My Week in Movies: July 22-28

A light week thanks to the Olympics and The Cape, among other things.

Speedy (1928) Harold Lloyd’s final silent feature finds the star going from soda jerk to cab driver, with shenanigans on the subway, a trip to Coney Island, a visit from Babe Ruth (!), and a mammoth street brawl in the middle and a Ben-Hur-esque New York horse cab-as-chariot race at the end. All that bouncing around leaves us with one of those comedies that’s less about a single plot and more about a string of barely connected episodes. This makes it tough to assess as a whole – while there’s a slight throughline to the story that comes and goes in significance, it mainly feels like a string of shorts pasted together – but on their own, the set pieces work nicely, with plenty of laughs and a good deal of sweetness. The real treat, however, is in New York itself; shot on location (often with hidden cameras), Speedy delivers a snapshot of the Big Apple at the end of the Roaring Twenties, in both its busiest streets and sleepiest avenues. Even with its occasional larger than life gags, the film’s location shooting gives it a time capsule feel no studio set or backlot could duplicate.

Seven Samurai (1954) It’s the darnedest thing: Seven Samurai is, of course, a far better film than The Magnificent Seven. This is a classic rich in text and subtext, at once a grand epic and an intimate study of humanity, all while never failing to thrill on the basic level of entertainment. It’s what all great movies should be. And yet, and yet, and yet… I prefer The Magnificent Seven. The remake, not the original, is the one that will get me to stop my channel surfing, the one that suckers me in every time. Given a choice, I’d pick Sturges over Kurosawa every time. Is it because the Western format is more accessible to my American sensibilities? Do the simplicities of Western adventure appeal to me more than the complexities of the samurai drama? Am I, simply put, uncouth? Perhaps I am. I admire Seven Samurai, but I thrill to The Magnificent Seven, and makes all the difference.

Radioland Murders (1994) Oh, and I also love Radioland Murders. I know, I know. There’s too little of this one that makes any sense, from the radio show that includes dancing, costumes, and other visual-gag-dependent goings-on, to the decision to bring legends like George Burns and Rosemary Clooney on screen only to barely use them, to the assumption that audiences would swarm to the cinemas to see Brian Benben as a romantic lead. But good golly, the frantic pace, the nostalgic atmosphere, the all-star cast, the zippy jokes (a gag with Dylan Walsh, a gun, and a door is top-floor genius), a mystery that’s actually quite engaging, and one of the decade’s best soundtracks all gel here to create a heaping pile of loosey-goosey nuttiness I just plain adore.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012) So. The Dark Knight Rises. I’ve finally caught up to the rest of you on this one. There were a few moments where thoughts of the recent theater shooting came to mind, an association I assume will fade as time passes. And there were a few moments when I wished the script wouldn’t have stuck so close to the comic book source material, but only because, to a fanboy, that meant a few turns of the plot played as more predictable than they should have. Oh, and yes, Bane sounds like Zoidberg, which is adorable. But the rest is as advertised: a brilliant topper to a fine trilogy, a franchise that approached the superhero genre in such a mature fashion that’s far more than “gritty reboot” – it approaches the adventure from an angle that’s both intellectually and emotionally captivating. (Yes, emotionally. There’s a humanity in these films that cannot be denied and should not be overlooked.) This third film also corrects several of the problems that bogged down The Dark Knight*, managing to more effectively focus its multiple subplots and characters into a far more streamlined plot. In this respect, it matches (and possibly tops, although that’s an assessment I’d prefer to save for later re-viewings) Batman Begins. For all its chaos, complexities, and sheer size (as with Inception, Nolan delivers a mammoth tale that feels brisk), Rises maintains a singular path. The rest is brilliant for reasons you already know.**

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993) Despite spending the bulk of the mid- and late-90s watching and re-watching Mask of the Phantasm on what felt like an endless loop, I haven’t sat down to the film in some ten years. Maybe I was afraid the movie wouldn’t play as well to my older eyes as it did to my younger ones. Turns out I had no reason to worry – this is still a brilliant animated adventure, managing to capture everything great about The Animated Series in one brisk feature. (And unlike DC/Warners’ later animated features, this time we get a complete story without rush or sloppy pacing in the studio-mandated 75-minute limit.) I will admit the World’s Fair climax, with its Dick Sprang goofiness, felt a little out of place on this revisit when compared to the more sedate earlier scenes, with their noir touches and character-driven story turns. But I’m willing to forgive the shift because within the world of the film, it works. The animated format allows for a bending of reality which the filmmakers exploit to great effect. Oh, and there’s Mark Hamill, too, whose Joker remains the definitive article, despite Heath Ledger’s brilliance. Which brings me to: It’s easy to forget just how dead-on Phantasm felt back in the Clinton years, when nobody was taking comic book movies seriously (the marvels of Tim Burton’s Batman had deflated by then, with no worthy big screen successor). For a while, Phantasm was the Batman movie Batman fans always wanted. In the post-Nolan, superheroes-as-tentpoles age, Phantasm doesn’t feel as fresh or as new, but even now, with the novelty faded, it still plays like a firecracker. It remains one of the best superhero movies ever made.

*(I look forward to your letters.)

**(A fun drinking game: Take a shot every time I use a parenthetical aside. You’ll be toast before the paragraph’s over.)

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