Next Time I Marry (Garson Kanin, 1938). The earliest film that gave Lucille Ball star billing casts her as bratty heiress who needs to marry the right man to secure her inheritance, the sort of dilemma that only exists in the movies. Arriving a few years after It Happened One Night, the film is transparently a riff on the Frank Capra hit, with Ball’s entitled scold being tamed by the regular joe (James Ellison) she impulsively weds to get her money. They road trip across the country in a race to secure an annulment, director Garson Kanin staging everything with an energy that strangely feels both zippy and worn out. As always with Ball’s earlier cinematic appearances, the most interesting aspect of the film is the future TV icon’s wonderfully spiky screen persona, so at odds with the daffiness that would later define her. When the rest of the film is drab, she’s a pleasure to watch.
Ender’s Game (Gavin Hood, 2013). All the controversy surrounding the odious views of original Ender’s Game author Orson Scott Card obscured the discussion about the actual quality of the film adaptation, ages in the making. Director Gavin Hood, who also wrote the screenplay, delivers the material dutifully enough but with a surprising lack of threat. The futuristic story of a child named Ender (Asa Butterfield) who’s one of many recruits to train to fight in an anticipated war against an invading alien horde had a genuine urgency and sense of surprise on the page. Transferred to the big screen, it looks like a surprisingly chintzy version of any number of desperate sci fi franchise wannabes. The film also includes a typically grumpy performance by Harrison Ford, who seems to be in an unofficial competition with Bruce Willis to see who can perpetuate their career the longest while being damnably disengaged at nearly every turn.
Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges, 1955). This grim thriller from director John Sturges cleverly updates the tropes of classic westerns and plops them into post-War Arizona, as a stranger comes to town inquiring after a man of Japanese descent who lived there. The stranger named Macreedy is played by Spencer Tracy with his trademark melding of naturalistic ease and mildly gruff formality. The deconstruction of the Hollywood western begins with Tracy’s inversion of heroic stoicism. Sturges shapes the film with an unfussy portent: there’s a strong sense of menace in nearly ever scene, but the director never stoops to manipulation to keep the suspense high. He draws it out through the simplicity of the situations, even adding some pointed social commentary that had to particularly smart at the time of the film’s release. At a running time of just over eighty minutes, the film is either slight or lean, either assessment is fair. I tilt towards the latter, but only barely.
The Bad and the Beautiful (Vincente Minnelli, 1952). This high-gloss Hollywood melodrama plays out like Vincente Minnelli’s toxic bon bon depiction of his business of choice. Kirk Douglas plays a egotistical movie director whose story is relayed through reminiscences connected to collaborators he betrayed in his rise to the top. Minnelli offers the razzle-dazzle of the entertainment industry and the peeling paint on the scenery together, and one of the devious pleasures of the film is that both hold an allure. With a TCM showing of the film, Robert Osborne, the network’s venerable host, couched his praise of Douglas’s acting abilities with the observation that he was difficult to cast, which struck me as a diplomatic way of asserting the famed star had a terribly limited range. It think that’s absolutely true (I might go further and say he generally wasn’t all that strong at all on screen), but he’s terrific here, his booming masculinity and furious line readings perfectly suiting a character who flirts with artistic megalomania. The Bad and the Beautiful would be fun but predictable if not for the bleak punchline of a closing twist, in which the wronged colleagues are reminded that if they owe their scars to the hated directors, then the same is true of their grandly successful careers. It’s not quite comeuppance, but it leaves a similar flushed red mark.
Short Term 12 (Destin Cretton, 2013). Nothing less than one of the very best films of the year, Destin Cretton’s ruefully entertaining drama about the employees and denizens of a group home for troubled youth has a breezy charm nicely at odds with the grim subject matter. The film’s authenticity is already well-established and duly celebrated, but it bears cheering anew, if only because Cretton’s commitment to honesty offers further proof that this is still the best method to making any work worthwhile and even vital. Further ratifying that is the performance by Brie Larson in the film’s leading role, purely constructed and deeply felt. I’m often disappointed with how by-the-numbers the modern offerings that cram into art house theaters can be, but Short Term 12 is a thrilling reminder that independent cinema can still explore riveting, heartfelt stories that would otherwise be entirely absent from movie screens.