This Week in Geek (6-12/08/18)


In theaters: If you don't tear up through 50-75% of Christopher Robin, you may be a Woozle. Made, I suspect, more for adults who saw/read/loved Winnie the Pooh as kids, than for their children (I'll come back to that), Marc Forster's Pooh film has a nostalgic melancholy throughout that speaks to grown-up Christopher's own post-childhood, post-war malaise, and his need to connect back to that childhood so he can better connect with his family. If you subscribe to the psychological analysis of the Pooh stories, where each animal is a sliver of Christopher's psyche, then he has been overtaken by his inner Heffalump. The movie doesn't shy away from the sadness and is quite earnest in its sentimentality. Tonally, it's in line with the original stories, as is its comedy, part slapstick, part wordplay, all quite charming, and even in faster-paced scenes, gentle in a way most modern CG/part-CG family films aren't. And the animal characters are rather wonderful. Pooh is impossibly touching. Eeyore very funny. The others don't play as large a role, but all feel right. If I don't think it was necessarily made for today's kids, I don't mean they can't enjoy it, but it is rather quiet compared to similar fare (this year's Paddington 2 and Peter Rabbit, which I both loved as well, are more frenetic). I always cringe when workplace drama and "the big meeting" climax are inserted into these kinds of films, as much because it's a cliché as because I can hear bored children rustling in their seats. Christopher Robin finds a good balance (the film does, the character has trouble with exactly that) between the strictly human scenes (where you lose the younger kids who don't care about marital, parental, or work problems) and lovable stuffed animal shenanigans. I think I'm gonna go talk to my own stuffed animal now, a white dog I've kept because I was given it when I was born. I'll be right back.

At home: In Libeled Lady, Myrna Loy is a coy heiress suing a newspaper for defamation, so they send her old Thin Man co-star William Powell after her so she can get caught stealing another woman's husband and lose all credibility. Powell even gets married to the editor's girlfriend to make it real, and to make the situation more ridiculous, she falls for him, he falls for the heiress, and on it goes. Loy and Powell are of course great together, and though her character is as sharp as barbed wire, this is a much sweeter relationship than their more famous pairing. As a result, perhaps, the dialog isn't as sharp as you'd want it, and the plot seems to angle for gross convenience to resolve its climax, but then doesn't quite, so I'll give it a pass. Quite charming.

Myrna Loy and William Powell are reunited, well, again, in I Love You Again, a slightly nuts amnesia-centric romcom, in which Powell's Milquetoast pottery salesman gets hit over the head and loses the last 9 years, which he'd spent rebuilding his life after a bout of amnesia. So he's himself again, and that self is a sly con man who plans to use his fabricated identity to rob a small town blind. Except both of himself like the same type, because he falls head over heels for his wife, who's trying to divorce her deathly dull husband. It's a bit complicated to explain, I'll admit. But while medically absurd, it does make for a fun little movie about second chances and falling in love again, with some sound comedy coming out of both the relationship and the grifting plot.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House stars Cary Grant making a bad investment to move his family out of a cramped New York apartment and into a country home, but everything from the sale to the rebuilding goes completely wrong, and I sort of have to include the resulting film in that description. It's okay, but there's too much dead air in the scenes for them to really fly, the satire about the upper middle class doesn't land, and  Blandings just comes off as a macho idiot who doesn't listen to anyone and likes to play to expert (the scene at the covered bridge is perhaps the theme in a nutshell). At some point, the movie realizes it's essentially plotless - just vignettes where Blandings makes the wrong choice and bites his nails about money - and it tacks on a convenient advertising campaign problem. And from the looks of it, someone must have realized the movie wasn't very funny at the editing stage, because the voice-over from the friend of the family has much more fun playing with the story's core ironies. Myrna Loy, as Mrs. Blandings, comes out of it much better, and that scene where she described the colors she wants for her walls proves to me she should have dominated much more of the film's run time than she does.

In The Philadelphia Story, Katharine Hepburn is a rich heiress once married to the abusive Cary Grant, and about to marry a solid middle class gentleman. A newspaper with an axe to grind against her father sends Grant and irascible writer Jimmy Stewart to her wedding to see what kind of drama can be dug up. In the days leading up to the big event, she gets to compare the two intrusive men to her fiance, which turns this romcom/screwball set-up into character examination territory. Hepburn wants to be loved, obviously, but she's not quick to trust because she fears being seen as a fortune, or else, because of her beauty, as an objet d'art. What are love and marriage about for her? That's what she's got to learn, and through a strong script and equally strong performances from all involved, she does. Whether or not you agree with her final choice is up to you, but it's hers, and she earned the right to make it.

