Tortilla Flat (Victor Fleming, 1942). Not long after presiding over Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz in the same calendar year, director Victor Fleming went far more small-scale with this loose adaptation of a typically scruffy John Steinbeck novel. The skillfully aimless plot is put into motion when Danny Alvarez (John Garfield) unexpectedly inherits two houses from his grandfather, but it’s really about the ways in which a loose-knit band of cohorts revolve around each other with interchanging schemes and affection. The prime hustler is Pilon, played by Spencer Tracy with his trademark stammering naturalism that was almost entirely unique for the era. The constancy of Pilon’s machinations is an especially good match for Tracy’s whirring mental gears approach, and he (like everyone involved) thankfully keeps any affectations that might have been at the time associated with the character’s Mexican heritage to a minimum. There’s also a nice, Oscar-nominated performance from Fleming’s wizard, Frank Morgan, playing a trusting, pious vagabond. Tortilla Flat has its charms, but it occasionally strains for a level of importance and poignancy that simply aren’t there. And the filmmakers stick Hedy Lamarr with a role that is tonally inconsistent, flipping from fiery and defiant to soft and simpering with little narrative justification.
Serenity (Steven Knight, 2019). Stars Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway were reportedly angry that fledgling distributor Aviron Pictures didn’t mount a more expensive and effective marketing campaign for Serenity. Their ire should instead be over the fact this screwy neo-noir was released at all, since its self-satisfied incoherence can only damage the reputations of all involved. Writer-director Steven Knight’s screenplay assembles all sorts of familiar pieces — the grimly haunted protagonist, the seductive blonde dangling dangerous offers, the hardscrabble setting — and gives them a shiny update, while also hurling in a swooping meta curveball. Hathaway looks consistently ill at ease, as if she’s still a couple takes away from settling into the scene, and McConaughey is locked onto the most painful setting of his gruff hambone mode. Knight’s directing is as fussy as his writing. The movie is constantly jabbing the viewer hard in the rib cage, seeking validation of its supposed cleverness. It’s exhausting.
The Meg (Jon Turteltaub, 2018). Big, dumb fun minus the fun, this monster-shark action-thriller tries to push all the buttons of bygone summer blockbusters, but instead mashes a slabby fist onto the control panel over and over again. I suppose mileage may vary depending on how much appeal star Jason Statham hold for the individual viewer. Without exception, I’ve always found him to be a deadening presence in any film. The Meg doesn’t alter that impression one iota. Even as the movie pushes deeper and deeper into gleeful absurdity, there’s no spark of spirit to it. Director Jon Turteltaub simply grinds it out, comfortable he’d stuck his harpoon into a foolproof property. At least in terms of earning power, he wasn’t wrong.