Friday, February 23, 2024

Movie Reviews: More Abbott and Costello Classics

Here's another set of Abbott and Costello classic comedies from the 1940s! See my other set of reviews here.

Little Giant (1946) directed by William Seiter

Lou is a small town guy just finishing a correspondence course in salesmanship. The course ends with a recommendation to move to the big city. The nearest one is Los Angeles, so Lou goes to try his hand at selling vacuum cleaners at the company where his uncle works. He wants to make enough money so his mom doesn't have to work. The company's manager is a tyrant (Bud Abbott) who treats everyone badly except for his assistant (Jacqueline DeWitt), who he has secretly married. Lou has a hard time in actual sales, leading on a voyage of comedy and pathos.

The movie is a departure for the duo, with the main emphasis on Lou and almost no routines (they do reprise the "7 times 13 is 28" routine from Buck Privates). The resulting movie has a lot more plot and dramatic moments which I found a little off-putting for an Abbott and Costello film. I still laughed plenty but there are tear-jerking moments too.

Mildly recommended.

The Time of Their Lives (1946) directed by Charles Barton

Lou is Horatio Prim, a tinker in American Revolutionary times. He's in love with a girl at the Danbury Estate and wants to run away with her and get married. Prim even has a letter of recommendation from General George Washington. Unfortunately Danbury is a royalist plotting with Benedict Arnold to get West Point. Through a series of misadventures, Horatio and Danbury's finance Melody (Marjorie Reynolds) are killed as they flee to warn the patriots about the Arnold plot (in an interesting twist, they are killed by the patriots). They are thrown in a well and cursed as traitors unless some evidence can be found to exonerate them. Locals come to the estate, steal all the furniture, and burn down the house. Horatio and Melody think the letter was hidden in the house and despair of finding letter which was taken by Danbury. 165 years later, the house is rebuilt by a historian with the original furniture, one of which has the letter hidden in a secret drawer. The ghosts of Horatio and Melody haunt the house and work with the people to solve their problem.

Bud has a duel role. First he plays a butler at the Danbury Estate who has it in for Horatio, causing a lot of comedic conflict. Second, he plays a modern-day psychologist who first scoffs at the ghost stories but comes to believe as Horatio persecutes the man who looks just like the butler.

The plot is very well written and moves at a good pace. The comedy is naturally blended in and works well. A lot of special effects (mostly ghost gags) give a good variety to the jokes. The duo does a great job and the rest of the cast ably supports them. This is top-tier Abbott and Costello filmmaking.

Highly recommended--this, along with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, are my favorites from the duo.

Buck Privates Come Home (1947) directed by Charles Barton

In this only sequel by the duo, Bud and Lou are soldiers returning from World War II. Lou has an orphaned French girl stowed in his pack, creating the main plotline for the movie. The Army wants to send her back to France while the boys want to adopt her. Consulting the French Embassy, they find out they need a steady income and to be married in order to keep the child. One of their war friends has a midget race car that he thinks can win big if he can just get it out of hock. Bud and Lou go for GI loans to become partners with him while they try to keep the child out of sight, especially from their ex-sergeant who has gone back to his pre-war job--a beat cop.

They boys revert to their usual shtick--comedy routines more or less shoehorned in to the main plot. There's one song at the beginning but no musical guests or numbers. The movie ends with their typical chase scene, this time with Lou driving the midget car through all sorts of improbable situations.

This is an entertaining return to their formula with plenty of laughs and almost no melodrama like in the previous two films.


The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap (1947) directed by Charles Barton

Bud and Lou are late-1800s traveling salesmen on the way to California. They stop over in Wagon Gap, Montana. The town is as Wild West as it gets. Lou accidentally kills a man and the local vigilantes plan to string him up. But there is a Montana law that anyone who kills or maims a man must take care of the victim's widow and children. The dead man's widow is Widow Hawkins (Marjorie Main), a shrewish woman who puts fear into everyone. Bud certainly is cowed by her demeanor. He has to do a lot of chores on the Hawkins farm and pay off the dead man's debts. One debtor forces him to work nights in a saloon which just about wipes Lou out. When a local threatens to kill him, Bud insists that he shoots so the other guyy can take on the Widow's chores. The guy backs off immediately and Bud becomes the unassailable hero of Wagon Gap! No one wants to deal with the Widow Hawkins.

The movie is a fun send-up of Westerns with a good mix of routines by Bud and Lou. The comedy works well and fits the plot. I laughed a lot.


Thursday, February 22, 2024

TV Review: Echo Season 1 (2024)

Echo Season 1 (2024) created by Marion Dayre and Amy Rardin based on the Marvel Comics character

Maya Lopez (Alaqua Cox) has gone back home after shooting Kingpin (Vincent D'Onofrio) in the head. Home is Tamaha, Oklahoma, a small town mostly populated by the Choctaw. They have ancestral culture but also a lot of the typical American small town culture, like the roller rink and a crusty old pawn shop owner (Graham Greene) who can fix things. Maya hasn't come back to settle down, she's still settling scores with Kingpin's empire. The town as a Fisk company that employs a lot of people and sends weapons to New York City. She sabotages a shipment, bringing some Big Apple wrath down on Tamaha. She's also having some weird flashbacks or dreams of previous Choctaw women which she does not understand. She could ask her grandmother about it but Maya still holds a grudge for grandma abandoning her when Maya's mom died. A lot of drama and action ensue.

