Monthly Archive for October, 2005

No Direction Home

No Direction Home (10/30/05) Netflix (2005 ***½) Directed by Martin Scorsese. This documentary focused on Bob Dylan’s first few years as a performer. It was really a companion piece to Dylan’s autobiographical Chronicles, Vol 1, which I read and thoroughly enjoyed. Bob Dylan is truly an American icon. This film featured an interview with him reflecting back on what was a seminal period not only of his life but in the life of America. Though I’m really a second-generation fan, his music spoke to me so very loudly when I was younger, and it provided a soundtrack of sorts for a period of my life, just as I’m sure it did for millions of baby boomers. Bob Dylan has an unfair reputation as a sort of burned out husk of his former self, which is neither fair nor accurate. He’s still damned sharp and articulate, though ready to admit when he honestly doesn’t know what the hell was going on. As one of the most acclaimed directors of our time, it appeared a strange project for Scorsese to be involved with, and yet it wasn’t: One of his first films was The Last Waltz (1978) about Bob Dylan’s backup musicians who went on to become The Band.

Crash

Crash (10/27/05) Netflix (2005 ****) Directed by Paul Haggis. This was probably the best movie I’ve seen all year. It was nothing short of astonishing how its filmmakers were able to make a movie about racism in all its permutations and keep it from being heavy or depressing. In fact, at the end I felt positively uplifted. The writing was solid and deft, the kind of masterful writing that makes me want to give up my own efforts because I know I’ll never reach that level of skill. It was an ensemble piece in which the characters intersected and passed through each other’s lives, sometimes crashing into each other, both literally and figuratively. Each character in this morality play was unique: Real yet emblematic at the same time. One of the main themes of the film was that bad people sometimes do good and good, well-meaning people sometimes are capable of bad, even fatal decisions and acts. We may try to be heroes and still screw up beyond measure, or we may have heroism thrust upon us without asking for it. Ultimately, we’re all in it together. Set in L.A., the movie was all the more real to me now that I have made it my home.

It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken

It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken (10/27/05) Graphic Novel (2003 ***½) Written and illustrated by Seth. This was originally serialized in Seth’s Palookaville comic book between 1993 and 1996. The story was about a young man’s obsessive search for a gag cartoonist from the late 40’s through early 60’s who, by having a single cartoon published in the New Yorker, reached the pinnacle of success… then faded into obscurity. The main character tried to find meaning in his own life and found hope of a kind in the life of “Kalo,” the pseudonym under which the object of his pursuit, Jack Kalloway, worked. A work of quasi-autobiographical fiction, Seth cast himself in the lead role but also included his friend and fellow cartoonist, Chester Brown. Seth’s drawings were deceptively simple, yet so strong. They had an element of a throwback to an earlier, simpler, time, and there was a lasting quality to them. Thematically, the book made a good companion piece to Seth’s Vernacular Drawings which I reviewed earlier this year. Though slow-moving and not quite perfect (too much smoking!), this was definitely the kind of book I hope someday to be capable of producing. True, it was a little sad, with an undercurrent of repressed angst. I saw that as a reflection of the time in which it was written. While I’m no longer the furrowed-brow-tortured-soul I once was, I felt an undeniable sense of connection with the main character. In my life I’ve shared many of his attitudes about existence: I still distrust change and sometimes wonder if — in many ways — the world wasn’t a better place before I was born.

How to Train Your Dragon

How to Train Your Dragon (10/26/05) Novel (2004 ***) Written and illustrated by Cressida Cowell. This was basically a children’s book, written slightly below the age level of the Harry Potter series. My reason for reading it was that Dragon is one of the projects in the Dreamworks Animation pipeline. And so it made good sense to find out what kind of project I may be working on a year or two from now. It was a pleasant enough read. The story was quite simple, and I think it will make a good animated film. I especially liked the contrast between dragons of different sizes: Some were the size of a cat and some were as big as a large apartment building. I’m sorry to report, however, that the ending wasn’t completely satisfying. Hopefully the film version will be stronger.

The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery

The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery (10/23/05) Nonfiction (1998 **½) Written by Robert J. Ray. I bought this book because I’m planning on writing a murder mystery for the National Novel Writing Month. I read it with the specific intention of gaining insights about the conventions of the mystery. I was especially interested in a detailed look at how to solve problems specific to the genre. Sadly, I didn’t get what I was looking for. 75% of the book was devoted to the writing process itself, and could be applied to the creation of any novel. It wasn’t a complete waste of time, though. I did get a handful of useful ideas from the book, but it was nothing I couldn’t have gotten from a much shorter well-written magazine article.

