My Week in Movies: Jan. 8-14

Mission: Impossible II (2000) It’s a strange beast, this one: it’s hardly a Mission: Impossible film at all, and the few franchise-friendly gimmicks we do get wind up being completely overshadowed by John Woo’s signature over-the-top fight scenes. But it’s also one hell of an action flick, its plot-lite ways and its Limp Bizkit soundtrack being forgivable thanks to Woo’s glossy visuals and a finale that works on a whole other level of badassery. Tom Cruise’s hair, on the other hand…

Mission: Impossible III (2006) J.J. Abrams’ entry into the series gets subversive, first by winking at us as it refuses to explain what the “Rabbit’s Foot” is (creating a MacGuffin in its purest form), then, in one later sequence, skipping over half a mission, showing us only the action-packed bookends, as if to say the in-between boring bits don’t matter. The script also becomes unexpectedly intimate by finally revealing Ethan Hunt’s private life and making it, not the fate of the world, the true focus of the plot. (Even the big action numbers, especially the bridge assault scene, remain personal, reminding us of the people at risk.) It’s by far the series’ darkest entry – Philip Seymour Hoffman’s villain is more brutal than anything else the franchise has given us (and hot damn, what a performance) – but there’s a playful streak throughout keeping the film from being crushed under its own sobriety.

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) Harryhausen! His fantasy films offer better spectacle and more impressive effects, but his sci-fi films are the ones which truly connect with my not-so-inner nerd. This one hits all the notes: stuffy scientists, stuffier generals, a handful of pseudoscience, and plenty of landmark-destroying catastrophe.

The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel (1951) A passable sort-of-biopic of Erwin Rommel which mostly skips over his exploits in Africa and focuses instead on his role in the plot to assassinate Hitler. Less war movie and more talky melodrama, it’s a strange effort to get an audience only six years removed from the war to sympathize with a high-ranking Nazi. James Mason lends enough weight to the title role, even if he’s not bothering with a German accent. (Nobody does here, not even Luther Adler as Hitler – granted, I kind of admire the honesty of the “look, they’re speaking English, so why bother with accents?” approach, but still: Hitler sounding like a New Yorker? Huh.)

Marwencol (2010) I wasn’t as taken with this one as its reputation suggested I would be (I think I’d have been just fine checking out Mark Hogancamp’s photos without the accompanying backstory), but it’s still quite intriguing in its peek inside the mind’s ability to heal. It helps that the film never gawks at its subject, even as the revelations about his life get odder, which helps keep things heartfelt and honest.

The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974) I remain unapologetic in my love for 70s disaster fare. Most of them are artless cash grabs, to be sure, but even those I enjoy. (OK, maybe not The Swarm.) Poseidon and Inferno, however, are honest to goodness great films. They’re the king and queen of the genre, cheesy but sincere, mixing enjoyable, occasionally moving character work (they don’t come with all-star casts for nothin’) with spectacle of the highest order. Both are so near-perfect as popcorn filmmaking, I’ll even forgive it for giving us those damn Maureen McGovern songs.

The Artist (2011) Not sure how a movie like this earned enough attention to become an Oscar frontrunner – in another year, perhaps, its uniqueness would’ve kept it from becoming anything more than a cult favorite – but I can’t complain. This is a beautiful work with enough heart and humor to be far more than just an exercise in gimmicky pastiche. It’s a fully realized melodrama disguised as a tribute to silent film, and while its technique is impeccable, its story is doubly so. (Wait, can something be doubly impeccable? I guess The Artist can.)

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