Attenborough, Feig, Peyton, Tourneur, Werker

Oh! What a Lovely War (Richard Attenborough, 1969). The feature directorial debut of Richard Attenborough adapts a hit British musical that used era-appropriate songs to slyly satirize the pretty geopolitical messiness that fed into and then prolonged World War I. Though initially intriguing in its brash theatricality, the film’s conceits quickly prove to be stiff and overly distancing. It begins to come across as a revue with only the thinnest of through lines, especially as it stretches to a overlong running time pushing two and a half hours. There are scattered pleasures, led by Maggie Smith as a bawdy music hall star a world removed from the procession of sour dowagers that defined the latter half of her career. Vanessa Redgrave is even more striking as an anti-war activist, bringing a fierce authority and reality that counters the film’s far more prevalent deliberate artifice. Her scene exposes the sharper contrast between fancy and reality that could have elevated the rest of the film.

Bachelor’s Affairs (Alfred L. Werker, 1932). This Pre-Code Hollywood comedy cast Adolphe Menjou as an older, wealthy gentleman who goes looking for a new wife, only to find a scheming pair (Minna Gombell and Joan Marsh) all too willing to entrap him in order to secure a cushy life. Matters are complicated when the saucy blonde offered up as the bride has no interest in cooling her party girl ways, leaving her new husband exhausted, frazzled, and eager to extricate himself from the partnership. There’s a barbed briskness to the screenplay (adapted from the James Forbes play Precious), and a nice turn by Marsh, anticipating the daffy crackerjacks Judy Holliday would turn into a cottage industry a decade or two later.

Wichita (Jacques Tourneur, 1955). The brooding stylishness Tourneur brought to horror and film noir outings is largely absent in this western, one of countless efforts bringing Wyatt Earp onto the big screen. In this case, the fabled lawman is played by Joel McCrea. He’s freshly arrived in the untamed Kansas city of the title, determined to make his way without pinning on a badge. Naturally, it doesn’t work out that way, and a sizable amount of the film depicts Earp’s conflicts with the very town powers that cajoled him into taking on sheriff role once they suss out that he’s going to apply the law uniformly instead of tilting it in their favor. It’s a surprisingly by-the-numbers film, deferring to an aching prestige that further drains it of energy.

San Andreas (Brad Peyton, 2015). Well, of course it’s nonsense. The real problem is that it’s not particularly fun nonsenses. Dwayne Johnson plays Ray Gaines, a first responder who faces crises with an uncommon mix of problem solving acumen and confident daring. When a series of devastating earthquakes hits the San Francisco area, he sets aside his professional responsibilities to focus solely on rescuing his ex-wife (Carla Cugino) and daughter (Alexandra Daddario). The film doesn’t portray him as derelict in his duties, but that’s exactly what’s going on. This is empty-headed disaster porn with a few mildly admirable touches (Daddario’s character is highly capable rather than a simpering damsel in distress, though that doesn’t mean the filmmakers refrain from exploiting her dizzying curves), only the most meager step above the mid-nineties nadir of stuff like Dante’s Peak and Volcano. At least it had Paul Giamatti as the requisite exasperated scientist.

Spy (Paul Feig, 2015). Listen, kudos all around for Feig’s commitment to celebrating female comics in the face of idiotic industry reluctance and for Melissa McCarthy claiming a place as one of the unlikeliest movie stars of the past decade. Laudable intentions and industry outcomes worth celebrating don’t necessarily make their films better. This spoofing take on spy movies seems stirred to life with little more creative inspiration than “Melissa McCarthy as a spy” and a corresponding confidence that they can always dip back into the well of raunch that was tapped for the bridal shop scene in Bridesmaids. If I watched more Jason Statham movies, I suppose I might have tickled by his gamely self-mocking performance here, but instead it comes across to me as a single joke repeated into infinity. Like Feig’s other hit comedies, Spy is too long. Someday he’ll figure out how to make one of these with some restraint and discipline, instead of eagerly packing in every joke until a film that should be ninety minutes hovers around the two hour mark. Much as I’d like to see it, I know there’s no way his next outing is the one that finds him embracing brevity.

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