My Week in Movies: March 17-23

The Maltese Falcon (1931) I finished re-reading The Maltese Falcon over the weekend and naturally chose to top it off with a re-viewing of the pre-Bogey adaptation. It’s not as bad as I had remembered, thanks mainly to a strong lead performance from Ricardo Cortez, who nicely captures Sam Spade’s combination of sly charm and oily wickedness. But the film’s brisk pace is a drawback as it tears through plot points without much concern to mood (or, at times, logic). It’s a decent first attempt best viewed today as a curiosity, which is more than I can say for…

Satan Met a Lady (1936) Ugh. The other pre-Bogey Falcon is a disaster of Golden Gate proportions. Copying the thinnest plot details of Hammett’s novel and replacing the rest with ill-fitting screwball comedy, this sorta-remake tries to be a zany caper but winds up stalling on every joke. Its problem isn’t in the set-up but the delivery; the film, afraid the lunacy of the situations might be too dry for laughs, oversells the yuks when it should be underplaying them. Leading man Warren William winks and nudges throughout. Not even Bette Davis (!) can salvage things.

The Maltese Falcon (1941) Look, I shouldn’t have to tell you why the third time was the charm.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2012) As with Sleepwalk with Me a couple weeks back, I come to Jiro Dreams of Sushi far later than I should’ve, only to discover it’s one of my favorite movies of 2012. A rich, engrossing documentary about a peculiar yet wildly successful and well respected sushi restaurant in the heart of Tokyo, Jiro doesn’t waste much time on the novelties of the subject matter. (The restaurant is located within a subway station, yet the filmmakers wisely avoid focusing on the quirkiness such a set-up may entail.) Instead, we get a meditative study of work, family, craftsmanship, and the passion for perfection, with all the complexities that come with. Fish markets have never been this fascinating.

Beach Party (1963) Eric Von Zipper likes this movie, and when Eric Von Zipper likes something, it stays liked.

The First Grader (2011) I’d been leery of this one for a while, afraid its premise – an 84-year-old Kenyan named Maruge (played by Oliver Litondo) fights to enter a children’s school as a student when his country announces free education for all – would be too Hallmark Channel in its delivery. But, as with Jiro, The First Grader rises far above what it might’ve been. There’s cheese, to be sure, but it’s minimal (mainly contained to a subplot involving Naomie Harris as the teacher whose job is threatened in her support for Maruge), and the rest is a heartfelt paean to the power and necessity of education and literacy. It’s also a stark look at the aftermath of the British occupation of Kenya, with Maruge haunted by his prison camp past and the community still bruised by tribal disputes. Such focus on the past as something that informs the present and has the power to steer the future gives the film a much needed depth, leaving it earnest in its uplift.

The World According to Dick Cheney (2013) Watched, coincidentally, on the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. There’s an unevenness to this documentary, which is packed with damning evidence that makes the case for Cheney’s all-around awfulness yet also tosses the former Vice President too many softballs in the one-one-one interview segments. It’s one thing to hear Cheney’s first-person take on his rise to power in the Nixon and Ford years, but it’s another to hear him dance lightly around talk of WMDs and waterboarding without revealing anything we didn’t already know about the man. The filmmakers’ approach, it seems, is to contrast the damning recaps of abuses of power and failures of basic human decency with footage of Cheney remaining aloof and unapologetic. And that is, indeed, a fascinating angle in a “give him enough rope to hang himself” kind of way, but the movie balks just enough in confronting its subject to feel like an opportunity wasted.

A Cat in Paris (2010) I find myself thrown for a loop by A Cat in Paris, best remembered Stateside as one of the left-field surprise 2011 Best Animated Feature nominees (which, yes, I’m just now getting around to checking out). Missing here is the obvious moralizing found in many an American cartoon; the plot pits a cat burglar against a gangster and leaves the thief a celebrated hero, which just doesn’t happen in this sort of picture, and is that a good thing or a bad thing or… Of course, I wouldn’t mind revisiting the film in order to re-examine its ethics, since the story – a cracking adventure filled with airtight chase scenes – is great fun and the artwork – gorgeous handdrawn sketchwork – is a marvel on the eyes.

Hiding Out (1987) A strong burst of nostalgia makes this rather ridiculous Jon Cryer comedy a delicious slab of cinematic comfort food for me. I spent too many teenage hours watching this movie, its rhythms and quotes burned into my brain, so even though the plot is as messy as the jokes are strained, I adore every frame. It helps, of course, that it’s charming and silly where it counts, and it helps, of course, that Jon Cryer is at his Jon Cryeriest here, and it helps, of course that Annabeth Gish is a heck of a sweetheart. And, of course, this. Yup, I could watch this one any time.

The Big Sleep (1946) More Bogey, this time in a story that makes no sense (will we ever know who killed the chauffeur?) but makes up for it in attitude. The dialogue crackles, the pace rockets, and the whole thing’s just dripping with sex, most famously the Bogart/Bacall interplay, but in plenty of other corners, too. (That bookstore scene I mean whew.) And now it looks like I’ll be re-reading Chandler next.

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