Maya is an interesting character. Her mom died in a car accident with Maya in the car. Maya, already deaf, lost half a leg in the accident. When her father took her to New York City, she came under the influence of Kingpin, eventually becoming one of his thugs. Kingpin had her dad killed, naturally turning Maya against him. She's still angry and withdrawn at the beginning of this series. Reconnecting to her family helps her greatly, even though she resists. Her family is much bigger than the living relatives--dreams of her ancestors provide inspiration to change for the better. She gets to a better place almost kicking and screaming, figuratively and literally.

The show's ending relies a little to much on deus ex machina to resolve her final confrontation. The action in previous episodes was better because it was grittier and more realistic, not relying on magical powers to save the day. It also brought in a little bit of dodgy special effects. Cox gives a good performance though D'Onofrio still steals the show with his performance as Kingpin. The rest of the cast is good and the setting is a fresh change from the usual urban Marvel mayhem.

Mildly recommended.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Book Review: The Hedge Knight by George R. R. Martin

The Hedge Knight by George R. R. Martin

Dunk is squire to a hedge knight living in Martin's World of Ice and Fire almost a hundred years before the days of A Game of Thrones. Hedge knights are the bottom of the knightly ladder, not being noblemen or landed men. They work for hire much like ronin in medieval Japan, so they could just as easily be villains as heroes. Dunk's master is a good man and a good knight but he's dead at the beginning of the story. So Dunk inherits the armor and horses, making him a potential hedge knight. He goes to a tournament to try his skill and become the knight he wants to be. Circumstances and his desire to do the right thing cause complications.

The story is very interesting and has a lot more heart than I suspected, given its association with the HBO series that I haven't watched. Dunk often cites the opinions of others that he is not very intelligent. But he has a good heart and does do the right thing, which gets him into some big problems. Luckily, the GoT world is not so corrupt yet that he can't find friends and supporters who help him through the difficulties. The ending almost had me in tears, I was so happy with it. The writing is just great.

Recommended--unfortunately, I think this is an outlier in the GoT universe and doesn't represent the mainline storytelling, so I am not interested in jumping in to the rest of the novels or the TV show.

This story is discussed on A Good Story is Hard to Find Podcast #326.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Climb Zone 2024

After a long hiatus (our last visit was 2020), we went back to ClimbZone, a wall climbing adventure for kids located in Laurel, Maryland. I suppose adults could climb too, though we parents did not. The walls have a lot of imagination and variety, making a fun time for our three children. Some made more sense than others.

A climbable keyboard?

And you thought it was tough going up the stairs inside a lighthouse!

The Mount Rushmore wall is a fun ascent.

My daughter goes to the top!

On Lincoln's face

Egyptian theme

My wife loves baths so she was happy to see one of our kids getting into the biggest bathtub ever.

Climbing in, the water is great

At the top of the tub

An Aztec-themed wall is reminiscent of the Mount Rushmore and the Egyptian walls.

At the bridge

By the bird

On rare occasions, two children climbed neighboring walls.

Two-for-one special!

At the top of the cowboy wall

Another two-for-one

My youngest liked climbing a burning building. What was he thinking?

At least use the ladder!

One wall had a "warped wall" like in the Ninja Warrior challenges. It is definitely tougher than it looks.

The short wall was the way to go

The agony of defeat

The kids had a lot of fun. Hopefully it won't be four years before we go again!

Monday, February 19, 2024

Book Review: Spy x Family Vol. 10 by Tatsuya Endo

Spy x Family Volume 10 by Tatsuya Endo

The series continues with some random yet related stories. The first tale gives some background on Loid, the "father" of the Forger family and the spy for his country. His life as a child reveals that he had some simplistic and unrealistic ideas. He plays "war" with his friends with the sides being Westalis and Ostalis. He learned more about the complicated nature of war as a real war breaks out. The story comes back to the present with a tale about an Ostalis opera star who wants to visit Westalis on a good-will tour. A lot of controversy springs up about him in his home country, or is that just the warmongers trying to scuttle any detente? Oddly, none of the Forgers are in this story. Loid's handler is the main character. In the final tale, Yor has a run-in with a woman at a department store. The woman invites Yor to join her wives' club that plays volleyball and hangs out. Yor's athletic abilities are so combat related that she isn't that good at volleyball but they have a fun time anyway. Yor finds out that the woman is Melinda Desmond, wife of the man that Loid has been trying to get close to. Loid wonders if the situation is some sort of trap but decides to let things play out as a backup to original plan. Their "daughter" Anya is trying to befriend the Desmond's son at an elite school. Anya is making slow progress on that front, though she has a short comedic time with the school's headmaster.

This volume is a bit more serious than the previous ones, especially the first two stories. The tone shifts back to the comic spy tale by the end, which seems like it will stay that way. I don't mind a little seriousness, but the change was very noticeable and far outside the typically whimsical nature of the series. 