I knew going in that Bringing Up Baby was the screwball comedy to end all screwball comedies, but I didn't expect "Baby" to be a rowdy pet leopard. That's just a crazy cherry on top of a mad sundae. Katharine Hepburn is completely loopy in this, a fast-talking gal who mishears/sees everything, seems to make her thinking on a completely different track from the rest of us, and makes up stories about as easily as Bugs Bunny. I've heard it said people find her annoying, but I find it pretty amusing myself. She sets her sights on Cary Grant early on as a man she wants to marry - he's a paleontologist who is immensely frustrated by her mere presence, chaos to his dull order - and through a series of insane misunderstandings, some of them caused by leopards and dogs, I guess they'll just have to end up together. Pure lunacy from director Howard Hawks that was apparently before its time, full of verbal and physical comedy. I'm a bit sick of Cary Grant's annoyed persona at this point (he's always on the verge of hitting a woman in these things, which really doesn't play well), but Hepburn is completely unlike anything else I've seen her in, a mad and intoxicating free spirit.

Was 1957 too late for a romantic comedy starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, both in their 50s? According to the makers of Desk Set, no. And I'd have to agree with them. It's rather sweet, actually, and the set-up is rather unusual (no rich heiresses, for one thing). Tracy is an efficiency expert (in fact, I wish there would have been more office space satire in the film, because those bits tickled me a great deal) and computer engineer hired to quietly install 1957's equivalent of Google in a network's research department headed by Hepburn's Google-on-legs. The premise is intriguing from a contemporary viewer's perspective since its human vs. machine theme has resolved itself somewhat differently for us, but it wouldn't work without affable performances and well-written dialog, which Desk Set delivers. It's a Christmas movie too, and should delight in season and out.

Cactus Flower was based on a hit play and it shows. The dialog is cracking and had me laughing out loud consistently, something I'll admit I don't often do. Walter Matthau's dentist's problem is that he's told his 21-year-old girlfriend, played by Goldie Hawn, that he's married so he could avoid commitment. When things become more serious, he can only marry her by pretending to divorce his wife, which she insists on meeting, and so he ropes his matronly nurse (Ingmar Bergman), loyal to a fault, into his web of lies. And then there's the writer next door, Rick Lenz looking like a young James Stewart so much it's surprising he didn't have more of a screen career, who might just be a spoiler. It's classic farce, laced with barb-wire wit, and while it won Hawn her only Oscar, it's Bergman who is our everything. She's not known for comedy, but shows she can do it very well, and though her punch lines are perfectly pitched, she also does what she's always done best: Make you feel for her. She's funny AND touching. The men in this story may be plot engines, but it's the ladies who are its moral center, and the characters that stay with you. A complete delight.

Gene Kelly does what he does best in It's Always Fair Weather, which is find ways to show off. The dance numbers are difficult - tying something to his feet, impossibly synchronized with dancers shot separately, roller skates - and he and his cast pull it off like the athletes they are. Cyd Charisse is abominably underused however, getting one dance number, and not even with Kelly himself. But then, while she's required for his character to "arc", this isn't her story. It's the tale of three army veterans who, in 1945, promise to be friends forever, and bet their barman they'll be back to prove it in 10 years. On the date, they find out they've grown apart and no longer recognize or like each other. Interestingly, they don't recognize or like THEMSELVES either, and through that realization, may be healed. It's a little more adult than the flighty dance numbers and television-of-the-era spoof might otherwise indicate. There are some definite lulls when we spend too much time away from the song and dance, but also some fun transition ideas to get us from point A to point B. In terms of old-fashioned musicals, you could do a lot worse.

Lady in the Lake is a Philip Marlowe mystery with an unusual technical conceit - it's almost entirely presented from the protagonist's perspective, as if he were the camera. It's interesting enough, effective at creating uncertainty about other characters' motives and certainly a good showcase for Audrey Totter who plays opposite; and it has thematic underpinnings besides (the detective as author), but they're not as strong as I want them to be when trying to justify such an extreme choice. Because the conceit, as clever as it sometimes is, does cause problems. The most tangible one is that because we seldom see Marlowe's face (a mirror here and there), and star/director Robert Montgomery's delivery is so deadpan (he has mastered the noir patter of Raymond Chandler's world), you can't really get a handle on his character, and so his romance with Totter lacks feeling. We need to see his expressions to believe in his emotional states, and we don't, so we don't. Sadly, what makes Lady in the Lake worth the watch is also the thing that ultimately makes it less than satisfying.

