(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, April 2018) I’m not sure about you, but when I was a boy attending French Catholic Grade School, Easter was a season during which we were all herded in the auditorium and shown one of two movies as put on the flickering projector: Either “the story of Jesus” (which I think was 1965’s The Greatest Story Ever Told) or The Ten Commandments. So, watching this again thirty years later … is almost an ordeal, although not necessarily for artistic or atheistic reasons. No, in order to understand why The Ten Commandments is a bit of a bother these days, just look at the four hours running time. I understand that epics need to be long in order to be epic … but four hours is a long time. It also doesn’t help that it’s such a familiar story—If you want a zippier take, then 1998’s animated The Prince of Egypt zooms by at 100 minutes (with songs!), while much better special effects and actors can be found in 2014’s 150-minute Exodus: Gods and Kings. This being said, I certainly wouldn’t want to suggest that the 1956 version isn’t worth a look. I mean: Yul Brynner as Ramses and Charlton Heston as Moses? Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton wish they could be Brynner and Heston. Plus let’s not underestimate the appeal of Anne Baxter and Yvonne De Carlo. But most of all, what’s in The Ten Commandments and not in Exodus is the sense of the sacred—I may lean toward atheism, but I think that a sense of awe and wonder is a requirement for the story of Moses. Awe is what The Ten Commandments delivers in spades, augmented by the arch melodrama so typical of Cecil B. DeMille’s epic films. Sure, it may sound silly and look even worse compared to today’s realistic aesthetics, but it does work on a level we can’t quite understand. The parting of the Red Sea sequence remains a yardstick even despite the unbearably dated special effects because it’s done with so much conviction that modern CGI spectacles can’t even compare. The script could use quite a bit of trimming, but keep in mind that in 1956, audiences couldn’t be happier to get four hours of spectacle for the price of their movie tickets. The word “epic” is often overused, but it’s strikingly appropriate for the large-scale sequences with a literal cast of thousands, offering all-real images that remain impressive even today. Watching the film as broadcast on ABC for decades, I also enjoyed the sense of participating, once again, in a ritual of sorts. It may be long, but The Ten Commandments is worth the trouble.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) It took the Westworld TV show and a convenient showing of the 1973 film on cable TV for me to finally take in writer/director Michael Crichton’s original Westworld, but I finally saw it, nearly twenty-five years after Jurassic Park stole its best ideas. It’s definitely a period piece—the science-fiction elements are laboriously explained, the technology is straight out of the early seventies, and the style is, well, definitely retro. The relatively low budget of the film doesn’t help either. On the flip-side, there’s a straight-ahead quality to the park’s deranged-android mayhem that’s barely explained (and even then in an ambiguous way that may point to a computer virus) and hold up better than a longer exposition. Otherwise, Westworld is a rather threadbare thing from a plot perspective: tourist visits a park where robots make everything possible, enjoys himself until the robots go crazy, survives to the end once he dispatches a particularly obsessed robot. That’s it. Fortunately, there are highlights in the way it’s presented. Yul Brynner is positively terrifying as the robot gunslinger, showing an early take on the Terminator trope and providing much of the film’s suspense. As for the rest, don’t be surprised to be far more interested in the film’s first few world-building minutes than the rather more conventional rest of the film. Westworld is still worth a look, but it has already been greatly exceeded by its TV show adaptation.
(On Cable TV, June 2017) There’s no denying that watching a 1960 western nearly sixty years later is not as immersive an experience as it was back then—our standards for what we consider naturalistic cinema have changed a lot, and the genre conventions of westerns have evolved accordingly. Many of the actors of the time are now dead, and a few live on as legends. This being said, The Magnificent Seven remains an interesting movie today largely because it was a superlative experience back then. The lavish production values still impress today, and the unusual script (avowedly based on Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai) remains intriguing today. But more than that, the movie stars such acting superstars as Yul Brynner (cool and terrific, even with his hat on), Steve MacQueen (playing up his rebellious persona) and assorted notables such as Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn and James Coburn in smaller roles. From a story perspective, the film isn’t particularly complex—there’s a long and relatively enjoyable first half in which the band of seven is gradually assembled, followed by a first and then a second showdown with the gang holding a village hostage. It’s not much, but it’s enough to get to the essence of the tough-guy western that this is meant to be. Brynner is nothing short of spectacular in the lead role, with MacQueen providing a good foil for him. Even today, The Magnificent Seven can be watched with some interest—although there are more than a few lulls here and there.