My Week in Movies: Apr. 15-21

The Great Mouse Detective (1986) The 1970s and 80s are considered dark times for Disney animation, but here’s a genuine bright spot. The Great Mouse Detective is a wonderful film, the result of the studio’s desperation in looking for a new direction – and yes, this has talking animals and singing and plenty of other Disney standbys, but it’s also quite fresh and set apart, even twenty-six years later. The Holmes-inspired set-up, which borrows from and pays homage to but never flatly imitates our collective idea of the detective and his stories, comes across in these days of Downey and Cumberbatch as ahead of the pack. And we get Vincent Price, too! This blend of gaslight adventure and warm family humor never fails to remind me why it’s among my very favorite Disney films.

Road to Morocco (1942) Like Webster’s Dictionary, they’re Morocco bound. The Road to series isn’t great filmmaking or even great comedy, but there’s something about this particular brand of fourth wall-breaking humor I adore, especially because it’s not easy. It takes a delicate touch to repeatedly wink at the audience without coming off as smarmy/lame/clich├ęd/lazy/trying too hard/not trying hard enough. Hope and Crosby, they get it juuuuuust right.

I’ll Be Seeing You (1944) A wartime romance that’s half quiet and lovely and emotionally true and half overcooked and melodramatic and clumsy in its efforts to jerk tears. The premise, at least, is a keeper: Joseph Cotten plays a shell shock-scarred soldier on a Christmas furlough who meets Ginger Rogers and, naturally, falls in love. The script is genuine in its efforts to examine the mental and emotional damage war leaves behind, and the soldier’s inner struggles are balanced nicely with the warmth and love he finds not only with Rogers’ character, but with her family (including a teenage Shirley Temple). As for Rogers, she’s harboring her own secret (and it’s no spoiler, since it’s stated up front): she’s on leave while serving a six-year prison sentence. This alone is fine, as it gives us two broken souls who connect through a shared sense of personal grief, but the screenplay gets hammy with its handling of the material, forcing a contrived “what will Cotten think if he knows the truth?” conflict upon an otherwise heartfelt story. (Even more problematic are the creepy gender politics which suggest society is right to shun her for attempting legitimate self defense; despite this, the script also uses that self defense to keep her away from moral ambiguity, thus chickening out of giving us a character who’s actually done something worth regretting. Rogers’ character stays in the shallow end of the pool every time we need her to dive in deep.) The presentation turns sappy, weakening the impact of what had been a solid character study, and not even the strength of the performances can salvage a clumsy third act.

The Cabin in the Woods (2012) Despite its reputation as a pile of plot twists one must dare not spoil (and don’t worry, I won’t), The Cabin in the Woods isn’t so much about surprise (although, as a horror movie, it has plenty to spare) as it is a study in the Slow Reveal, toying with how much the audience should know, and when. (I wrote a more spoiler-filled post on how the film handles its reveals last week.) It’s also an effective and often quite tense horror film (those people who say it’s not scary? They’re lying to you), a sly riff on its own genre tropes, and, most unexpectedly, a meditation on predeterminism vs. free will. Oh, and it’s much gorier than I had anticipated, too; I have to be in a certain mood for such on-screen violence, and there’s something about how it’s presented here, brilliantly and devilishly contrasted with some mighty dark comedy, that often made it difficult to watch. But in a good way. If that makes sense.

Bachelor Mother (1939) Part two of an unintentional Ginger Rogers-at-Christmas movie marathon. Bachelor Mother hangs its plot on an outdated parade of misunderstandings, with Rogers trying to help an abandoned baby, only to wind up repeatedly mistaken for an unwed mother, with complications ensuing as they tend to do. The movie works best when it ignores its set-up and sticks with the romcom interplay between Rogers and David Niven; the two are wonderful together, especially as they plow through a series of silly episodic asides. (One diversion involves misadventures at a department store’s return counter; another finds Rogers faking Swedish at a New Year’s Ball; and so on. All are very, very funny.) The more plot-centric scenes aren’t as embarrassing in their antiquated views as they could’ve been, mainly because the whole thing manages to stay sweet and kindhearted. It’s a farce more interested in its characters than their shenanigans, making all the difference.

