Monthly Archive for November, 2005

Lost in La Mancha

Lost in La Mancha (11/27/05) Netflix (2002 **½) Directed by Keith Fulton. This documentary tells the sad story of a film that was never successfully made. It was the anatomy of the disintegration of a production and, I suppose, a cautionary tale. I have much respect for Terry Gilliam, mostly because of work he did decades ago. His most recent effort, The Brothers Grimm, was a terrible mess and a real disappointment to me. It was interesting to see how a series of bad luck caused the plug to be pulled on a film. In this case, the project showed troubles early on but the real blow came when the actor playing the lead developed medical problems that made it impossible for him to ride a horse. Yes, that could be a problem if the role you’re playing is Don Quixote.

The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training

The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (11/26/05) Netflix (1977 **½) Directed by Micheal Pressman. It’s interesting how some films, even bad ones, can burn their imprint into our brains. I deliberately rented this movie because it, for me, is one of those films. When I was thirteen, my aunt took me on a Caribbean cruise. On the ship they showed films in the evenings, and Breaking Training was one of them. I can’t explain the odd combination of brain chemistry and puberty, but even now, nearly thirty years later, I still vividly remembered scenes, dialogue and camera angles. The film itself probably wasn’t worth watching, much less reviewing. Walter Matthau and Tatum O’Neil, who were in the original film, were absent, and this fact was barely touched upon early in the film. The writing was at times atrocious, yet the end of the movie — in which the Bears played at the Houston Astrodome — worked surprisingly well.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (11/25/05) Glendale Mann 10 (2005 ***½) Directed by Mike Newell. I’m a fan of the books and the films, in the sense that I’ve read them all and seen them all. I’d heard a lot of talk about how Goblet of Fire was the best Harry Potter film so far. Now that I’ve seen it, I have to agree. It was darker in tone, making for a heightened sense of danger. Oddly, not a lot of books were cracked in 14-year-old Harry’s 4th year at Hogwarts. Instead of devoting screen time on the activities of the classroom, the focus was on the Tri-Wizard tournament — which took place over the entire year — and on the school dance. The trials and tribulations of the young teen wizards felt right for the most part, though there was a subplot (in which Ron Weasly became jealous of Harry‘s fame) which never quite worked for me. Nonetheless, the performances were solid, and the nose-free Voldemort, played by Ralph Fiennes, was a treat. On top of everything else, I thought the effects were spectacular, especially Harry’s rooftop battle with a dragon and the second of the three challenges, which took place underwater and involved a vicious attack by mermaids.

Dreamtoons

Dreamtoons (11/22/05) Cartoons (2000 ***) Written and illustrated by Jesse Reklaw, originally published as a weekly comic strip called “Slow Wave.” I picked this book up at a used book store for $6.50. The material was based on dream descriptions submitted by friends and readers, a premise that intrigued me. Why? In the late nineties I went through a period of obsession with dreams and dream interpretation. In the intervening years I’ve thought a few times about doing a similar comic book project myself. The nature of dreams is that they’re generally far more interesting to the dreamer than to their audience. With this in mind, Reklaw made a wise choice by restriction the length of each dream to a single single-page three or four panel strip. He also edited the narrative to maximize the surrealism and absurdist potential. This condensed the material to the point where the stories seemed almost Haiku-like, which helped to keep the material from being boring.

The Justice Society Returns

The Justice Society Returns (11/20/05) Graphic Novel (2003 **) Written and illustrated by various. I picked this book up at a used bookstore in downtown Glendale. It looked visually intriguing, and I liked the design of the comic cover art before each story. It was set in the 1940’s near the end of WWII, which meant it featured the golden-age Justice Society, not the current-day one. I found this more interesting, somehow. The book was, like most trade paperback graphic novels, a collection of comic books originally published separately. In order to appreciate the project, it was helpful to understand the context: The story formula of many of the old Justice Society and Justice League comics went like this: Some large threat would present itself; the team would split itself up into smaller sub-teams, dealing with a number of smaller menaces; the final act would involve the team reassembling for one final triumphant slug-fest in which the original large menace would be vanquished. This formula provided a comfortable structure and limited how many pages the writers and artists had to juggle a large number of characters at the same time. In this collection, that story formula was expanded so that each chapter — which would normally occupy a few pages — became a single comic issue. This may have worked if the writing had been better and/or more consistent. Some of the sub-stories attempted to dig into in-depth character development and relationships, but there was no thematic unity of the sub-plots. The net result was disappointing.

