My Week in Movies: Feb. 12-18

A Hole in the Head (1959) It’s one of those weeks where I find the lyrics of “High Hopes” to be cloying, its melody downright unlistenable, its at-the-time popularity (which pushed it to an Oscar win) inexplicable… and yet the scene in which the song is featured won me over in a major way. The chemistry between Frank Sinatra and Eddie Hodges carries not only the scene but the entire film, their father-son relationship charming and utterly believable. Some of the best directing Frank Capra’s ever done can be seen here as he simply points his camera at the duo and watches their interaction, often in long takes which create an intimate look at an unusual family. (He does the same with other actors throughout, too, allowing the story to feel personal and engaging.) The script tilts toward maudlin in the third act, but by that point we don’t mind, having been won over by a well established sense of sincerity. One flaw: the movie suggests Sinatra would actually pick straight-laced Eleanor Parker over carefree (and often pantsless) Carolyn Jones. I mean, come on.

Doctor Dolittle (1967) This was my first encounter with what is arguably the most despised (both in its time and today) Best Picture nominee of the 1960s. And, fingers crossed, it was also my last.

Batman Begins (2005) Guess what? Batman Begins is still better than The Dark Knight. Oh, the sequel’s got that epic sweep, delicious ethical quandaries, and terrific performances (and not just from Heath Ledger, although he certainly steals the show, then blows it up in a fit of giddy laughter), but this opening entry in the Nolan trilogy has a tighter, more focused screenplay, its multiple plotlines cohering in such a way that there’s not a single unnecessary moment in the entire picture. It also introduces to the franchise the notion of villains interested not in money or power but ideology, which allows for cleverer characters and complex conflict. (With its heavy focus on corporate politics and an unglamorous take on back alley crime, it has no interest in appealing to kids – a daring move, really. Warners countered this by delivering a couple kid-friendly Batman TV series, allowing the franchise to succeed for both its original intended audience and older viewers craving grown-up superhero adventure.)

Meet the Robinsons (2007) Perfect sick day comfort food. Keep moving forward!

War Horse (2011) While I knew the film would be well-crafted, I was unprepared for some of the more interesting touches Spielberg delivers. The film’s England-bound open and close are crafted to evoke 1940s Hollywood, giving the picture a magnificent old-fashioned charm (the final sequence alone makes Janusz Kaminski my new personal favorite for this year’s Best Cinematography Oscar). The film’s war sequences are brutal and honest about the horrors of battle without being overtly so; while Saving Private Ryan shocked our senses, War Horse haunts us with more subtle visuals – a riderless horse, a sea of barbed wire, soldiers swallowed by a wall of gas – without losing its impact. And most surprisingly, its story is downright powerful. It’s sentimental without being saccharine, earnest without being naïve. I found myself engrossed by every frame, crying and cheering and leaning forward in all the right places. What a beautiful film.

Moneyball (2011) It’s taken me two viewings to fully warm to Moneyball‘s unusual screenplay structure, which I appreciated but didn’t quite thrill to the first time around. Here’s a script that attempts to deliver the expected sports movie story beats, especially in its “Billy Beane turns the team around by talking them through new strategies” montage and its “big game” centerpiece, which is as thrilling as any “big game” climax you’ll find. Except the big game is not the climax, not really, since we get the whole “will Billy leave for Boston?” bit after. The rhythms of the film are unexpected, a series of little moments that build, punctuated by random drama; it’s more like the spastic, patient pacing of a baseball game than a three-act movie plot. Bennett Miller’s direction is understated (and, it seems, underrated), forming a quiet tone that’s almost hypnotic. I still find the film leans a little too heavily on its “how to change the game” themes (much is spoken and re-spoken and re-re-spoken, even long after nothing needs to be said at all), but I wasn’t as bothered by such redundancies this time out.

The Tree of Life (2011) Watching this “cameraman’s demo reel posing as a movie” thing for the second time – and with the greater focus a theatrical screening can provide – I was able to grasp more of what Terrence Malick was intending with his rumination on death, grief, and God. Alas, the greater understanding also led to greater dislike. None of the sympathies the filmmaker wants to project onto his characters work, leaving us with a story full of people we simply don’t like, care about, or have any interest in. The movie admits the selfishness of its Grand Questions – in drawing a direct line from the Big Bang to the origin of life on Earth to Sean Penn being sad in an elevator, Malick ruminates on the notion of wondering “why did this bad thing happen to me?” and both that question’s unimportance in the universe and its importance within ourselves, the center of our personal universe – but then muddies that question with autobiographical flourishes which seem to exist more to help the filmmaker work through long-simmering mommy and daddy issues. Without the flashbacks to dinosaurs, stock footage of volcanoes, and random shots of God’s vagina, Malick could’ve had more time to develop his characters (especially the father, played by Brad Pitt, whose intriguing moral complexities keep getting interrupted just when they’re drawing us in). But by aiming for something denser, more Kubrickian, more metaphor-laced, The Tree of Life smothers in its own pretentiousness.

The Descendants (2011) As with Alexander Payne’s other films, this one loses me a little with its efforts to inject quirk where it’s not needed. And as with Alexander Payne’s other films, this one picks up lost ground by creating characters so rich and engaging we quickly forget the quirks that got us here. The story itself barely matters – we’d probably follow this family anywhere. Most impressive is how understated the performances are, considering how obvious the opportunity is for overselling the humor and the oddity.

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