My Week in Movies: Jan. 29 – Feb. 4

The Longest Day (1962) That dolly shot that starts tight on Henry Fonda only to expand, and expand, and expand, until we’re watching a literal cast of thousands re-storm the beach? No amount of CG moviemaking can compare. And yet the movie shines best when tackling the personal, those tiny anecdotes are what make it sing. This is a pitch perfect balance of intimacy and scope, the small scale stories giving heart to an epic.

State Fair State fairs, I don’t get ’em. It’s hot and smelly, with cheap rides and bad food, and who can tell the difference between a blue ribbon cow and a runner-up? I certainly wouldn’t make a movie about it. Fox made three. One of them with Pat Boone. Huh. As for this version, it’s a decent chunk of entertainment, interesting for the way Rodgers and Hammerstein create for the screen instead of the stage, but a little too lightweight to work as emotionally as it wants.

Tarzan (1999) I caused a pinch of stir on The Twitters on Wednesday when I postedTarzan is the best Disney cartoon of the 1990s.” I’ll stand by it. Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King are the go-to contenders, of course, but I like neither; Aladdin would be my alternate pick, although these days I need to be in a certain mood to revisit Robin Williams’ schtick, while Tarzan still appeals no matter my condition. While the comic relief is more comic and less relief than I remember (the “Trashin’ the Camp” sequence is about as unnecessary as unnecessary sequences can get, and I’ll admit the Rosie O’Donnell/Wayne Knight combo doesn’t rise above Williams/Gottfried), those bits also keep the film from collapsing from self-seriousness. After all, the majority of the film is weighty stuff, and the script’s focus on Tarzan’s connections with both his adopted family and Jane provide more poignancy than anyone expected in 1999. I’ll even stand by the Phil Collins soundtrack – every song’s a winner here, and the decision to use music as a backdrop to the story (instead of the fore, in pure musical style) is so effective it single-handedly changed the way Disney made movies for the next five years.

The Illusionist (2010) Here is a film haunted by its own ghosts, unable – and, arguably, unwilling – to distance itself from the noise surrounding its making. (Too long to recount, I’ll simply direct you here.) And so we get a film that, like A.I., never quite finds its own unique voice. Fortunately, the two voices clashing are those of Jacques Tati and Sylvain Chomet, but still. Chomet keeps his film too deep in Tati’s shadow (to the point of distracting self-reference: at one point, our title character wanders into a screening of Mon Oncle), and although Tati’s heartfelt screenplay grounds Chomet, tempering his visual excesses and creating some lovely individual moments, I wish Chomet could’ve made the film less a tribute to Tati and more a character study on its own.

Drive (2011) First off: Whoa. Now that I’ve finally seen it, when my movie nerd friends call this the best film of 2011, I don’t have much room to disagree. Brooding and brutal, it’s the best Michael Mann movie Michael Mann never made. And now, my main thought: Drive‘s near-shut out at the Oscar nominations (it earned only one nod, for Sound Editing) enraged many of those same movie nerd friends, but I can’t call the snub a surprise. Drive isn’t the sort of thing Oscar voters go for without the sort of box office results that would earn it a larger following and therefore more buzz. It’s destined for cult status, the fringe corners of cinema where the Academy doesn’t pay much attention. Not to say the snub is fair, just understandable.

When Worlds Collide (1951) An umpteenth viewing of one of my favorite movies. Newly considered: just how white that new planet’s going to be. Hugo Drax’s space colonists had more diversity. Sheesh. (Other than that? Still a great film.)

Norma Rae (1979) As both a Message Movie and a character study, Norma Rae is a pinch too long in too many places, possibly a result of Martin Ritt’s efforts to make us relate to the inescapable dreariness of a North Carolina mill town. It is, however, far more honest about and aware of how the working poor live than most Hollywood product; we get a sense of how life in a place like this actually is, and that makes us care more for the people in it. The film is most remembered for Sally Field’s praised performance of a superbly crafted character, but I found myself equally wowed by Ron Leibman, whose turn as a ballsy union outsider is a delight.

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