The Gamma People (1956) Alternate title: Wait, What? The Movie. One of the more bizarre science fiction efforts of the 1950s (and that’s saying something!), The Gamma People involves a couple of Western gents who stumble upon remote Eastern European village-nation where a mad scientist is experimenting on the locals with gamma rays, creating genius kids, mindless thugs, and at least one Midwich Cuckoo – although such a recap hardly does justice to the full range of WTFery on display. The film mixes monster movie thrills and political commentary with whimsical comedy, with the filmmakers never taking anything seriously when they should and taking everything way to seriously when they shouldn’t. It’s all too uneven to work as either broad satire or straight-up allegory and too sloppy to work as entertainment, although its sheer weirdness keeps it from being a total failure.

The Public Enemy (1931) Nobody – nobody – swaggers like Cagney. Never mind his machine gun verbal delivery; the physicality he brings to the screen is from another world, bringing a dancer’s grace to all these hard-edged city boy characters. The Cagney swagger helps make Tom Powers one of cinema’s great characters because it lends a light touch to a dark, dark character (and a dark, dark movie, filled with sinister moments that still made me cringe, jump, and gasp in horror). He’s evil but not mean, which makes him not a villain or even antihero but subject of tragedy, a bad guy who ignored too many chances to turn things around. The film is a masterpiece, and so is Cagney’s performance.

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) I don’t know how to put this, but this movie is kind of a big deal.

Battle in Outer Space (1959) I stumbled upon this one thanks to Sony’s “Toho Collection” DVD set, which I purchased entirely for Mothra, which is a long, boring way of explaining why I’d never heard of this sequel to The Mysterians until now. The first half hour or so, detailing the Earthbound adventures of scientists and politicians readying for battle against a recently discovered race of mind-controlling aliens sneaking around on the moon, is top notch, playing out as an effective thriller despite its occasional discussions of dubious science. Then the heroes finally set out for the moon, and the action gets plenty silly – but enjoyably so, thanks to a swift pace and some dandy effects and design work. (Fans of retro-kitsch sci-fi visuals will have a ball here.) The movie’s final third delivers on the titular promise, with low-fi high-orbit dogfights that, while far from Star Wars, make me wonder if a young George Lucas counted this among his inspirations.

My Favorite Spy (1951) More Bob Hope. This is one of those “goofball lands in the middle of a spy caper” numbers, with the wisecrackery coming off more cute than funny, although Hope lands a few big laughs throughout. Plus, Hedy Lamarr stops by to properly sexy up the place. A sequence where Hope meets his doppleganger is, as these scenes go, pretty darn good, both technically and comedically.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011) Third viewing, this time from the comfort of home. It’s still perfect popcorn filmmaking, with firecracker pacing, whip smart humor, and some of the most intense action sequences I’ve ever seen. There’s not a frame of this thing that doesn’t floor me in one way or another. Three viewings? I’m just getting started.

Mothra (1961) My favorite Toho monster. (Sorry, Big G.) Mothra forgoes the atomic terrors of Godzilla and Rodan and instead delivers trippy fairy tale wonder. The politics still have an edge, especially in its commentary on American insolence, but the main message makes this a kinder, gentler monster movie. Mothra is Mother Nature herself, reminding us about environmental responsibility and being so pure in her goodness, there’s no way we could mistake her for a villain. The decision to make her unquestionably the hero of the picture marks a turning point for Toho, and while Mothra‘s kid-friendliness is a sign of the lighter comic tone the later <em<Godzilla films would attempt, this film doesn’t dumb down as it plows through its flights of fancy. It’s a perfect balance between the serious approach found in Gojira and the more outlandish stuff that followed. The plot is convoluted and manic, the fantasy outlandish and delightful, its heroine nothing short of a treasure. Now sing with me: Mosuuuuurrraaaaaa…

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