My Week in Movies: Sept. 9-15

Thunderbird 6 (1968) The second Thunderbirds movie is weaker than the first, thanks to a paper thin plot that takes a half hour story and stretches it to feature length, with a lot of “get on with it!” going on. (A bit where the baddies record Penny’s voice to use in a trap would normally fill maybe sixty seconds of screen time, but here, it gets taffy pulled to a full fifteen minutes.) There’s also a subplot involving Brain’s frequent attempts to build a sixth Thunderbird vessel (hence the title) that winds up being a ninety-minute set-up to a weak punchline. But! The rest is mighty Supermarionation lunacy, the kind we love so well, with impressive model work and plenty of far-out set design that revels in its own late-60s-ness. It’s weird to think of a film made with puppets and think boy, what a great action sequence!, but Gerry and Sylvia Anderson and director David Lane pull it off repeatedly. Also: enjoy this nightmare fuel.

Tokyo Drifter (1966) Seijun Suzuki crafts a wild piece of pop art that grows more tiring the further it separates style from substance. It’s a gorgeous work, with Suzuki and director of photography Shigeyoshi Mine dealing in rich colors and delicious framing. (A washed out black and white prologue stuns with its visual snap.) But the tongue-in-cheek attitude and uneven anything-goes pacing wear thin, even in a mere 82 minutes. A mid-film barroom brawl, played entirely as a goof, reveals a film too interested in its own snarky approach.

Thief (1981) Michael Mann’s finest hour. Sure, he’s had plenty of fine hours since, but nothing – no, not even Heat, OK, people who like Heat far more than any reasonable person should? – quite tops his early work in Thief. We get the expected Mann slickness, with cold action set pieces playing out over a Tangerine Dream score, and we get the expected brilliant performances, especially from James Caan, who just nails it. But the film also has a sobriety rarely matched in the heist genre; many films aim for drama with a “OK, just one last job” plot point, but Thief provides a true depth, with Caan aching to find normalcy. (The scene where he and Tuesday Weld are turned down by an adoption agency is heartbreaking, as is a subplot featuring Willie Nelson as a jailbird friend eager to breathe free.) Plus, Jim Belushi is in it, reminding me of a time when Jim Belushi made good things.

It’s a Wonderful World (1939) Claudette Colbert and James Stewart in a murder mystery/screwball comedy directed by W.S. Van Dyke and written by Ben Hecht (with a story assist by Herman J. Mankiewicz), which sounds terrific… but plays much less so. The script is a muddle, a string of undercooked episodes, cheap sight gags, and leads whose bickering never quite clicks (Colbert and Stewart can’t find the right chemistry here thanks mainly to their bland, occasionally unlikable roles), all of it surrounding an uninvolving mystery that never grabs us. It goes through all the motions but never quite gets anywhere.

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