Good Night, and Good Luck

Good Night, and Good Luck (11/20/05) Glendale Mann 10 (2005 ***½) Directed by George Clooney, starring David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow. My immediate reaction upon leaving the theater was this: What must it have been like to live in an age when men showed true integrity? This was a superb film about a time in U.S. history that has loud echoes in the present day. It was an inspirational film, but not the kind that makes you want to hit a home run or score a touchdown. In my case, it made me want to be a better man. The message was simple: If you’re willing to be brave and stand up for what you believe in, powerful tides can be turned. Strathairn’s performance was Oscar-worthy. The production design and lighting of this film was pitch-perfect; I felt I was behind-the-scenes at CBS in the mid-fifties. It saddened me to think about the erosion of the mass media since then. But, as the film pointed out, the seeds for that (in the form of ratings and sponsor pocketbooks) were there all along.

The Candidate

The Candidate (11/19/05) Netflix (1972 **½) Directed by Michael Ritchie, starring Robert Redford and Peter Boyle. This film was an interesting precursor to the TV program The West Wing, one of my favorite shows. To use the adjective currently in fashion, it was decidedly wonky. The core message of the film lay in observing how the title character — played by Redford – began his campaign with noble aspirations and principles but — through the course of the Senatorial campaign — became a politician, the very antithesis of his former self. This happened because the system was flawed: In order to gain points in the polls, he had to dilute his message until he no longer said anything more concrete than his opponent, a Republican with the unlikely name Crocker Jarmon. I wanted to like this film more than I did, though I was impressed with the writing and execution. It was a film worth watching and appealed to me in the same way West Wing does. However, the film’s message was (and is) a real downer and in all honesty I don’t know that I’d ever choose to watch it again.

Darby O’Gill and the Little People

Darby O’Gill and the Little People (11/18/05) Netflix (1959 ***) Directed by Robert Stevenson. This film scared the living shit out of me when I was a kid, and I had nightmares about banshees for months afterwards. It seems silly now, but I had real fears of opening up the front door only to have a screaming banshee show up, which was exactly what happened to poor Darby near the end of the film. In watching this movie thirty-some years later, I searched to see if I could identify why exactly the imagery was so potent in my young mind. I got an inkling of what affected me so, but it wasn’t any one thing; it was the whole cumulative effect of the surreal story, the dramatic lighting, and the spectacular special effects. There was a “making of” documentary on the DVD that showed how the filmmakers accomplished a number of the in-camera leprechaun effects; the techniques were absolutely out of this world in terms of cleverness of execution. Another DVD “special feature” was an entire episode of the old Disneyland program in which Walt Disney himself traveled to Ireland, though I suspect he never actually left Burbank. His mission was to enlist the aid of Darby O’Gill and King Brian of the leprechauns to help him make his picture. I highly recommend watching this program: It was a real trip to see the 1950’s PR approach and watch good old Walt act.

Pride of the Yankees

Pride of the Yankees (11/12/05) Netflix (1942 **½) Directed by Sam Wood, starring Gary Cooper. Once again I found myself in a situation where I rented a movie thinking I’d never seen it before, when in fact I had, albeit a long, long time ago. Watching the film I kept thinking about the writing and acting and how it was such a reflection of a much simpler time. There was no subtlety to be found anywhere in this production. Cooper played Lou Gehrig as a kind of simpleton goof. Nearly all the characters were romanticized, exaggerated cartoons of real people. I guess there was only so much material to work with, but I got the sense most of it was fabricated, a product of the Hollywood machine. I felt at times the screenplay was written on auto-pilot, yet apparently it was nominated for an Academy Award for best writing. Like the man said, they surely don’t make ’em like this anymore.

Oxymoronica: Paradoxical Wit & Wisdom from History’s Greatest Wordsmiths

Oxymoronica: Paradoxical Wit & Wisdom from History’s Greatest Wordsmiths (11/6/05) Nonfiction (2004 ***) Written by Mardy Grothe. This book was a collection of seemingly self-contradictory literary quotes. My fiancée bought it for me last year for my 40th birthday and it took me over a year to read the whole thing. I generally enjoy quotations, and I’ve read collections of quotes before, but it remains a different kind of reading experience. One must read books like this more actively and with greater care, especially with clever, largely dense, quotes like these. As such, Oxymoronica is probably not for everyone.