My Week in Movies: March 3-9

With Oscar season out of the way, it’s time to get back to My Week in Movies. Alert the media.

Shoot to Kill (1947) I was in the mood for a gritty B picture. What I got instead was a sluggish poverty row effort from schlock producer Robert Lippert, heavy on the schlock, heavier on the sluggish. The base for a decent story is there – something about a corrupt D.A. framing a gangster – but the action is muted under dull soap opera trappings, mainly involving the hiring of a secretary. Human resources excitement!

The Emperor’s New Groove (2000) The recent Mousterpiece Cinema episode got me itching to revisit Kuzco and Pacha, an itch I love to scratch. New Groove remains a cracking comedy, more Looney Tunes than Disney, really, and that’s no complaint. The dizzy pace and snappy one-liners keep me giggling every time.

Crack in the World (1965) This surprisingly large-scale adventure flick is half dopey sci-fi earnestness and half disaster movie melodrama, although neither half quite pulls it off. The premise, in which underground science results in the titular damage to the planet’s mantle, allows for some matinee fun as heroes battle deep ocean lava and anonymous extras get offed by various earthquakes, but most of the good stuff involves an extra-hammy Dana Andrews slowly going mental as disease and jealousy consume him. There’s ultimately not enough action or Andrews, however; the bulk of the picture is given to overbaked romance and undercooked political hand-wringing, filler material that can’t hold the picture together. (On the plus side, Janette Scott looks fantastic.)

The Seventh Victim (1943) I find myself increasingly admiring but not loving Val Lewton, whose thrillers are expertly crafted and packed with brilliant set pieces yet unable to grab me as complete stories. In this outing, a young woman searches for her missing sister, who got tangled in a mysterious cult. The set pieces are top notch – namely, a disturbing subway scene and, later, a Cat People-esque moment where the lead is being followed on a lonely city street – making them par for the course, but the overall tale is only so-so, with Tom Conway unable to hook us in as a hero. Hugh Beaumont as a dangerous romantic type, meanwhile, is as interesting as it sounds.

Sleepwalk with Me (2012) I’ve been a fan of stand-up comic Mike Birbiglia for years, so why did it take me so long to finally get around to watching his film debut? Expertly adapted from his one-man show in ways that will surprise fans as much as it will enthrall newcomers, Sleepwalk makes the most of Birbiglia’s storyteller style, offering a string of autobiographical episodes that tell of his introduction into the comedy world, coupled with his increasing romantic, family, and mental problems, in a way that’s both heartbreaking and heartwarming. Birbiglia deglamorizes his life, putting maximum cringe into his failures (there’s a bravery in refusing to paint himself as anything better than a directionless schlub, and there’s a humble grace in allowing other characters to walk away with the best lines), which makes his quiet victories wonderful to witness. This film is every bit as brilliant as his stand-up, perhaps more so, thanks to his low-key direction and a knockout cast (including Lauren Ambrose, James Rebhorn, Carol Kane, and a ton of familiar comic faces). It’s one of my favorite movies of 2012. Why did I wait?

The Gunfight at Dodge City (1959) Its opening scene is a knockout, as Joel McCrea, playing Bat Masterson, answers honestly when asked what it’s like to kill a man. The self-hatred that pours out is a devastating meditation on the consequences of violence that works well as a prologue to Unforgiven. And then the damnedest thing happens: the bulk of the movie that follows pretty much ignores this entire set-up and plays Masterson as a no-regrets quick draw artist willing to shoot anyone keeping him from bringing justice to Dodge City. It’s a well made, nicely paced tale of honor and loyalty, hitting all the enjoyable oater notes, but it’s so far removed from its opening scene, it’s jarring – especially in the finale, when McCrea’s speech reappears in a voiceover that repurposes it as a meditation on being a scared when you’re in a showdown, but suck it up, bucko, you’ve got a man to shoot. With the speech as a bookend, Dodge City becomes too morally and tonally incongruous to work as a whole.

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