Friday, December 10, 2021

New arrivals visit 'West Side,' 'Up,' the 'Ricardos' and a couple more

Star-crossed Tony and Maria, Elgort and Zegler.

One of the year's most welcome surprises, Steven Spielberg's near-glorious cinematic retake on "West Side Story" is also among 2021's finest films, and not only because I know all the words to almost every song (except some obvious changes in "I Feel Pretty").

It's a sparkling collaboration between old and new, stale and fresh, simple and elaborate, the still classic love stories of "Romeo and Juliet" and Broadway-based Tony (Ansel Elgort of "Baby Driver" fame) and Maria (radiant newcomer Rachel Zegler) surrounded by stunningly choreographed gang encounters featuring homeboy Jets and, now, real Spanish-speaking Sharks. Whew!

Credit the craft teams of director Spielberg, his longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, and their enthusiastic ensemble for giving it such an energetic go and glow. By the way, Ariana DeBose ("Hamilton") shows up particularly strong, as Anita, the same character that brought Rita Moreno an Oscar in the 1961 Best Picture. Uh, and, if you haven't heard, the legendary actress returns, too, in a new, more touching role to call her own. Talk about encores!

(West Side Story" is now at theaters everywhere.)

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: some strong violence, thematic content, suggestive material, brief smoking; 2:36; $ $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

As has been mentioned before on this site, Siskel and Ebert's legendary reviewing rule of thumb often generally makes its mark in crowded-cast films such as the current "Don't Look Up."

Hey, I usually mimic them saying something like, "a pic with so many stars rarely shines" and, considering the subject matter here -- a huge comet heading for a direct hit on our planet -- that take actually might work as punny criticism, too. 

Seriously, folks, there are a lotta large names in this latest satire from writer/director Adam McKay ("The Big Short," "Vice"), including Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio, both fine as the Michigan State University PhD candidate and professor, respectively, getting internationally condemned and commended for their findings. 

Among many others on board: Meryl Streep (as the goofy Madame President), Jonah Hill (her arrogant son and chief of staff), Timothee Chalamet (a smart skaterboarder), Tyler Perry and Cate Blanchett (dumb together as outrageous TV talk co-hosts), Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi (because they write/sing the title song) and probably best of all, Mark Rylance (as a kind of wealthy and out-of-touch Bill Gates/Mr. Rogers/Steve Jobs character).

Of course, any similarities between such silly personalities and real people are purely coincidental. You'll laugh out loud at them a few times, maybe more, then forget most of it immediately. After all, there's that threatening C-word about to kill us all, anyway.

("Don't Look Up" is currently in theaters before bowing Christmas Eve on Netflix.)

Rated "R" by MPAA: language throughout, some sexual content, graphic nudity, and drug content; 2:18; $ $ $ out of $5

Perhaps the coolest thing about "Being the Ricardos" is actually getting to see personas attached to Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll Jr.

Certainly you will recognize those monikers from the ever-ongoing credits of everyone's favorite sitcom, "I Love Lucy," where the familiar trio has been been nicely noted as writers and other behind-the-scenes honchos for the celebrated show's six years on CBS-TV and 65 years worth of reruns.

Such lengthy tenure means each is played by two different actors in writer/director Aaron Sorkin's dialogue-heavy (read: slow in parts) movie about one mostly serious week in the real and fictitious lives of Lucille Ball (a swell Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (the more on-target Javier Bardem).

Oppenheimer (John Rubinstein/Tony Hale), Pugh (Linda Lavin/Alia Shawkat) and Carroll (Ronny Cox/Jake Lacy) get to do the perceptive telling, while Vivian Vance/Ethel Mertz (a terrific Nina Arianda) and Fred Mertz/William Frawley (always steady J.K. Simmons) hang around to steal scenes, just as they always did on the original show.

Besides a real story fib here or there, one glaring inconsistency has Frawley acting the ditz during a table read, then becoming a voice of reason during the rest. Such apparently is the way of show biz -- and movies about same. 

("Being the Ricardos" is in select theaters now and streams Dec. 21 on Amazon Prime.) 

Rated "R" by MPAA: for language; 2:11; $ $ $ out of $5

As film fate would have it, a Simmons-portrayed character also attempts to become the voice of reason in "National Champions," but instead puts foot in mouth too often as a football coach with some significant problems.

In addition to an unfaithful wife (Kristin Chenowith), Coach has the Big Game for all the collegiate marbles just three days away, and his Heisman-caliber quarterback (a strong Stephan James) won't play unless he gets paid.

Arguments -- and endless speeches from film players on both sides of the serious NCAA isssue -- abound in a story that lost some bite a few months ago when court rulings paved the way for college athletes to make money for their own names, images and likenesses. Still, "Champions" goes to soapy extremes to make its case heard, and another large ensemble almost pulls it off with some manufactured intensity.

Uzu Aduba (a two-time Emmy winner in "Orange is the New Black") leads the contingent with her sterling presence as an NCAA hired gun who understands the ins, outs, truths and best cultural interests of both sides. 

("National Champions" is playing at theaters everywhere.) 

Rated "R" by MPAA: language throughout and sexual references; 1:56; $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

A "Cinema" image of war.
Finally, a special entry to all things film this weekend is "Labyrinth of Cinema," perhaps a patient movie-lover's dream from late Japanese director Nobuhiko Obayashi.

Despite dealing with lung cancer and its inescapable death sentence, the incomparable filmmaker directed, co-wrote and edited his remarkable three-hour combination of saluting movies AND indicting war, all while receiving treatment that kept him alive to see its world premiere in 2019.

The onscreen result is a colorful, all-embracing collection of thoughtful words (such as, "It would be nice if everyone in the Universe was family"), mixed with segments and images from three Japanese wars and an assortment of nods to everything from "Dirty Harry" to "2001: A Space Odyssey."  Unusual stuff.

("Labyrinth of Cinema" plays exclusively in northeast Ohio Sunday night, Dec. 12, at the Cleveland Cinematheque.)

Not rated by MPAA (but with violence, some sexual content and images of war); 2:59; $ $ $ $ out of $5

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