My Week in Movies: July 1-7

Unforgiven (1992) A personal story: Way back in the summer of 1993, I worked at the local dollar theater. Unforgiven ran for a good chunk of my stay, and I often made a point of sneaking in to watch the last fifteen minutes during my breaks. I did the same for A Few Good Men, Groundhog Day, and a few other gems, but Unforgiven became the top break movie of choice. Any scene would do, really, but, man, that finale – there’s something about the utter perfection of that sequence, with the rain and thunder and the performances and the framing and those words, among the finest dialogue ever penned. (“I was building a house” is a sentence packing more poignancy in its five words than most movies do in their entire running time – and it’s a throwaway line.) Catching that scene, over and over, allowing its electricity to wash over me in stolen fragments, remains one of the great movie experiences of my life.

Genesis II (1973) and Planet Earth (1974) Part of Gene Roddenberry’s sweaty desperation to get a post-Star Trek series off the ground, Genesis II is a sloppy, dreadful abandoned pilot-turned-one-off TV movie, with an extra-skeevy Alex Cord as a modern day scientist who Buck Rogers his way into a post-apocalyptic 22nd Century, bumbles around between two warring cultures (the subtly named peaceful Pax and war-hungry Tyranians), and eventually nukes an entire city, which, after a brief talking-to by the pacifists, everyone just laughs off as a nutty goof. Planet Earth was supposed to be a mulligan for Roddenberry, a chance to rework the better aspects of the set-up into something of a reboot. Instead, it’s a weird sequel (with John Saxon taking over for Cord) that, following some “meh, whatever” exposition that leaves the movie feeling like a mid-season episode instead of a series launch, dumps the hero in a matriarchal society where the men are enslaved (“women’s lib gone mad,” Saxon yuks) and the writing is terrible. A third pilot/movie was made (with the same premise and without Roddenberry), but after these two duds, I think I’ll pass.

The Black Pirate (1926) So here’s where I tell you I was bored silly by a Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler, and here’s where you look shamefully upon me for being so uncouth. The early Technicolor work is impressive, as are some stunts and cast-of-hundreds action sequences, but the wafer thin plot is a ramble, while the pacing of the non-action bits is sluggish at best. The film’s interstitials work overtime to remind us that there are pirates! doing pirate things! and exciting pirate stuff!, as if even the movie knows there’s just not much beyond Fairbanks’ stuntwork to keep us interested.

To Have and Have Not (1944) Some of Warner Brothers’ and Howard Hawks’ efforts to make another Casablanca are obvious, with Bogey’s leading man reworked from Hemingway’s original to a more Rick-like antihero who turns from apathy to patriotism, with Hoagy Carmichael popping up as a Sam-like nightclub band leader, with Dan Seymour doing something of a French-tinged Sydney Greenstreet impression as the baddie, with a plot involving Free France and passes leading to safety. But just when you think the whole thing’s just a rehash, the movie unleashes its secret weapon: Bacall. Her first screen performance is already oozing with confidence and sexual magnetism. The result is some mighty effective interplay between the leads, while the tension of the plot moves things forward at a steady clip. This movie knows how to whistle.

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey (2011) I was never a fan of Elmo until I actually bothered to watch Elmo in action. And then I got it. As a documentary, Being Elmo is a lightweight, rather glowing look at Kevin Clash’s rise from puppet-obsessed kid to next generation Muppeteer, and in pure Elmo form, the film is sweet and gentle in all the right ways. There are moments here that, as a Muppet fan, made me gasp – the tour of the Muppet workshop, some behind-the-scenes photos – but the movie is not limited in its appeal to the Muppet fanbase. Its general message of “talent will out” should be inspiring even to those who’ve never seen a puppet in action before.

Jaws (1975) and Independence Day (1996) My only Fourth of July tradition has nothing to do with fireworks or grilling out. It’s these two movies, preferably back to back. The way the Founding Fathers intended.

The Paleface (1948) The forgettable “Buttons and Bows” ranks among my least favorite Best Song Oscar winners, although the competition was equally weak (it was either this or “The Woody Woodpecker Song” – consider the bullet dodged), so there you go. The movie itself, which plops Bob Hope into a Western spoof, is a little less unremarkable, thanks to a few clever gags, which get cleverer as the story moseys its way to the shoot-out finale, but not as much as one would hope from the premise.

The H-Man (1958) Nuttiness with a capital WTF. Leave it to the Japanese to take your basic “radioactive human blob creatures on the rampage” story and spend its time instead on drug dealers, nightclub singers, and square-jawed cops, as if a monster movie had the audacity to crash a gangster picture. The kooky kitsch created by this brand of swingin’ noir clashes with the fairly gruesome horror on display, while the somber “no nukes” moralizing frequently gets in the way of the shoot-outs and jiggly dames. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it, other than there’s certainly nothing else quite like it.

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