My Week in Movies: April 21-27

The Blues Brothers (1980) I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: this scene is the best musical scene in the history of film. There’s not a sour note. It’s shot and cut to perfection. But most importantly, just look at the smiles on those faces. It’s two and a half minutes of pure joy. Beautiful. (The rest of the movie ain’t too shabby, either.) (And in case you missed it, I briefly discussed its theological implications last week.)

All the President’s Men Revisited (2013) OK, so this is a made-for-TV documentary special and technically not a movie, but I’m including it here because a) I’m just happy to see Discovery air an original program that’s not another crapjack reality show, and b) because it’s a darn fine work. The Watergate scandal is a gripping story on its own, but the filmmakers manage to work the human interest angle in highly effective ways, mixing archival footage with modern day interviews with many key players from politics and journalism. The sight of Ben Stein weeping as he defends Nixon is one of the most fascinating things I’ve seen in a long time; it’s absurd, but it’s also human in a way few documentaries of this kind allow. Despite moments where it comes dangerously close to playing like a DVD bonus feature – it’s just as much about the 1976 film as it is about Watergate itself – Revisited is a great study of modern history and effects we still feel today.

The Man from Beyond (1922) I was suckered by the idea of watching Houdini – yes, that Houdini – on screen. The Man from Beyond casts the escape artist as a man discovered in a block of ice, having been frozen a hundred years ago. Amazingly, the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer set-up is the least weird thing about it. After falling in love with a woman he thinks is his old flame and getting thrown into an asylum (where he escapes the straight-jacket and the locked room, natch), he spends the bulk of the picture searching for his new love’s kidnapped scientist father, then the whole thing gets uncomfortably preachy about reincarnation. Uneven pacing and haphazard writing give the movie a bizarre tone that would make it eerie in all the right ways if it weren’t too busy being dopey in all the wrong ones. Oh, and Houdini himself? Not much of an actor.

Superman vs. the Elite (2012) Not counting some soon to be dated, trying too hard to sound modern throwaway mentions of blogs and apps (it feels wrong to hear Clark Kent talk about Twitter), and not counting a goofy character design for Supes himself (everybody at Warner/DC seems terrified of looking too much like Bruce Timm’s work, and here we get a weird puffy chin on Kal-El’s mug), this one’s the rare “DC Animated Universe” movie that works. This is thanks mainly to a decision you’d think the franchise’s producers would make more often: given Warner Brothers’ ridiculous mandate to limit films to a 75 minute run time, how about not trying to squeeze in an epic storyline into such a subcompact frame? Superman vs. the Elite adapts not a year-long comic book arc but a single issue, which allows writer Joe Kelly to expand his story without straining it and without dropping anything that makes the plot work. But Elite isn’t really about plot; it’s about ideas, using the tale of Superman running across a team of violent self-proclaimed “heroes” to discuss the nature of revenge, bloodthirst, and mob justice from both a political and personal angle. The original comic was published in March 2001 but feels all too contemporary in its observations of a post-9/11 world; the film’s message makes it perfect viewing for the week following the Boston Marathon bombing, with its flood of idjit cries of “screw due process, let’s kill the kid now!” Fear and anger drive that line of abominable thinking, the movie reminds us, but it can’t drive justice. Here, Superman reminds us what the American Way is supposed to be.

Mata Hari (1931) A Garbo classic, making the most of her sex appeal, peppered with spy thrills and wartime melodrama… and it bored me to tears. Garbo is wooden when she should be smoldering; I never got the sense of sex appeal from her character, nor did I ever buy why so many men went crazy for her. (I didn’t even have much interest in her famous erotic dance.) Everything grinds to a halt when she’s romanced by a young Russian officer (played rather flatly by Ramon Novarro). The only bright spots are when Lionel Barrymore shows up to chew a little scenery, but he’s hardly around, and the rest is overly dry and exceptionally dull.

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