Friday, February 16, 2024

Movie Review: Oppenheimer (2023)

Oppenheimer (2023) co-written and directed by Christopher Nolan

J. Robert Oppenheimer is famous for leading the Manhattan Project, the American World War II effort to build an atomic bomb before the Nazis. This biography stars Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer, who goes through a lot personally as he is drawn into the scientific community on the cutting edge of physics in the early 1900s. He met a great many famous physicists in his academic life and wound up at Berkeley. He also had some interest in unionizing teachers and scientists and in supporting communism, though he was more like a fellow traveler than a flag-waving leader. One day military officer Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) shows up at Berkeley and offers Oppenheimer the job of building the bomb. Groves is not fully committed to Oppenheimer but is impressed with his forthrightness and his connections. Oppenheimer accepts the job even though he has misgivings about compartmentalizing the project. He recognizes the value of keeping information secure. However, the need for collaboration between the scientists is more important to him than keeping key information separate. He has a hard time managing the expectations of the government, his fellow scientists (many of whom were sympathetic if not full supporters of communism), and the project. 

The main, practical part of the project is headquartered in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Oppenheimer chose it for its remoteness and for his fond childhood memories of the area. A whole town is built for the scientists and their families, making a tight social community focused on developing and testing an atomic bomb. There's some debate about sharing information with the Soviets among the scientists. They are also concerned with the impact the bomb would have though Oppenheimer has more of a "we produce and the government decides what to do with it" mindset. After the war, Oppenheimer becomes doubtful about the morality of using the bomb (and developing new, more powerful weapons) and expresses his doubts on the Atomic Energy Commission, making him less popular with politicians, especially Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.) who was an advocate for Oppenheimer's involvement in developing the bomb.

The movie tells the story of Oppenheimer through flashbacks as he goes through a grueling review of his security clearance to remain on the Atomic Energy Commission. The review is more of a kangaroo court set up to remove him from the Commission. That framing device is paralleled with Strauss's congressional hearings to be approved as a cabinet secretary. Some senators are dubious about Strauss's judgment, especially his involvement with Oppenheimer. The structure creates the typical mixed-up time narrative of Nolan's films (except for his Batman trilogy) with information provided not in chronological order but in a way to make a dramatic crescendo by the film's end. This style works well here since the movie focuses more on the human relationships and Oppenheimer's enigmatic character than the atomic secrets and discovery. The narrative is well-structured and interesting.

Murphy delivers a great performance capturing the detachment and intelligence of Oppenheimer, making him a bit of a cipher to others, especially the women in his life. Downey also gives a great performance. Both characters are manipulative in their dealing with others though Oppenheimer has more sincerity and naivety, which causes him problems with other scientists, the government, and the few women in his life. His struggles with morality create a lot of drama and some ambiguity, another feature common in Nolan's films (especially his Batman trilogy). The rest of the cast give very good performances too.

The only drawbacks in the film for me were two. First, it feels longer than it needs to be though I am not sure how to tighten it up. Second, the sound design is too heavy-handed with a lot of deep basses and overly repeated motifs. I understand the narrative purpose but would have liked a more subtle touch. These are relatively minor quibbles, the movie is well worth watching.


Thursday, February 15, 2024

Book Review: Socrates' Children Vol. III by Peter Kreeft

Socrates' Children Volume III Modern Philosophers by Peter Kreeft

See my review of volume I here and volume II here.

Kreeft continues his survey of the 100 most important philosophers, ranging in this volume from Rene Descartes (1596-1650) to Karl Marx (1818-1883). He mostly follows his previous format of giving some biographical information and context for the thinker and then a summary of their thought. Many of the philosophers are also subject to various critiques, some from subsequent philosophers and some from Kreeft himself. While the summaries reference key texts by these philosophers, no bibliographies are added at the end of each as in previous volumes.

The text, as before, is very readable and entertaining. While Kreeft delves into the ideas of these thinkers, he doesn't get lost or lose the reader by moving too quickly. He has some comic asides and is generally pleasant to read.

The big challenge in this volume is some of the summaries (especially Rousseau and Marx) have a lot commentary about their lives and how they do not at all match up to the philosophies they espouse. While the contrast is important to point out, Kreeft becomes very heavy-handed and judgmental at times. I am sympathetic with his disdain but I wish he were more scholarly and less vindictive.

I am still enjoying this series and will continue on to the Contemporary Philosophers.


Sample quote, on Kant's idea of the highest good being pleasure:
Contrast what premodern philosophers like Aristotle meant by "happiness": not mere subjective contentment but objective perfection or completeness. The test that distinguishes the two is suffering: happiness in the sense of contentment excludes suffering, but happiness in the sense of perfection or completeness includes and even requires suffering. (As Rabbi Heschel said, "The man who has not suffered--what could he possibly know, anyway?") The ancients typically identified happiness (in this rich, deep, moral sense) as the greatest good, the summum bonum, and the greatest question in their ethics was what it consisted of and how to attain it. [p. 136]