Monthly Archive for June, 2005

War of the Worlds

War of the Worlds (6/28/05) Universal Citywalk (2005 ***½) Directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning. Membership has its privileges. In this case, my day job at Dreamworks Animation extended to a pre-opening-day employee screening of what is sure to be the blockbuster of the summer. Spielberg has demonstrated once again that he’s more than just a famous guy; as a director, he really knows his stuff. For the past two decades, he’s alternated between popular films and personal ones. With War of the Worlds he’s shown he doesn’t just have to do Schindler’s List OR Jurassic Park, but can mix elements of the two.

The 9/11 references were inescapable, and the film didn’t pull any punches. In a twisted way, one might even see this movie as part of the national healing process. Rated PG-13, there were some pretty damn intense scenes. I took a friend (who works at Disney) as my guest and she watched half the film peering between her fingers. There was a genuine sense of mortal peril too; as an audience member I truly believed a number of times that Tom Cruise or Dakota Fanning or the teenage son might well be destroyed by the enemy menace.

Now with all the praise I’m giving this “setting the bar” movie, I have to also say it’s not perfect. One example: Tim Robbins as the “creepy guy in the basement with a shotgun” (I’m sure that’s how he’s listed in the credits) was a strange choice. The audience I was with laughed when his familiar face appeared. Also, there were a few more “tugging the heart strings” moments than were absolutely necessary.

Still, it was a real thrill, with a lot of neat touches. Things to watch for: (1) There was an amazing, technically seamless single-shot scene in a minivan with the camera passing through the walls of the car at will. (2) There was a clever reference to ET involving a bicycle, a treat for the observant. All in all, it was a tremendous film and I hope it attracts a lot of lazy Netflix-addicted folks back into the theaters!

The DC Comics Guide to Inking Comics

The DC Comics Guide to Inking Comics (6/26/05) Nonfiction (2003 ***½) Written by Klaus Janson. Janson’s claim to fame is he inked Frank Miller’s now classic The Dark Knight Returns. I’m giving this book a relatively high review, even though I think it could have been better. It’s one of the few books currently available devoted entirely to inking comics, which is a shame. The text was clean and easy to follow, and it definitely offered some insights into the inking process. It was written at a level that was appropriate to… me. However, it seemed abbreviated, pared down. Much of the real estate in the book was devoted to images. Thankfully, the majority of them illustrated specific concepts. In general, I’m glad I bought the book and I got some good useful information from it. I only wish it had gone into greater depth.

Bewitched

Bewitched (6/26/05) Glendale Mann 10 (2005 **) Directed by Nora Ephron, starring Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell. I probably should have gone to a different movie instead. Or at least I should have checked rottentomatoes.com before seeing this. So why did I go? I was intrigued by the postmodern possibilities of the premise and the fact that the film was directed and co-written by Nora Ephron. Kidman as an actor is teriffic, Ferrell is a wonderful comedian, Bewitched was a great TV show… but it just didn’t come together as anything beyond mediocre. Unfortunately the magical potential was never realized, and that’s sad.

National Treasure

National Treasure (6/25/05) Netflix (2004 ***) Directed by Jon Turteltaub, starring Nicholas Cage. You know what? This was the filmic equivalent of junk food. There was nothing wrong with it and it was entertaining. My attention didn’t waver, but it also didn’t leave me completely satisfied. Nicholas Cage is an okay actor, I suppose. He has his Oscar and all, so I hope he’s satisfied with that. I don’t know what more to say about this other than that when I originally saw the trailers for it I thought it was a blatant attempt to exploit the success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

Who Done It?

Who Done It? (6/24/05) DVD (1942 ***) Directed by Erle C. Kenton, starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. I have fond memories of watching this particular movie played late at night on KMTV’s Creature Feature program. In fact, I remember falling asleep halfway through, probably more than once. It was a fun romp with “the boys” sleuthing around a radio station in New York City, and it is definitely one of my AC favorites!

Pardon my Sarong

Pardon my Sarong (6/23/05) DVD (1942 **½) Directed by Erle C. Kenton, starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Most of my movie-viewing lately has been driven by my Netflix queue, so it’s been a while since I’ve watched one of the Abbott and Costello films from the DVD sets I bought last year. I picked up where I left off in the series with Pardon My Sarong. According to the production notes, it was the 2nd highest grossing movie of the year, surpassed only by Mrs. Miniver. Though there’s nothing wrong with the film, there was nothing special about it either. The A&C formula definitely was strongly in evidence, and — in a way — self-defining. I must confess my interest waned about halfway through and I half-watched while doodling in my sketchbook.

