My Week in Movies: Apr. 29 – May 5

Where the Boys Are (1960) Despite a few over the top sequences (the mermaid tank! Frank Gorshin’s mugging!), this remains one of my favorite teen movies. It’s smart and honest about sex and relationships, it features strong, smart, sexy female leads (Paula Prentiss! rawrr!), and it’s consistently funny, except for the parts where it’s consistently engaging as a seriously-no-laughs drama. I wrote about the film’s weird tonal shift and intriguing morality last week.

Ride the Wild Surf (1964) A gentler, quieter, and far less colorful surf flick than the Beach Party flicks to which I’m accustomed. It’s also dry and sluggish, with long stretches of surf footage (mercifully light on rear projection and heavy on location footage) that run on and on and on, and there’s only so much padding a film can take. The romantic interludes are equally iffy; in the lead role, Fabian hardly has the sort of screen presence that can carry a film, let alone support the “surfers set out to prove themselves in and out of the water” drama serving as the plot’s backbone, while the rest of the cast manages to outbland him at every turn. (Not even a young Barbara Eden can manage much charm here, although I prefer to blame a limp script and weak character.) Aside from a few moments of (wildly uneven) comic relief, this is a surf movie that takes itself too seriously, aiming for realism as an antidote to Frankie and Annette but never quite hooking us. On the other hand, Tab Hunter plays a guy called “Steamer,” so that’s… something.

Anything Goes (1956) This is the second Bing Crosby film to adapt the Cole Porter play, although this time, the only thing adapted is the setting, the title, and a handful of the songs. The result is rather lightweight and a little disjointed in the way many 1950s musicals are, what with trying to cram in so many dance sequences that don’t have anything to do with anything. (The ol’ “dream ballet sequence” routine has everything but Gene Kelly.) But it’s also fine entertainment, with Crosby and Donald O’Connor working well as a duo and Jeanmarie and Mitzi Gaynor working well as their respective love interests. Curiously, the best stuff comes from Phil Harris, playing Gaynor’s father, who’s in trouble with the feds for tax evasion; it’s a throwaway subplot, yet Harris nails it, bringing a certain pathos and quiet resignation to the character.

The Awful Truth (1937) Poor Ralph Bellamy. How can he possibly expect to compete against Cary Grant for the affections of Irene Dunne (or Rosalind Russell)? His appearances in The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday are enough to make him cinema’s greatest Baxter. As for Grant, who made a habit of playing ex-husbands winning back ex-wives, he’s flawless as always, as is Irene Dunne. The two are perfect together, and I mean that in terms of both characters and actors. Their chemistry is flawless. Bellamy didn’t stand a chance.

Juggernaut (1974) Hot diggity. The large cast (Omar Sharif! Richard Harris! David Hemmings! Anthony Hopkins!) and high concept (madman places bombs on an ocean liner!) suggest we’re in disaster flick territory, and the sight of Richard Lester’s name in the credits suggests we’re in for something light and charming. Quite the contrary: this is a wickedly tight and (aside from a few comic relief bits from Roy Kinnear as the ship’s hapless social director) desert dry thriller. Even the “red wire/blue wire” gimmick feels breathlessly new. This is the sort of ace suspense for which the term “crackerjack” was invented. Brilliantly paced and smashingly executed, Juggernaut seems to exist solely to show Irwin Allen how to tell a big story without an ounce of corn.

The Avengers (2012) Or as I call it, Fan Service: The Movie. Joss Whedon’s (and, we can assume, Marvel’s and Paramount’s) policy of “never mind the plot, here are comic book characters you like doing awesome things” seemed to have worked, if the reaction from my fellow audience members is any indication; they whooped and hollered and endlessly applauded every time the Hulk punched something or Nick Fury said something quippy or (no exaggeration) Iron Man put on his suit. But there’s your problem: The Avengers is overloaded with extraneous action sequences at the expense of plot, and if you can sum up the story of a two-and-a-half hour movie with less than one sentence, you’ve got some serious Michael Bay-esque issues gumming up the works. (Side complaint: in keeping with comic book storytelling style, the script too often skims over the “boring” bits in favor of the louder ones, leaving city-wide plot holes in its wake.) More to the point, stuff like “who would win if Thor and Iron Man got into a fight?” doesn’t interest me. What interests me is fascinating characters doing fascinating things and interacting in fascinating ways. The Avengers only achieves a third of that formula. Granted, Whedon is very good at combining action and comic relief, and his film is nicely paced and more entertaining than its plot problems suggest. It’s a light touch that keeps the film from being worse than it should be, but only just. Next time, Marvel, bring fewer one-liners and more story.

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