My Week in Movies: Feb. 5-11

Friendly Persuasion (1956) As a story, it’s rather unfocused (the script’s episodic nature and ever-shifting point of view makes for quite a ramble), but as a movie of great ideas and great characters, it’s a fine work. I was drawn to this film after my negative reaction to Sergeant York, and I got what I wanted: a richer, more philosophically complex examination of pacifist ideals put to a real world test. There are no easy answers here; the family finds its faiths tested every day, in both war and peace, in crises both major and minor, in scenes both tragic and comedic.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) If it weren’t for the references to the original film – and oh, there are many, and oh, none of them work – Rise could be passed off as some third-rate creature feature, the kind that throws a bunch of special effects on the screen and hopes we don’t notice the paper-thin story, one-dimensional villains, and generally lousy writing and acting. As a member of the Apes franchise, though, it’s every bit as disappointing as Tim Burton’s 2001 disastrous remake; both ultimately have nothing to say, which is a shame, considering the original five films’ views on humanity, religion, prejudice, fear, and war. This new effort attempts no such metaphor, leaving us with a movie that says… what, exactly? Animal testing is bad? Zoos are evil? We should be nicer to people who keep chimps as pets? Dogcatchers (and, by extension, apecatchers) are mean? I’m not sure I want a Planet of the Apes movie whose ultimate message is the same as Hotel for Dogs.

Dumbo (1941) There are things in this movie that simply shouldn’t work – the story is overly simple, its tangents (especially the “Pink Elephants” nightmare) bizarre – and yet it’s one of Disney’s most elegant works because it’s one of their most heartfelt. What viewer doesn’t ache with Mrs. Jumbo? What viewer doesn’t cheer at Dumbo’s flight? The visual inventiveness doesn’t hurt, either. Oh, and I love the crows. Dated shmated, they’re great characters.

The Great McGinty (1940) Preston Sturges’ satire of the political boss system seems more quaint than biting these days, and the resulting story was surprisingly less involving and less clever than I had expected, considering, you know, Sturges and all.

Shenandoah (1965) Like Friendly Persuasion, Shenandoah tells the tale of a pacifist unable to escape the Civil War. But Shenandoah is a darker – at times crueler – work. For starters, while religion still plays into the mix, James Stewart’s promise for peace is not to God but to his deceased wife. It’s a promise he struggles to keep, and his beliefs ultimately come down less to pacifism and more to simple isolationism, warning soldiers from both armies to stay off his Virginia farm. When the war comes too close, forcing him into action, we see a man fight to keep his soul from burning. (Stewart is in prime form, delivering one of his finest late-career performances.) I’m not sure if some of the third act tragedies are truly earned (there’s random violence and then there’s random violence, you know?), but that hardly affects the impact of those moments, nor does it lessen the film’s final scene – which is most certainly earned, and which left me in tears, as usual.

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2008) and OSS 117: Lost in Rio (2010) Michel Hazanavicius’ next movie will be a single shot of Jean Dujardin smiling for 95 minutes. And I’ll be OK with that.

Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked (2011) Truth is, these films aren’t bad, and they’re not lazy – they’re competently made enough, with better than necessary visual effects and a tolerable tone that suggests its human cast was eager to entertain themselves by seeing just how much weird they could get away with. What they are, though, is unfunny and disposable, which, compared to bad, are greater sins. For every oddball moment with David Cross in a pelican suit or Jenny Slate (!) talking to a golf ball, we get seven with cartoon rodents singing bubblegum hits and spouting pop culture references, suggesting even its makers don’t expect anyone to be still watching this thing ten months from now.

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999/2012) There were long lines of fans waiting to see this at my local multiplex, and I don’t think 3D had a single thing to with it. Even with DVD, Blu-ray, Netflix, and cable, people still enjoy seeing an old favorite on the big screen again, and they’re even willing to pay good money for the opportunity. (Indeed, midnight shows and revival screenings of all types of films are often packed coast to coast.) Fingers crossed, once the 3D craze dies down, the re-release craze will still hang around for a while.

The Time Machine (1960) Between Rod Taylor’s vanilla performance, George Pal’s cheesy direction, and production design that hasn’t aged well, I never walk away from a viewing of The Time Machine and think, “boy, am I glad I spent 103 minutes on that!” And yet I return to this film from time to time, drawn to the core of the story – H.G. Wells was never hot on plot, but man, could he whip up some great ideas – as well as some visuals that manage to be a handful of years ahead of its time, trippy-wise. And, hey, could be worse: I could’ve watched the 2002 version. Yikes.

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