The Thin Man

The Thin Man (10/22/05) Novel (1934 ***) Written by Dashiell Hammett. It’s been awhile since the last time I watched the film of the same name, but William Powell and Myrna Loy are forever indelibly burned into my brain as the characters Nick and Nora Charles. As I read the book I kept picturing them. The 1930’s language in the book was a bit hard to read at times, honestly. Other times, however, I found the humor delightful. There were a lot of great, quotable lines to be found. It read more as a comedy of manners, something meant to be performed on stage, than as a detective whodunit. As a mystery, it was not particularly tight in its execution. There were many characters and situations that, while fun, didn’t directly contribute to the story, and that led to some confusion.

Family Guy Presents: Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story

Family Guy Presents: Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story (10/21/05) Netflix (2005 **½) Directed by Pete Michels and Peter Shin. This was the direct-to-video movie based on the Family Guy series. I had been looking forward to it, imagining the direct-to-video format would give the writers liberty to go places they couldn’t go in the series, much like the brilliant South Park theatrical release. Sadly, they didn’t take advantage of the opportunity and I was sorely disappointed. In fact, much of the material was inferior to that used on the show.

Funny Face

Funny Face (10/18/05) Netflix (1957 **) Directed by Stanley Donen, music by George and Ira Gershwin. This was a movie I didn’t think I’d seen before, but I had… a long, long time ago. I think I probably rented it sometime in my college years, shortly after seeing Roman Holiday for the first time. I know now why I forgot it: From almost the first frame, this film rubbed me the wrong way. It’s a funny thing to say about a musical, but it just seemed so… artificial. I like Fred Astaire and love Audrey Hepburn. So what didn’t work? There were a few beloved Gershwin songs, like “S’Lovely,” but most were instantly forgettable. The plot (Hepburn played a philosophy student swept into the role of fashion model by photographer Astaire) alternated between silly and insulting. Astaire’s character at times was a chauvinist pig… and in the context of the movie he was right to be so! Hell, the very premise of the film was flawed: After all, there was nothing particularly “funny” about Audrey Hepburn’s face, was there?

Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story

Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story (10/15/05) Universal Studios Citywalk (2005 ***½) Written and directed by John Gatins. Starring Kurt Russel and Dakota Fanning. I’m not the kind of guy who actively seeks out movies about horses and the little girls who love them, but there was a Dreamworks employee screening and so I figured: Why not? I went in with low expectations and they were exceeded on nearly every level. It’s got to be hard making a film like this. So much of what has to happen story-wise is virtually set in stone. Finding ways to make the formula fresh was undoubtedly a challenge. The key to Dreamer‘s success as a film, I think, lay in the tight script, solid acting, and good directing choices. In other words, the makers of the film made no attempt to dazzle or distract; they just made the best film they could with the material. And it worked. There’s a good lesson to learn in that.

The Midas Trap

The Midas Trap (10/10/05) Novel (2005 ***) Written by Sharron McClellan. This book was #39 in the “Silhouette Bombshell” series. Judging from the ads in the back, Silhouette may be an imprint of Harlequin, but I’m not certain. My primary reason for ordering and reading it was it was written by the sister of a friend of mine. It featured an intrepid woman archaeologist named Veronica Bright in search of the “Midas Stone” which — legend had it — allowed its holder to transmute base elements into gold. The book opened as a mysterious and handsome stranger enlisted Bright by producing a lifelike statue of a mouse made of solid gold. An MRI revealed a perfectly-crafted set of golden internal organs to match the realistic exterior. The conclusion: The mouse was once a living creature! Twists and turns abounded, including a midnight raid on the Vatican that would surely have pleased Dan Brown. As much as the book provided a pleasant diversion, I have a handful of minor criticisms: (1) The main action took a bit too long to get going; the first third of the book felt meandering. (2) Veronica had a shotgun named “Lily” she lugged around the globe like a security blanket, but never actually got around to using. (3) There was a sequence in which Veronica dressed as a belly dancer in order to get past the security of a well-guarded mansion that had me scratching my head in disbelief and flashing back to old episodes of I Love Lucy. Still, all in all, it was a fun, well-written read. The end of the book set itself up for one or more sequels, and I hope Sharron gets an opportunity to revisit the world she’s created.