possible drama or docuseries about climate change
  • “Shantaram,” a drama series about an escaped prisoner from Australia who’s hiding out in India, from executive producer/screenwriter Eric Warren Singer (“American Hustle”)
  • “Time Bandits,” a fantasy comedy series from executive producer/director Taika Waititi, based on Terry Gilliam’s 1981 film of the same title
  • A still-untitled drama/thriller series from executive producer M. Night Shyamalan, with a cast that includes Lauren Ambrose, Rupert Grint and Toby Kebbell [UPDATE: The series is titled “Servant.”]
  • A still-untitled drama series from Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle, with the show’s plot and cast to be announced
  • A still-untitled sci-fi series from executive producer Simon Kinberg, who has written several “X-Men” movies
  • A still-untitled mystery drama series from executive producer/director Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”), based on real-life pre-teen reporter Hilde Lysiak (played by Brooklynn Prince), with Jim Sturgess co-starring as her father

SOURCE: Variety

*Network and streaming app availability may vary by country.

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