Thunderball (1965) The most successful Bond of all is also quite possibly my least favorite. Which is not to say this is the worst, or even close to it. After all, Thunderball contains a solid story, some cracking action sequences, and Connery at the top of his 007 game. And yet I’m utterly bored for the bulk of the picture, a bloated affair that rambles on for at least half an hour more than it should. The first act, featuring SPECTRE’s plot to steal the atomic bombs and Bond’s accidental stumbling-upon at the spa, has its moments but drags with superfluous plot points. The second act suffers the bulk of the bloat, as Bond shuffles around Nassau while doing very little and learning even less; it plays at times like the middle section of Dr. No at half speed. The finale finally perks up with a handsome pay-off of oversized action, although, oddly, some plot elements become rushed in the race to the finish. There’s plenty to love about Thunderball, of course – the underwater sequences are gorgeous; John Barry’s score includes some of his finest work; the scope (aspect ratio-wise, sure, but I’m talking storywise here) is opened up to an impressive grandeur – but it rarely manages to keep my attention from start to finish.
A Bullet for Joey (1955) The second of two teamings for George Raft and Edward G. Robinson, A Bullet for Joey (the title is forgettably generic) injects some 50s Cold War nuttiness into the noir setting. Raft is the gangster brought to Montreal to kidnap an atomic scientist; Robinson is the detective hot on his trail. Their eventual meeting isn’t exactly Heat, but it’s solid stuff, the two stars taking a laid-back approach to the proceedings that keeps the action from dragging. This effective B picture isn’t suspenseful as much as it is darkly breezy, if such a thing exists.
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) For all my love of MGM musicals, Judy Garland, and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” I never bothered watching Meet Me in St. Louis until now. Not sure what kept me away, but I’ll be sure to come back soon; its status as a beloved classic is well earned. I get a kick out of dated nostalgia – that is, the way certain eras showed their love for their own brand of yesteryear – and St. Louis‘ fond look at turn of the century life has a sweetness to it that’s a joy to soak in. However, a throwback setting means nothing without a solid story and characters, and those are why this movie has survived long after the World’s Fair reminisces have worn off. The episodic adventures, with romance and comedy and plenty of warmth to go around, could be set in any year and still work. Having Garland at her most gorgeous (physically, yes, but vocally, too) doesn’t hurt.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) I have the advantage of having no strong emotional ties to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings – I like the films but do not love them, which places me in the realm of admirer but not fan – which grants me liberty from the heavy disappointment felt by some of my friends, who swear by the previous trilogy and find themselves bummed by the first entry in this new one. The Hobbit (part one, that is, natch) is admittedly a lesser movie that any of the Rings trio, but not by as far as some claim. Sure, it’s overlong, oddly paced, and prone to fits of broad comedy, borderline cheesy melodramatics, and the occasional bout of fanservice, but let’s face it, so were the Rings films. But The Hobbit also has much of what made Rings so sharp: a sense of grand storytelling bolstered by amazing production values and an even better cast, all focused through Jackson’s knack for visual poetry. What makes this new film fail to meet the standards of its predecessor is a plot that’s a bit too dawdling and unfocused (the result, I suppose, of stretching one book into three movies), with too many asides that fail to push the story forward. (For all of Rings‘ plot excesses, every side adventure served a purpose and moved the characters forward. Here, many of the side adventures serve merely as distractions.) Despite this bumpiness and plenty of other wobbly notions, including a run-on prologue featuring Elijah Wood for no real reason, The Hobbit works quite well as a sort of Lord of the Rings for Kids, Jackson using the source material’s younger target audience to replace his earlier films’ epic fantasy with a looser, lighter fairy tale feel. It’s a flawed yet quite often highly entertaining approach to revisiting the Tolkien/Jackson cinematic universe.
A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa (2008) From that no man’s land between holiday special and feature-length movie, I’m including it here for completely arbitrary reasons. After revisiting my old review, I find my opinion’s pretty much the same: flimsy story, big laughs. Pepe’s still my favorite.