My Week in Movies: Feb. 26 – Mar. 3

The Jazz Singer (1927) Even today, The Jazz Singer remains a novelty. The film, while decent enough on its own merits, has neither the melodramatic heft of a great silent picture nor the gee whiz value of a great musical. It’s stuck in a Phantom Zone between two styles of filmmaking, competent at both but impressive at neither, leaving today’s viewers studying it more than simply watching it as entertainment.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952) A better movie than Calvin Coolidge put together.

Sunset Blvd. (1950) Proud movie parenting moment: My daughter (age eleven) wandered into the room during the final half hour of this one and became mesmerized by Gloria Swanson. “She’s creeping me out,” she told me. Me, too, Gracie. Me, too.

I Was a Male War Bride (1949) It’s lightweight and mostly plotless, and half the film is more or less two long jokes, the first about how nutty military bureaucracy can be, the second about Cary Grant keeps getting cockblocked. It’s Cary Grant, though, so we give the dopey set-ups a pass. Ann Sheridan, meanwhile, is charming but relegated to the corners of the story too often.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) I won’t pretend it’s not because of The Artist I’m suddenly on a silent cinema kick. I also won’t pretend to have much knowledge of the genre beyond the basics, mainly because I dig the usual comedies and horror titles but balk at the few melodramas I’ve encountered, and everything else is far outside my area of expertise (and inside my… what, “unspertise,” I guess?). I can say, however, that this version of Dr. Jekyll is a doozy, far better than the 1932 or 1941 versions. The thing moves like a firecracker and makes good with the creepy imagery – and then, of course, you have John Barrymore’s lunatic performance, which rivals the best of Lon Chaney.

Shane (1953) This is, I must confess, my first encounter with George Stevens’ gunslinger classic. On first pass, the story feels a little slight, although certainly compelling, thanks to the decision to tell the story though the eyes of a hero-worshiping boy. Why does young Joey adore Shane so much? Why do we? The elements of character are what make Shane interesting; there’s more drama in the interplay between the drifter and his newfound family than in the barroom brawls and shootouts. And that’s what makes the finale such a heartbreaker.

Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) It’s a tricky business, these epics which boast historical accuracy to a fetishistic degree – too much attention to detail can get in the way of the drama. Tora! Tora! Tora! spends a long, long time setting up every minor player, every minute event, and as such its first half plays too much as a somber pageant. But all that groundwork pays off in the second half, with the spectacle of the Pearl Harbor raid being both impressive and engaging. It didn’t enthrall me quite as much as it had on previous viewings (such self-importance in a film requires a certain mood from the viewer going in, and I think I was hungry for more action and less somber shots of Cabinet members), but I was still plenty won over.

The Secret World of Arietty (2010/2012) More gentle wonder from Studio Ghibli, by way of Disney’s usual English dubbing. (Not sure we need yet another tween-pop tune tacked on to the end of yet another Disney/Ghibli thing, but whatever. The rest of the Americanization is just fine.) I get the sneaking feeling I’ll come to love the movie more as the months pass, but for now, I’m fine simply liking it well enough, for all the usual reasons you’d expect from this group of filmmakers. Listen up, Hollywood animators: forget your noisy Seuss updates, we need more like Arietty.

Sherlock Jr. (1924) We need to admit the dream sequence is a cheap, unfulfilling way to glue a pile of random ideas together, even when it’s Buster Keaton doing the gluing. Despite this, Keaton pulls it off. The dream entry into the movie screen, the runaway motorcycle, the dollar bill bit, the pool table tricks, that sweet, sweet ending… everything’s just right. Who cares if the story doesn’t glue?

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