Friday Night Lights

Friday Night Lights (6/22/05) Netflix (2004 ***) Directed by Peter Berg. Billy Bob Thornton delivers once again, in a controlled, measured performance. The film’s mission was to show the path from pre-season practice to state championship through the eyes of a coach and his 17-year-old football players. I don’t want to give too much away, but the filmmakers took a real chance story-wise, and so it’s not like every other sports movie. Then again, maybe it is. The best sports movies, like Cinderella Man (which I watched a little more than a week ago), are about much more than the sport itself. Okay, okay. That’s a statement so self-evident it’s almost trite. Cinderella Man was about finding hope in a decade when the nation was flat on its back. What was Friday Night Lights really about? Was it, as Thornton’s character said in his final locker-room pep talk, about being able to look your fellow teammates in the eye, knowing you truly did your best? Yeah, something along those lines. Cynics might call that a cheap sentiment, but in my playbook it’s still a good lesson to remember.

Batman Begins

Batman Begins (6/18/05) Glendale Mann 10 (2005 ***½) Directed by Christopher Nolan, starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine and Liam Neeson. I’m going to join the throngs of reviewers who have written that this was a wonderful movie, one that will surely revive a franchise nearly extinguished by Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin. Beyond that, however, I want to offer a slightly more personal take: You see, I’ve always been a Batman fan. I loved the 1960’s TV show so much as a child (I was 3 when it premiered) my mom painted a Batman insignia on the headboard of my bed. In emulation of my hero, I broke my arm when I was eight playing “Batman and Robin.” Many of my first attempts at comic illustration featured a familiar character in gray tights and a blue cape. Through the years I read the exploits of “the world’s greatest detective” and spent my allowances collecting back-issues.

When Tim Burton’s Batman was released in 1989, I left the theater… angry. This anger led to a night of heavy drinking in which I remember slurring the words “I don’t know who that was, but that wasn’t f**king Batman!” In the throb of my hangover the next day I wondered: What had Mr. Burton done to favorite childhood hero? I had foolishly expected something more closely following the path laid out by Frank Miller’s 1985 The Dark Knight Returns comic. Instead, Batman was set in a weird Edward Scissorhands Gotham City, enveloped in a soundtrack from the unmade 3rd film in the Pee Wee Herman series. It was as though the train had started out on the right track but then some crazy station master’s assistant had thrown a switch, leading it onto a splinter line. In my mind, it was all… wrong.

That’s why, sixteen years later, it was such a special delight to see Christopher Nolan do it so right. Don’t get me wrong; I can appreciate the financially and creatively successful high-concept studio principals behind the creation of the 1989 film. And Tim Burton’s version did show a certain vision. Over time, I even got to the point where I could appreciate and even enjoy it. But it’s taken a mental compromise: Were I to watch it today, I would think of it as a kind of “alternate universe” Batman. Tim Burton’s Batman. But now at long last I have a Dark Knight Detective without compromise, one that’s spiritually in sync with my childhood hero. My sincere, grateful thanks to everyone involved.

Out of the Past

Out of the Past (6/17/05) Netflix (1947 ***½) Directed by Jacques Tourneur. Robert Mitchum starred in this archetypal noir thriller. And when I say archetypal, I mean it. All the genre elements were present, and in generous quantities: Tough guy private eyes, double-crossing (pardon me ladies) dames, plot twists and turns, car chases, rat finks getting plugged by a .38, bodies buried in the woods in the middle of the night. Jane Greer played the knockout and Kirk Douglas’s steely eyes lit up the screen in a minor — but important — role.

Imitation of Life (1959)

Imitation of Life (6/17/05) Netflix (1959 ***) Directed by Douglas Sirk, starring Lana Turner and Sandra Dee. I watched this 1959 version the night after watching the 1934 version. As I predicted, it was an interesting experience and terrific opportunity to compare the two. Much had shifted in the remake. The male love interest was introduced much earlier on and that storyline was resolved differently. The film was more wardrobe-driven too: Each scene was an opportunity for Ms. Turner to wear a different outfit. Granted, the 1934 film fit well into the melodrama genre, but in the ’59 version everything was dialed up. People yelled and slapped each other in a style that laid the foundation for TV’s Dynasty years later. Had I not just watched the 1934 film, that over-the-top soap opera aspect may not have been so readily apparent. There was also a hint of sex introduced quite early on. The “Aunt Delilah pancake queen” bit was dropped and instead Lana Turner was a struggling actress who made it big on Broadway. This provided a “glimpse” of the theater’s “seedy underbelly,” with implications of the casting couch. All in all, there were some elements I liked better in the ’34 version and a few I liked better in the ’59 version. I’m rating the latter slightly higher, in part because the racial aspects of the story were handled in a slightly less offensive manner, reflecting a change in attitudes in the 25-year gap. Though less naturalistic and gritty, the Lana Turner remake was ultimately more entertaining.