Fraker, Hood, Wilder, Yeatman, Zinnemann

Stalag 17 (Billy Wilder, 1953). This unlikely comedy set in a Nazi prison camp has a more famous echo that showed up on CBS around twelve years later. It’s not hard to see why someone might think this could turn into a nifty recurring show. The hook about prisoners of war who’ve cooked up their own unique society in captivity, complete with schemes to dupe the guards and cobbled together contraptions to better hide their small luxuries, is further enlivened by the colorful nature of the characters, a common result when Wilder’s is one of the names on the screenplay. In that great director’s hands, the film is shrewd and smart, bolstered by a cynic’s wit. William Holden won an Oscar for his performance, and he’s indeed quite winning, lacing his line deliveries with equal parts knowing ingenuity and sly charm.

Monte Walsh (William A. Fraker, 1970). Based on a novel by Jack Schaefer, the author of Shane, this film carries with it the elegiacal weight common to westerns as the sixties were turning into the seventies. In telling the story of two aging cowhands watching their conception of the West being replaced, the film is transparently mourning the dissolution of a previously stalwart Hollywood genre. Local ranches are becoming outposts for corporate concerns, and the title character stands by, grouchy and forlorn, as his cohorts slowly give up, including his closest companion, played with revelatory cheeriness by legendary heavy Jack Palance. Fraker’s direction is purposeful, occasionally a little too slow, as if he himself was reluctant to let the story, and with it an entire mode of storytelling, fade to black.

The Nun’s Story (Fred Zinnemann, 1959). Based on a 1956 novel, the film stars Audrey Hepburn as a young woman who pursues life as a nun, in part because of a calling to help people in the Belgian Congo. Zinnemann takes Robert Anderson’s screenplay and fashions something that is contemplative and moving without ever lapsing into pushy sentiment. Instead, the film is a model of restraint. Zinnemann stays out of the way and lets his story carry the weight of the film. He also helps his actors create subtle, wise portrayals, particularly Peter Finch as a passionate doctor who offers up barbed appraisals of the faith-driven lives of the nuns he relies upon in his hospital, and Audrey Hepburn as the title sister. Her natural charm can’t be hidden, but she proves she can subsume it into a character, playing her role forcefully, never resorting to her inherent vivacity to carry a scene. In particular, the closing scene, delivered in near silence, is a splendid example of Hepburn utilizing her own personal presence and the questing depth of her craft to create a subtle but undeniable impact.

G-Force (Hoyt Yeatman, 2009). Duly noting that a sticker of the Canadian flag was part of the set dressing netted my Trivia team twenty points. Twenty meager points. That means it was answered by a majority of the teams participating in the 41st edition of the World’s Largest Trivia Contest. That means watching this dreadful, hyperactive movie about guinea pigs that have been developed to be intelligent super-spies just wasn’t worth it. Sure, it’s a little amusing to watch Zach Galifinakis’s face as he plays the miniature mammals’ mentor, trying to gauge the exact level of befuddlement the actor is experiencing. Overall, though, it’s calculated and lazy, stripped of any cleverness whatsoever. Why bother when buzzing colors are enough for the kids and strained puns that invoke dirty words are good enough for the adults that paid for the tickets?

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Gavin Hood, 2009). I’d love to similarly blame this viewing on my somewhat unique habit that dominates every April, but the truth is that, my public break-up with four-color adventures notwithstanding, I retain an unfortunate weakness for superheroes, recognizing that their current domination of the multiplex represents the manifestations of my teenage cinematic wishes. At least my instincts for spiritual self-preservation kick in and prevent me from enduring the worst of them in the theater. Hence, I see the likes of X-Men Origins: Wolverine when it gets its showcase spot on a premium channel. It’s everything I’d feared, and yet much, much worse. It’s dour and self-serious, giving the title tough an inner anguish generated by a particularly pronounced case of sibling rivalry that marinated for decades. It’s a movie delivered through tightly gritted teeth, so relentlessly tense and angry that it’s a wonder that any of the people in the film can even breathe.

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