The Commuter starts out as a Hithcockian thriller in which Liam Neeson, a former police detective and down-on-his-luck insurance salesman, is given a strange mission by a shadowy group while commuting back home on his usual train - I.D. someone for people (and results) unknown. Intriguing enough, and as the stakes keep rising, it seems like the mission becomes more and more impossible. (Really, if these people weren't sinister, this would almost feel like a Mission: Impossible recruitment job.) By the third act, the thriller has become an action film, with some reasonably exciting sequences (but so-so CG). As is often the case in these kinds of flicks, willing suspension of disbelief may become necessary. The train goes through at least one wide plot hole - namely that the bad guys are so omniscient, you wonder why they need Neeson's character at all - but maybe the revelations at the end fill it up adequately. Sometimes it's predictable, sometimes it isn't, but mostly, it's a thrill ride you're happy to go on, and the end of the line is satisfying.

Where Eagles Dare is a war movie (it definitely seems to be part of Inglourious Basterds' DNA), but it really owes more to Mission: Impossible which was on the air at the time (and while its pace is the show's, the twists and turns - and love of stunts - could almost belong to the film franchise). A group of special ops soldiers led by Richard Burton and including Clint Eastwood, must get into an alpine Nazi castle to smuggle out a captured general (or so we think, twists and turns, remember?), its tone alternating between explosive action epic and wetworks procedural in what I feel is an awkward way. The film is adamant that we must see every step getting into the castle, and every step getting out. And every bullet fired, for that matter, making for a long and tedious escape from Germany. Burton is almost the only character to get talking scenes, which makes all his men rather generic (which is a problem later), even Eastwood who we only really notice because he's Eastwood. His role is mostly to shoot all those bullets and look at Burton talking. The twistiness of the plot is the best thing about the movie, but I would have trimmed a LOT of the action (movie runs more than two and a half hours, after all). And while I'm at the editor's console, I would have added more Ingrid Pitt!

Director Brian G. Hutton's follow-up to Where Eagles Dare - another WWII secret mission starring Clint Eastwood, which even uses the same font on the credits) - Kelly's Heroes is a much greater entertainment. It's almost as long, but its set pieces don't suffer from tedious pacing, and most importantly, it has a CAST of characters, with PERSONALITIES. Eagles pinned everything on a rather serious Richard Burton, Kelly's Heroes has Eastwood as the central character, but he's outshined at every turn by the likes of Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, and Donald Sutherland. Even the bit parts in the platoon tend to be memorable in that Sgt. Rock and Easy Company way. Only Carroll O'Connor's cartoon general is irksome. The twist of course is that this "mission" is a bank heist behind enemy lines, and it's well done, with plenty of good tank action. And the tonal twist is that this is clearly a Vietnam-era story, and the characters, whether Savalas' cynic or Sutherland's burnout, feel like they were pulled from one war and thrown back into another. That's not a complaint, it makes for a lively and unusual WWII film. Damn though... I wonder how old (and thus historic) that Yugoslavian town they destroyed was...

Who even thought Every Which Way But Loose was a viable movie project? Clint Eastwood is a brawling trucker who pals around with an orangutan - DON'T QUESTION IT! - and takes off after a country singer he falls in love with when she moves to Colorado. But he's followed by Neo-Nazi bikers and vengeful cops who have scores to settle with him because he's beaten them up, often on the slightest of provocations - DON'T QUESTION IT! In fact, there's a fist fight every 10 minutes at least, and Eastwood is nigh indestructible. Really, the only one who can hurt him, physically draw blood, is the woman he loves. That, and the grace note that soon follows, make me think there's more to this picture than a slim plot padded out by random violence. If you go with it, if you DON'T QUESTION IT, it's absurd in a way that would make it a great double feature with Roadhouse. It's got some laughs, is essentially harmless with its continually-humiliated cartoon villains, and you come to care what happens to the characters. Damn it, it's weird and wonky and meandering, but it's entertaining.

