The Impossible (Juan Antonio Bayona, 2012). At the very core of The Impossible is the commonplace sin of depicting a real-life tragedy in an Asian land through the experience of well-to-do, white, European travelers. The devastating tsunami that struck countries on the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004 killed approximately a quarter of a million people in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand, but its obviously rich vacationers played by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor whose story whose story needs to be told. This could be acceptable–albeit begrudgingly so–if the film still carried the sort of emotional weight that should be easy to come by given the situation. Instead, it feels as phony as can be, even when some of the shards of detail have a faint aura of authenticity. Director Juan Antonio Bayona stages individual scenes with a inquisitive respect for the power of the storm and the ragged mayhem of its aftermath. It’s the human elements that apparently bore him. Watts brings a game physical commitment to her performance, but, as with almost everyone else, she’s given a hollowed-out character to play. She strains and crumples convincingly, which doesn’t adequately compensate for the simple humanity that’s missing.
Wreck It Ralph (Rich Moore, 2012). Another stepping stone in John Lasseter’s Frogger-style hopping path to bringing some of the Pixar storytelling skill to the previously staid Disney Animation group, a process that arguably finally started banging out a steady fountain of gold coins with last year’s Frozen. This tale of the title character, a video game villain voiced by John C. Reilly, who finds redemption through an epic adventure across a different video game platform is funny enough and marked by just enough charm. It doesn’t take full advantage of the possibilities of the video game, settling for a clever, melancholy, passing use of the Q*Bert cast as the best exploitation of the source inspiration. The film is otherwise fairly conventional, complete with some obvious plot points. Rich Moore brings an admirable energy to the directing, perhaps thanks to his experience presiding over some of the very best episodes of The Simpsons.
The Great McGinty (Preston Sturges, 1940). The directorial debut of Preston Sturges, undertaken after he agreed to sell the script for a highly discounted rate (reportedly one measly dollar) if the studio would allow him to literally call the shots. He’d been dissatisfied with how others had handled his earlier efforts. While he lacks the panache evident in subsequent films, he certainly commits to the comic cynicism of his story. The title character (Brian Donlevy) begins the story as a vagrant making a quick buck with prolific participation in voter fraud. His ambition gets him invited into the inner circle of the crooked politicians, and his crooked star swells from there. As bold as The Great McGinty is, it’s just shaky enough that it’s main appeal is as a foundational work for a filmmaker who was about to become absolutely masterful, doing so with uncommon speed and clarity.
The Woman in the Window (Fritz Lang, 1944). This twisty film noir from Fritz Lang amusingly taps into the paranoid certainty that any dalliance with moral malfeasance is likely to lead to a tar pit of trouble. To put it another way, if the gorgeous, glamorous woman who inspires obsessive thoughts is coming on to a regular schmo, it’s probably not going to end well for the schmo. Edward G. Robinson plays a college professor who is enjoying a night out when his family is away, encountering a lovely woman (Joan Bennett) who he’d previously spotted in a portrait hanging in a storefront. He accompanies her home, which leads to accidental involvement in a major crime. The rest of the film is largely comprised of the professor squirming as his district attorney pal edges closer to figuring out the mystery. Based on a novel by J.H. Wallis, the screenplay (credited to Nunnally Johnson, also the producer) cleverly depicts all the small ways that the professor trips up, revealing a more intimate knowledge of the crime than he could have possibly gleaned from newspaper reports. Robinson is highly enjoyable in the role, and Lang directs with his trademark sense of dark style. The film contains a final twist, the hoariest of narrative escape hatches, that doesn’t quite eradicate the goodwill the rest of the film builds up, but it comes remarkably close.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Marc Webb, 2014). The lackluster reboot gets its inevitable sequel. In Sam Raimi’s second outing with the web-slinger during the first go-round of Marvel’s most famous comic book character as a modern studio tentpole, the director excelled in large part by shrewdly correcting the flaws of the first installment. Marc Webb as his collaborators have no such instinct, basically doubling down on all the weakest elements of The Amazing Spider-Man while also adhering to the apparent necessity to load the film with ever more, more, more. Even the little kid in front of us at the theater was grousing. “Another bad guy?” she incredulously asked at one point. Andrew Garfield remains game and enthusiastic as Peter Parker, but the screenplay is pat rather than clever, robbing the character of the whip-smart sense of humor that helps define him on the colorful page. The rapport between Garfield and Emma Stone (as Gwen Stacy) is so light and lovely that it inspires dreams of better material for them to share.