My Week in Movies: June 1-8

The Living Daylights (1987) The Dalton Bonds are among those films I tend to revisit at least once a year, and it’s funny how when you spend so much time with a movie, you sometimes obsess over peculiar details. With this umpteenth viewing, I found myself more fascinated than usual in two mid-film scenes which, when placed directly back-to-back as they are, create a slight disorientation. I’m referring to the sequence where Bond ambushes General Pushkin, ready to kill him but anxious to hear his side of the story first. The scene ends with Pushkin saying “Then I must die,” and we assume Bond will pull the trigger; instead, we jump cut to a public event where Pushkin is very much alive. It doesn’t take us, the viewers, too long to catch up to what’s really happening (I’ll leave the specifics out of it in case of spoilers), but there are a few too many seconds that pass before we do, where we wonder if maybe a scene is missing. It’s a jarring edit, and this week I’ve found myself wondering if such an effect was intentional (a case of director John Glen hoping the sudden shift would add to the chaos of the latter scene) or accidental (the film infamously has one of the most cluttered plots in all of Bond, and there’s certainly the feeling in spots throughout where it feels like we’re watching a three hour movie cut down to two, and sometimes the cuts aren’t very smooth). Several threads are too loose and rushed (most notably the Joe Don Baker subplot), and maybe somewhere along the line, whether in scripting or editing, a much-needed buffer between these two scenes got dropped, and nobody realized it should’ve been picked up. Who knows? Maybe it’ll make more sense next year. Or maybe I’ll be too focused on some other little thing.

Red Tails (2012) There are times where it’s not a matter of whether or not a movie uses cliché, but how it uses cliché. And Red Tails uses cliché rather well, turning several obvious, expected moments into smart character beats – that is, how the characters react to a hackneyed plot event can elevate the story beyond itself. Red Tails is most interested in character, and that’s why it works, so when an airman dies in battle or (in one particularly harrowing sequence) is injured mid-flight and crashes on the landing strip, the impact is genuine. Yes, there are some cheesy moments, and yes, the CG is too noticeable at times, but overall, it’s a pretty darn good picture, the sort of solid, unpretentious entertainment I wish George Lucas would’ve spent more time producing.

Knights of the Round Table (1953) Oof. MGM’s first Cinemascope production is a crusty, creaky, unbearably wooden affair, the sort of thing that would earn more unintentional guffaws if it weren’t busy putting the audience to sleep. The whole thing’s embarrassingly cheap, with even the costly cast-of-thousands battle scenes looking clunky and flat. And that’s not even counting the acting, with performers blankly reciting goofy faux-old timey dialogue like an eighth grader sleepwalking through a chapter of Ivanhoe. And then there’s a finale involving the Holy Grail, and I dare you to watch without thinking of Terry Gilliam animation.

The Reluctant Dragon (1941) Among Disney’s most peculiar theatrical features – and among my favorite. Produced partly to test the waters of live action production, partly to put a Disney feature in theaters in the long wait between Fantasia and Dumbo and thus fight the financial crunch caused by the war, and partly to show off the studio, The Reluctant Dragon is the sort of pseudo-documentary production that would’ve been more at home two decades later on television. Except, that is, for the presence of Robert Benchley, who serves as the center of the story – the story finds him on the studio lot, conveniently wandering off into each department along the production pipeline – and who brings the same comic sensibility to the proceedings as he did in his own one-reelers. Any behind-the-scenes tour of the Disney studios would be a delight, but there’s something extra special about seeing it through Benchley’s eyes, even if that means we get plenty of fiction mixed in with the facts. (Many of the staff we meet are actors, not actual animators or other artists, but the point still gets made.) It’s a highly entertaining approach to the “making-of” genre, but it even stands well without the humor, thanks mainly to its detailed study of the kind of animation that, sadly, doesn’t exist on such a scale these days. Plus, in a sort of precursor to Disney’s money-saving package movies that would fill the decade, we get two full cartoon shorts and enough of a third (not to mention a lengthy clip from Dumbo) to add an anthology feel to the picture, which keeps things moving nicely. Great, fun stuff.

The Big Bad (2013) Here’s where I have the pleasure of full disclosure: the director of The Big Bad is an old college chum of mine, so when I say hey, it’s finally available on disc and it’s streaming on Netflix and Amazon and you should totally spend money on it… yeah, I’m kinda shilling for a friend. But I’m also saying it’s a darn solid flick in its own right, offering a clever spin on the werewolf genre. There are enough tonal shifts and story asides to make this more a string of vignettes than a single straight-ahead tale, starting with a quiet (well, mostly quiet) character piece which sets the tone nicely as the story progresses into odder, more gruesome territory, only to circle back again to contemplation for the finale. Its influences are obvious (you’ll know them when you see them), but it’s no copycat, shouting loudly in its own voice, filled with sharp dialogue and energetic visuals. Fans of indie horror – especially those who like some quirk with their splatter, some sharp writing with their creepiness – should definitely check it out.

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