If you're going to wrongfully lynch Clint Eastwood, you better make sure it takes. It's a shocking start to a revenge picture, but Hang'em High doesn't then go through the expected paces. It IS a revenge movie, but it's an empathetic and merciful one. Eastwood takes a lawful path to getting the posse responsible, and spends the entire film questioning his motives and those of the hanging judge (played just as thoughtfully by Pat Hingle) who pays his salary. So while nominally offering a lurid, violent western, Eastwood rather gives us a meditation on the absurdity of laws that allow for executions, but not, strictly speaking, for forgiveness. The Wild West is an extreme environment, but the morality holds in the modern day. While audiences at the time unfavorably compared this 1968 film to Sergio Leone's stylish Man With No Name trilogy, and still do, I rather think it has more to say.

Reads: For Jack Kirby's 100th birthday, DC Comics issues The Kamandi Challenge. Essentially, they divided the Earth of the Great Disaster into 12 quadrants, pulled one along with a writer's name and an artist's, gave out the assignments for 12 issues, and asked each team to end theirs on an unresolvable cliffhanger for the next. It's fun, and the creative teams have fun playing in Kirby's back yard, but the format does have its weaknesses. Supporting cast characters are dropped sometimes unceremoniously by writers who don't care about them, and because the Last Boy on Earth has to travel all around the Earth, there's a sense of one damn thing being thrown at him after another, and no cohesive plot (how can there be). Not to say the final writers don't bring it all together, but there's an awful lot of unnecessary incident. That said, the better chapters pay tribute to King Kirby in fun or even touching ways, his art, but also his life and philosophy. I guess most of my favorite bits ARE towards the end - the absurd Greco-Roman stand-off by Giffen and Rude, the unusual metaphysics of Tom King and Kevin Eastman, and Gail Simone's insane finale. Props to Bill Willingham as well for drawing a comparison between Kamandi and the Jungle Book, I don't know how I missed that one.

Another of those vintage romance stories from 1940s Quebec, L'Amour à l'Américaine (Love, American Style) is, unlike the previous one I read, signed by a male author. And it is misogynistic AF! Oh my. It's about a rich, philandering linguist who sends his daughter away to Hollywood because he thinks she's shrill, and his wife to Chicago so she can get plastic surgery because he think she's fat (at 150 lbs.), while the author keeps insisting how this 50-year-old man is still handsome. While his ladies are away, he goes to New York to party and meet up with potential mistresses - all women in the story are described in terms of body shape - and drunkenly puts his name in a raffle to adopt an orphaned Russian baby, which he wins to his great dismay, because a baby would cock-block his romantic life. "Baby" arrives, but is an 18-year-old, which he immediately thinks of banging, but he's already got this date lined up with a French countess, so he spins a web of lies, but really falls for said countess, whose voice seems familiar. It's pretty much telegraphed this is his youthened wife, which he doesn't recognize, and even though he's a lying adulterer, she's so happy he's attracted to her again, it scarcely matters. After the big reveal, she takes him to bed. Like, wow. There are no words--


Anonymous said...

As far as I'm concerned, the definitive Winnie the Pooh can be found in one of three places:

1) The Estonian band Winny Puhh:

2) The slightly remastered Jim Dale audiobook of "Winnie the Pooh":

3) A favorite joke. It's the first day of school for little Johnny, and his mom is giving him a talk before school. "Now Johnny, you're a big boy now, so you have to act like a big boy. That means you can't use baby talk when you're at school, do you understand?" "Yes Mom." Johnny goes to school, and when he returns home, his mom asks: "How was school?"

"It was a lot of fun!" replies Johnny.

"That's great! What did you do?"

"Teacher read us a book."

"Oh, what did she read?"

"'Winnie the Shit'!"

Brendoon said...

I reckon I might like to see Christopher Robin, too.
I couldn't face watching its immediate predecessor "Goodbye Christopher Robin" which is reported to be an extreme downer.
This will be far more sweet to the taste!
One thing that's sure to jar (and it's a biggie) the voices: Disney holds to it's inappropriate character voices chosen back in the whacky 60's... they never even tried to think "what voices would A.A. Milne choose?". In the 60's subjects of the British Commonwealth and people who'd actually read the books weren't their primary audience however.
Disney did weird stuff like that back in the day, not just with voices but also in largely re-inventing characters.
Now they've got Marvel, Star Wars, Muppets and everything else in the universe I suspect they're more interested in considering the source material (the fans would revolt!)

The most perfect full cast recording of the books I've heard had Stephen Fry as Pooh.
It's not even a biased opinion of my own, the truth shines forth so obviously in any comparison it's evident that Fry is the world's most perfect Pooh!
Check out the rest of the cast too... giants! And perfect too...


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