My Week in Movies: Jan. 22-28

In which I complain about some classics and rave about an impenetrable new release.

The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968) Oof. The sort of movie that’s 162 minutes long because it thinks it needs to be 162 minutes long, even if it doesn’t have 162 minutes’ worth of story to tell. The core of the film – Anthony Quinn rises from political prisoner to Pope – is dandy stuff, especially when the film tackles the spectacle and ceremony of the conclave and, later, the humanity of seeing the Pope as Just A Guy. But the various subplots driving things forward are sluggish melodrama; a bit about an American reporter’s troubled marriage might fit well in, say, a 1980s TV miniseries, but not here. There’s more padding here than in all the Papal thrones, empty filler that deadens the spectacle and drowns out the drama. I found myself sticking with it not for the story or characters but for the look of the thing, which, thanks to stunning art direction and clever stock footage inserts, offers a sense of largeness that impresses, even if it doesn’t engage.

Sergeant York (1941) A well-made, well-acted, well-regarded classic, but I just can’t get past its questionable politics. Whatever endearing qualities are found in the film’s first half, which follows Alvin York as he transforms from rabble-rouser to pacifist via religion, are completely lost by its second half, in which York, drafted into WWI duty, discovers the footnote to “thou shalt not kill” that reads “unless they’re Germans.” Released just as America was entering WWII, York bends over backwards to convince both its title character and the audience that conscientious objectors are wusses and God is totally cool with blowing away some Jerrys. York isn’t allowed to suffer from his wartime ordeal (minus a single throwaway moment where he admits he sorta feels plumb sorry about the whole thing), and the script’s jingoistic slant refuses to allow the characters to dig deep into any of the philosophical issues raised.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) Dry as a bone, so subtle it’s barely a whisper, and rather hypnotic in its distinctive style of refusing to say any more than it needs, Tinker Tailor avoids becoming frustrating because it’s just so well done. This is a film that not only trusts the audience to keep up, it challenges us to do so, dealing out its story in somber silence, stolen glances, and barely-there expositions. It’s a two hour enigma where the best pieces of the puzzle are the characters themselves, men and women haunted by knowing what they know, obsessed over what they don’t.

Beauty and the Beast (1991) So it’s twenty years later, and I still can’t stand this film. Can’t stand the story, can’t stand the characters, definitely can’t stand the sketchy finale. Granted, I don’t hate it like I used to – I’ve come to admire the animation and the music well enough – but that’s faint praise. (Guess what? The same thing goes for The Lion King.)

Titanic (1953) The problem affects not only this telling of the Titanic tale but also most others, including James Cameron’s version: instead of finding drama in the details of the ship’s voyage itself (as in A Night to Remember), the script opts to create a fictional story (in this case, some family shenanigans, including Robert Wagner singing, because why not?) which ultimately could take place anywhere; the sinking ship setting is just an easy way to resolve the melodrama. And as with Cameron’s film, things don’t really perk up until the ship hits that iceberg, and by that point, it’s almost too late. The effects are marvelous and the last half hour displays a couple rock-hard dramatic punches, but for the most part, it’s as if the ship is an afterthought, which lessens the impact of what should have been a stunning finale.

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