Boden and Fleck, Joost and Schulman, McGrath, Sherman

Megamind (Tom McGrath, 2010). Just as surely as Pixar has forged its own auteuristic identity as a studio, the same has been achieved by DreamWorks Animation, their main rival for family box office dollars. Where Pixar is built on rigorous storytelling acumen and emotional authenticity, DreamWorks opts for cheap jokes, an overt embrace of fleeting pop culture trends and endlessly frenetic onscreen business. If they can prop it all up with overly familiar pop songs, all the better. The studio is prolific enough that exceptions slip through, almost like accidentally pristine product missed by the lack-of-quality control department of a factory deliberately producing faulty goods. Megamind came off the conveyor belt just the way they like it. Despite a couple clever twists in the plotting that upend expectations in this tale of super-powered arch-nemeses, the film is largely a by-the numbers affair. Even the vocal performances are bland and perfunctory, although Brad Pitt is surprisingly good as the stalwart superhero who inspires the title character’s wrath.

Catfish (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, 2010). This documentary (although that term should perhaps be in quotation marks) purports to present an alarming vision of the immense pliability of identity in an Internet age. If the three guys at the heart of this movie–the two directors and the brother of one of them who is effectively the film’s protagonist–were really as shocked by the circumstances as this situation as is portrayed, then they’re perhaps the least savvy trio living and working in New York City. At least one of them must hold a deed for the Brooklyn Bridge by now. Joost and Schulman actually present their story with a admirable level of clarity and strong sense of pacing, but the entirety of it just feels hopelessly phony. There’s probably some truth to it, but the actual dramatization of the events related to the film feels consistently manufactured, as if genuine moments were amateurishly recreated after someone went to fetch the camera.

All Through the Night (Vincent Sherman, 1941). A truly odd little hybrid that swerves between espionage-related mystery and wispy comedy in a story of small-time gangsters discovering a group of Nazi spies on American soil. And it was released five days before the Attack on Pearl Harbor. In general, the movie’s bent towards almost propaganda-style invocations of patriotism in stirring up sentiment about going off to get them rotten Nazis is more interesting as a historical detail than it is satisfying as drama. Those bits tend to stop the film cold. This was Humphrey Bogart’s fourth film in a year that found him making significant breakthroughs with High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon, and, while he’s clearly at ease in his leading role, he seems a little bored playing another gangster, the sort of role that dominated the first decade of his career. It’s amusing to watch his try to bluff his way through a Nazi plotting session when he’s masquerading as one of their undercover agents, but the bulk of the film is little more than a curiosity.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story (Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, 2010). Based on a 2006 novel reportedly drawn from the author’s actual experience as a teenager hospitalized for depression, the film stars Keir Gilchrist as Craig, who checks himself into a psychiatric ward mistakenly believing that they’d be able to clear up his minor problems in an afternoon. He’s quickly overwhelmed by the experience, but winds up assimilating quite nicely, especially given that his stay is less than a week. The previous feature directorial collaborations between Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck–2006’s Half Nelson and 2008’s Sugar–were fascinating for their intense focus on character and ability to draw high tension out of controlled understatement. They try roughly the same approach here, while also trying to balance a sweet teen love story with a tale of unlikely camaraderie through portraying mental illness as a relatively benign variation of misfit culture. It’s no surprise that it ultimately doesn’t gel. It’s markedly aimless.

The Big Street (Irving Reis, 1942). Based on a Damon Runyon story, The Big Street is often held up as proof that Lucille Ball could have been a sharp, formidable movie actress if given the chance. She undoubtedly plays a largely unlikable character with a strident fearlessness, although she’s actually better served by other features that gave her a chance to build her strength around quick-witted banter rather than abject bullying. Ball plays a nightclub singer who winds up wheelchair-bound after an act of physical abuse sends her tumbling down the stairs at a club. The ambition-free busboy who pines after her becomes her only true ally, even though she routinely treats him the way a chain smoker treats an ashtray. He’s played by Henry Fonda with a brand of weak fealty that honestly defies belief. The movie is reasonably serviceable as dark melodrama, but it could have used more snap and less simpering.

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