(On TV, July 2018) So, so very boring. I should be sorry for saying so, but there it is: Despite liking all three lead actors a lot (Yul Brynner, Deborah Kerr, and especially Rita Moreno) and liking musicals a lot, and not being completely unreceptive to mid-fifties filmmaking, I found The King and I very long, very dull and unable to go beyond its familiarity. It doesn’t help that the film’s outlook on colonialism is, well, from the mid-fifties (if not earlier, given the film’s lineage to a Broadway production, then to a book, then to real-life experience). I’ll point out that my not liking a musical is not a surprise when the musicals are based on a Broadway/Hammerstein source—I find Broadway adaptations not as interesting as musical developed directly for the screen, and Hammerstein to be humorless. Otherwise, as The King and I demonstrates, it usually ends up being an unimaginative restaging of a theatrical production with very little in terms of purely cinematographic art. It doesn’t help that the source material is almost entirely devoid of anything looking like humour or playfulness. On the other hand, many of the individual components of the film are just fine. The scenery and costumes are terrific. Brynner is fantastic in the royal role, while Kerr and Moreno are also very good in their roles. And yet, I just couldn’t get or remain in the film, occasionally perking up at some of the better numbers but otherwise thinking “I’ve seen this already with Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-fat”.
(On TV, June 2018) I thought I knew West Side Story before watching it: A Romeo-and-Juliet adaptation taking place in the Latino communities of Manhattan, what more could it be? But as it turns out, the film is almost irresistibly engaging, with enough musical numbers to showcase the skills of the filmmakers and the cast. I put one the movie while doing other things, thinking that I wouldn’t want to watch it closely … and ended up sitting down to watch big chunks of the film. While Nathalie Wood gets top billing, Rita Moreno steals the show with “America”, a number that crystallizes the film’s respectable intention to tackle the immigrant experience in a relatively upbeat fashion. The diversity of numbers means that there’s something for everyone—you can have your “Maria” if you want, I’ll take “America” and “Gee, Officer Krupke” on repeat. The romanced portrait of early-sixties urban life is fascinating, and Robert Wise’s direction is often amazing in the way it choreographs the dancing and singing with cinematic qualities. But what fascinates me more about the film, and what provides its substance beyond its musical qualities, is its admirable willingness to engage with issues of immigration, integration and acceptance. There’s gang violence set to music as an engaging counterpoint, and the film feels intensely alive as it mixes violence with music and dance. While it may seem quaint today, it has aged far better than other more restrained movies of the time. The downer ending comes with the literary inspiration, but the best moments of West Side Story are exhilarating.