The Big Trail (1930) Hollywood barely figured out talkies and they were already pushing for something new. Technicolor would soon prevail, but the experimental visuals of early widescreen are just as interesting. The 70mm “Fox Grandeur” version of The Big Trail is downright gorgeous – Raoul Walsh’s mastery of the wide screen is impressive in any age, but it’s doubly so in a time when the Academy ratio was king. Walsh makes the most out of the landscapes, allowing the cast to get lost amid the sheer immensity of the West. As for the story itself, it’s plenty fine, a handful of knockout moments making up for the dry stretches, although the endless episodic adventures kept reminding me of Gordie’s line in Stand By Me: “Did you notice they never get anywhere? They just keep wagon training.”
Stagecoach (1939) Stagecoach, meanwhile, is Stagecoach. Hot diggity.
Batman: Year One (2011) After years of complaining about these “DC Universe” animated titles and how they suffer by trying to cram too much story into too little running time, we get one that manages to remain remarkably faithful to the source material without rushing the story and without losing anything in the transition… and it’s still, I dunno, just okay. Perhaps it’s because while the Year One story plays so well on the page, where the faster pacing of superhero comics allows condensed plotlines to flow more easily, on the screen everything comes off rushed. It may be sacrilege to some fans to expand the story beyond its original form (a problem with fanboys, of course, being they only want adaptations of familiar material, and only if it’s exactly the way it was the first time, which begs the question: why bother adapting it at all?), but Year One is a tale that would welcome some expansion via added character detail. I suppose my complaint remains about DCU titles coming off in dire need of breathing room. Meanwhile: Benjamin McKenzie as Batman sounds like Michael Emerson, who sounds like Katharine Hepburn, who, while a wonderful actress, is not the best voice for Batman.
Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2010) A sometimes fascinating, sometimes sluggish indie genre clash. Writer/director Damien Chazelle’s film is infatuated with style and, more importantly, style collisions – the look and tone of the thing is a blend of French New Wave and late 60s/early 70s American independent; the story and characters are pure mumblecore; the rest is musical, both jazz-infused modern and straight-up song-and-dance old school. It’s the music that draws us in, plopping us into the whirlwind lives of artists and outsiders, the sort of folks who turn a party into an excuse for a tap dance-off. The joys of the movie are in eavesdropping on these people as they hang out with their music (in nightclubs, in parks, at home, on city streets). Unfortunately, Chazelle doesn’t quite find the same zing in sketching his mopey characters, spending more time picking out the right kind of grainy film stock instead of developing the sort of story that keeps us engaged, hoping all that navel-gazing will pass for emotional connection. (It doesn’t.) It’s the sort of passionate small-scale work that’s easier to admire than to enjoy.
Big Miracle (2012) Every time I see a movie like this, I wish we’d get more movies like this. Big Miracle is sweet, unassuming, friendly, a little corny, a great big pile of feel-good. There’s an earnestness here too often missing in today’s studio releases, a gentleness created by a story that’s genuinely invested in its characters (in this instance, both human and whale). Sure, there’s a pinch of schmaltz, but it always feels organic and never manipulative, the result of a gee-whiz innocent approach to irony-free storytelling. (Well, mostly irony-free; we get a couple groan-worthy political jokes, but they’re fun and forgivable.) This is a simple drama well told, with great heart and a warm smile.
Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) No relation to Shel Silverstein. This is a thriller coated in grit and grime, following a cop who kills a suspect, only to wind up assigned the case of finding the killer. Otto Preminger reteams with Laura stars Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney, and the film delivers on the high expectations such a reunion may invite. This noir is pitch black; even the lighter moments with Tom Tully as Tierney’s cabbie father wind up carrying a sinister weight.
Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964) It’s MOTHRA, and she’s fighting GODZILLA. I rest my case.