My Week in Movies: Aug. 12-18

His Girl Friday (1940) There’s not enough caffeine on the planet to help us keep up with His Girl Friday, Howard Hawks’s best film (indeed, one of the best films ever made) and the purest example of his machine gun dialogue style. The excess verbiage alternately wows, tickles, and transports me – I hear these people speak, these jokes flying, these plot points tripping over each other, and I’m in a cinematic universe that just doesn’t exist anywhere else, not even in the chatty best of Altman or Sorkin. The sound of this movie is, simply put, one of my favorite things.

Casablanca (1942) Speaking of favorite things…

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days (2012) It’s easy to see why the loose plotting and cornball humor of the Wimpy Kid series don’t play well with many grown-up viewers, but there’s a goofy sense of humor here that’s difficult for me to resist, with a bold approach that makes the title kid a bit unlikable. He’s a somewhat selfish jerk who’s slow to learn lessons from his own many comeuppances, but that’s kind of the point; he’s the kid you don’t want to be, even on his good, unselfish days. It’s that school of comedy based on tension and discomfort, where we watch a poor schlub walk into an endless string of bad situations – some by chance, most by choice – and squirm along with him. Around him are a string of charming characters and situations that are sitcommy but enjoyable, all presented with a winking “man, wasn’t junior high just the worst?” attitude that puts it above the cheap tweener fare it appears to be. Plus, Steve Zahn, man. Steve Zahn!

The Campaign (2012) Subtle, it’s not, but with so many points to make and so many broad strokes with which to make them, subtlety should not be expected here. The problem with The Campaign isn’t how far it goes, but that it doesn’t go far enough. This is a satire that builds towards an impressive, ridiculous level of anarchy, only to pull back in the third act, deciding instead to get serious and sweet – and serious and sweet don’t belong in a movie built on such heavy exaggeration. The script keeps building the lunacy, taking us to the point where a candidate releases a sex tape campaign ad while billionaire backers scheme to build a Chinese sweatshop on American soil, two points which essentially stretch to an extreme in order to make winking but valid points. But then the filmmakers back off, deciding to give the characters some heart when they should be pushing them even further into madness. The Campaign works best when it stops trying to be obvious about campaign finance and just lets the message work its own way out as it gets dark and weird and deliciously vulgar. On that level, it’s pretty darn funny. So why not more of it?

Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947) I was never a fan of Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, which I felt was visually impressive but otherwise forgettable. But that was years ago, back when I wasn’t much of a fan of the character or franchise itself – odd, considering how much I enjoy such retro thrills. Perhaps a reevaluation is in order, especially since in my old age I’ve come to dig just about everything else Chester Gould’s creation has to offer. In the meantime, I can enjoy revisiting the older efforts to bring Tracy to life, like in Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome, a silly but entertaining bottom-bill programmer featuring Boris Karloff. It’s the sort of lightweight B picture that makes for breezy afternoon entertainment.

The Narrow Margin (1952) Here’s another one I haven’t watched in years, just long enough for its sharper turns to feel fresh. I still prefer the underrated remake, but it’s a close call, and this revisit sure made a strong case for the original. Richard Fleischer makes the most of the claustrophobia and paranoia, with cameras wedging into the tightest corners and with the agitation of grizzled hero Charles McGraw cranking up straight to the finish. This is a tense, tight, nasty little noir. Remember: nobody loves a fat man except his grocer and his tailor.

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