Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A Weekend of Good Movie Watching

I had an exceptionally good week of weekend movie watching. The constant rain and enveloping dampness in Chicago meant it was a good opportunity to hunker down with some good movie viewing.

“Anna and the King of Siam” (1946) is the non-musical version of the famous story made even more famous by the Broadway musical and film “The King and I.” This is a marvelous film, despite the politically incorrect casting of Rex Harrison, in his American film debut, as the King of Siam. It’s a hoot to hear the famous “etc., etc., etc.” lines uttered by someone other than Yul Brynner. Irene Dunne plays Anna, and her warm presence and gentle beauty make for a memorable Anna, every bit as good as later interpretations by Deborah Kerr and Jodie Foster. (It really is an unbeatable part. The worst actress in the world couldn’t screw it up.) Linda Darnell plays Tuptim, and she’s not nearly as sympathetic as I remember from earlier versions. She isn’t given much to do, but she’s fine. It’s eerie to watch her being burned at the stake because in real life she had a mortal fear of fire, and ironically, died in a burning house while visiting friends in Glenview, IL. She was only 41.

This is a wonderful film to look and listen to. The Oscar-nominated score by Bernard Herrmann is a treat to listen to and helps act as a guide to the exotic locales. The film deservedly won Academy Awards in the Art Direction/Black and White and Cinematography/Black and White categories.

It’s a little overlong, but packed with detail and story. It runs 128 minutes and when you consider that “The King and I” (1956) ran 133 minutes, and since much of that is devoted to musical numbers, you can see where “Anna and the King of Siam” is able to allow for more incidents.

Rating for “Anna and the King of Siam”: Three and a half stars.

One of my favorite films of 2005 was David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence”, the dark, disturbing, graphic and morbidly funny saga of a small town diner owner Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) in Indiana who foils a robbery in his diner and becomes a mini celebrity. This attracts the attention of mobster Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) who knows Stall is really Joey Cusack, former enforcer for the Philadelphia mob. The effects this, and other revelations this has on his family, are equal parts horrifying, funny and heartbreaking. The film’s final scene is wonderfully ambiguous. William Hurt was Oscar-nominated for his wonderfully nutty scenes as a gangster, but I think Ed Harris should have gotten the Supporting Actor nomination. His one eyed Carl Fogarty is one of the scariest villains I’ve ever seen.

Rating for “A History of Violence”: Four stars.

A glorious slice of cinematic cheese is “Snakes on a Plane” (2006). You see a movie with a title like that, and you get exactly what you pay for. A combination airplane disaster movie with hundreds of lethal snakes, this is a perfect movie to put your brain on hold, throw all logic out the window, and enjoy the show. I wish there had been more actual snakes used instead of the CGI variety, as the real thing is always more effective, but this is still stupid (in the best sense) Saturday night fodder. It’s fortunate that Samuel L. Jackson is on hand to lend his particular brand of charisma to the proceedings. If ever I’m in a situation where all hell is breaking loose, I want Sam on my side, especially now that Chuck Heston is no longer with us.

Rating for “Snakes on a Plane”: Three stars.

The best movie I’ve seen is ages is “Tokyo Story” (1953), an unforgettable experience that works on many levels. My foreign film viewing is not as strong as it should be, and I’ve never seen a film directed by Yasujiro Ozu, revered by many as one of the greatest directors of all time, and rivaling Akira Kurosawa as Japan’s greatest director.

TCM ran “Tokyo Story” several months ago, and because it’s considered Ozu’s masterpiece, I taped it for later viewing. I didn’t have the opportunity to watch it until Sunday night and when I did…Wow! What a revelation!

“Tokyo Story” runs 135 minutes and I was spellbound from beginning to end. Reading the plot description might make you think there could be no worst ways to spend 135 minutes but you’d be wrong.

The movie is about an elderly couple who decide to visit their grown children in Tokyo, but they are too busy with their own lives to make time for their parents.

Yep, no action, no mob, no snakes on a plane, just a human drama acted and shot to perfection. No fancy camera moves or effects, just watching the heartbreak of generational indifference. Because they’re Japanese, the characters are very stoic and don’t say what they mean, but what they don’t say, and their body language, speaks volumes.

This was a profoundly moving experience, and one that I actually dreamed about that night. It will be a long time before I forget “Tokyo Story” and I now look forward with the keenest of anticipations to seeing other Ozu films.

Rating for “Tokyo Story”: Four stars.

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