Cianfrance, Hitchcock, Levine, Sonnenfeld, Zinnemann

Sabotage (Alfred Hitchcock, 1936). My instinct is to refer to this as an early Alfred Hitchcock film, but he was a decade and almost two dozen films into his career by this point. What’s more, this was released the year after The 39 Steps, so while Hitchcock may not have been The Master yet, he was a seasoned, skilled and respected filmmaker already. This was toward the end of the run of his British-made films, and there’s a certain added restraint–even somewhat pedestrian quality–to the narrative about a terrorist group staging bombings around London. It notably adheres to all of Hitchcock’s rules of suspense, including letting the audience know exactly where a bomb is placed to heighten anticipation of the inevitable explosion. There are a few conveniences built into the plot and simplified, streamlined relationships of the sort typical of the era. Overall, though, the film does exhibit a fine craftsman’s touch, even if there are only the barest hints of the genius to come.

Men in Black 3 (Barry Sonnenfeld, 2012). It may not be good enough to forgive the wholly inane 2002 sequel, but at least the third installment manages to be a moderate diversion. That’s faint praise, to be sure, but the tortured production process (starting without a finished script, shutting down for several months in the middle to get the material into shape to finish up) suggested a far worse finished product. The film involves a time travel plot that just barely avoids tying itself in ugly knots and provides the pleasure of seeing Josh Brolin’s improbably entertaining Tommy Lee Jones impression, playing a younger version of the grouchy actor’s Agent K. There’s also an terrifically fun supporting turn by Michael Stuhlbarg, as an alien who can see all the various possibilities of any given situation, a conceit that is handled with commendable cleverness. The film is little more than a cash-grab attempt to revive a broken franchise, but it manages to do so with a bit of dignity.

Warm Bodies (Jonathan Levine, 2013). The timing probably couldn’t be better for a spoofy mix of zombies and supernatural teen romance, and director Jonathan Levine delivers a passably entertaining take on the concept, adapted from a 2010 novel by Isaac Marion. Nicholas Hoult plays one of many shambling victims of a zombie apocalypse whose mindless quest for human flesh is interrupted when old, supposedly dormant feelings are stirred up by a lovely young survivor, played by Teresa Palmer. There are all sorts of allegories that can be drawn about understanding and accepting difference, but the films works best viewed as little more than a loose, daffy, suitably dark trifle.

Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, 2013). I’ve been trying to figure out the last time I watched a filmmaker veer so dramatically from something phenomenally forceful to utter junk from one film to the next. Derek Cianfrance follows up the near-genius of Blue Valentine with a grim drama that is overloaded with shaky motivations, groaning implausibilities and self-important fabricated tension. The director reunites with Valentine actor Ryan Gosling, who should really snag another offbeat character role like Lars Lindstrom soon, before his career gets mired in an endless series of self-consciously cool characters. The film is basically three different interlocking stories, strung together like boxcars, each one more pretentious than the last. Somewhere in there, Eva Mendes is doing some of the best acting I’ve ever seen from her, at least until she essentially has to play the same basic moment over and over again.

High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952). Widely considered one of the greatest westerns ever crafted in the Hollywood studio system, High Noon looks a little safe and even staid now (Roger Ebert once stirred some mild controversy by noting he’d rewatched it in consideration for his Great Movies series and decided it’s “frankly, just not a very good film”). It is interesting to consider how many tropes of the tried-and-true genre the film is casually, firmly upending, including the notion that the upstanding marshal irritated several residents of his town, not just the law-breakers. The famed conceit of the movie operating in roughly real time is actually almost entirely inconsequential and barely worth noting, except for the occasionally pushy presence of clocks in many of the scenes. Gary Cooper is excellent as the beset lawman, unable to find anyone to stand by his side as he prepares to face down returning scoundrels with vengeance on their minds. What begins as a typical clipped, almost stilted Cooper performance gets buffed down into something worn and weary as the weight of his dilemma sets in. Fred Zinnemann directs with a sharp eye, favoring long shots that accentuate just how alone Cooper’s lawman is as he walks through the dusty town.

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