Monthly Archive for January, 2006

Hold Me!

Hold Me! (1/31/06) Cartoons (1964 ****) Written and illustrated by Jules Feiffer. Normally I wouldn’t make note of such a quick read, but there really is no one who writes like Jules Feiffer; he really is brilliant. I loved his approach, which provided an interesting counterpoint to autobiographical comics (including my own): Each cartoon took one or two different (mostly neurotic) characters and gave voice to a conversation or… opining… from those points of view. Given the time in which the material was created, it was no surprise that much of it was about the politics of the cold war and Vietnam. A quick glance on the internet revealed Hold Me! was also used as the title of a play by Feiffer. Though I haven’t seen it, I can easily imagine the cartoons from this collection being performed as vignettes on stage.

The Office, Series 2

The Office, Series 2 (1/29/06) Netflix (2002 ***) There were times while watching the six episodes that comprised the second “series” of this BBC show when it was positively excruciating to watch Ricky Gervais as office manager David Brent. That uncomfortable embarrassment was, I suppose, the spiritual center of the series. It was admirable that Gervais was willing to play such a buffoon and… embarrassment… to himself and to all around him. Unfortunately, the second series didn’t feel as fresh to me as the first. In part it was because there was a greater emphasis on that “audience discomfort” and less on the humor. The effect was compounded because there were multiple times when “reality” intruded unexpectedly and David Brent was forced to acknowledge his shortcomings. While it’s funny to think of what happens when a man who has no right supervising people finds himself in that position, watching him squirm as he’s dressed down by his boss for poor job performance was still painful to watch.

Hotel

Hotel (1/29/06) Novel (1965 ***) Written by Arthur Hailey. The word that comes to mind in describing this book is “potboiler.” Hotel was set at the St. Gregory Hotel in New Orleans and Hailey painted a degree of detail I wasn’t expecting, especially about the behind-the-scenes activity in a large 1000-room hotel. There were five or six interwoven storylines, some of which were pure soap opera. There was intrigue and racial tension and vehicular manslaughter. Sometimes the book got a bit too preachy about civil rights, but considering the time in which it was written (the early 1960’s), I’m willing to overlook it. I acknowledge this book was an unusual choice for me; I was on a trip visiting my grandmother and, having finished one book on the flight out, I needed a book to read on the flight home. I’m giving Hotel a medium (3-star) recommendation, because I enjoyed it, though it definitely falls in the category of “easy to read page-turners” like much of Stephen King’s fiction.

The Strongest Man in the World

The Strongest Man in the World (1/26/06) Netflix (1975 **) Directed by Vincent McEveety, starring Kurt Russell, Cesar Romero, Joe Flynn, Phil Silvers, Dick Van Patten and Eve Arden. From the list of stars, I got the sense the casting director was working overtime to make up for the weak efforts put forth by the writers… one of whom coincidentally shared a last name with the director. This was the Disney sequel to The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and Now You See Him, Now You Don’t. The premise was a reasonable one: After mental genius and invisibility, what super-power comes next? Super strength, of course. Sadly, the story didn’t make enough of an effort to do anything fun with that. This was a prime example of a good premise pissed away by weak plotting. The whole script seemed lopsided, actually. Though Kurt Russell received top billing, he was absent for the majority of the film. Cesar Romero played the villainous A. J. Arno once again, but he was largely reduced to a bumbling fool rather than a believable heavy.

Now You See Him, Now You Don’t

Now You See Him, Now You Don’t (1/25/06) Netflix (1972 **½) Directed by Robert Butler, starring Kurt Russell, Cesar Romero, Joe Flynn, and Jim Backus. This was the first sequel to The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. As was the case with that film, I can’t really recommend this one strongly. On the one hand I still have fond memories of it from childhood, but in the cold light of day it wasn’t exactly a masterpiece. It was harmless fun, though, and I honestly wonder if today’s kids would enjoy it or be bored. In lieu of a rigorous critique of this G-rated family fare, here are a few random notes instead: (1) Some of the footage appeared to have been shot near where I work in Glendale, California, which makes sense given all the Disney buildings nearby. (2) It was mildly interesting to see Ed Begley Jr. — who made the briefest of appearances in the first film — back as a nerd studying the aerodynamics of bumblebees. (3) There was a sub-plot (filler material, really) involving Dean Higgins (Flynn) playing golf while invisible Kurt Russell manipulates the ball. Here’s a lesson for you would-be writers out there: If you ever need 10-15 minutes of action to pad your screenplay, please use anything other than golf.

Going My Way

Going My Way (1/24/06) Netflix (1944 ***) Directed by Leo McCarey. Starring Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald. Crosby plays Father O’Malley, who has been sent to replace aging pastor Father Fitzgibbon (Fitzgerald). O’Malley has some “progressive” ideas and his approach to solving his parishioners’ problems usually involves singing. There were about a half-dozen interwoven sub-plots, including one in which a former love interest had become an operatic singer at the Met. That sub-plot didn’t really have much of a pay-off, due to the fact that any natural sexual behavior had to be tip-toed around. All in all this film was fun to watch, and the music was good — though it was unclear why the excerpt from Carmen was necessary. Still, 1940’s audiences ate it up; thanks to the popularity of this film, Crosby played father O’Malley a second time the following year in The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945).

The Magdalene Sisters

The Magdalene Sisters (1/21/06) Netflix (2002 **) Directed by Peter Mullan. Until 1996, Irish girls who were mentally handicapped or of “questionable moral character” were sent to the Catholic Church’s Mary Magdalene Laundry & Asylum, where they were treated as slaves/convicts with little or no possibility of parole. This story, set in the mid-sixties, followed three of the girls as they entered a hell on earth world that promised moral salvation through penitence but offered only endless labor and abuse. With a set-up like that, is it any wonder the word that jumps to my mind is “depressing?” True, it was shocking to think about how they were treated even so recently, and so the film serves as a cautionary tale. Certainly as a society I would think we’re more advanced than that now, but you never really know what horrors people are capable of. Unfortunately, beyond that central message — which I considered preaching to the choir — I’m not sure what I got from The Magdalene Sisters.

In Cold Blood

In Cold Blood (1/20/06) Netflix (1967 ***) Directed by Richard Brooks. Starring Robert Blake and Scott Wilson. This film was, of course, based on the Truman Capote book by the same name, a book I read about twenty years ago. That book was also the subject of the Seymour Hoffman film Capote, which I am looking forward to seeing; it was, in fact, my primary reason for renting In Cold Blood. Like watching O.J. Simpson in the Naked Gun films, there was a surreal quality to seeing Robert Blake playing the man who killed the Clutter family in 1965. (I’ve eaten in the Studio City Italian restaurant outside of which he may or may not have killed his wife.) Blake turned in a convincing performance as a psychopath with a backstory that gave the audience a degree of sympathy for him, while all the time knowing he truly deserved to hang in the end. Richard Brooks’ directing style was at times affected, and some of his scene transitions were clever but called attention to themselves. As such, this would be a good movie to show in a filmmaking class. There was a classic shot in which Robert Blake stood in his cell beside a window at night during a rainstorm. From the prison lights outside, the pattern of the water was projected upon his face, making him look like he was crying, even though he wasn’t. According to the cinematographer, in the documentary Visions of Light, that was a pure accident. One final note: I learned from the trailer on the DVD extras that the movie was shot on actual locations, including the house where the Clutters were murdered. I find that more than a little creepy.

Identity Crisis

Identity Crisis (1/20/06) Graphic Novel (2003 ***½) Written by Brad Meltzer, Illustrated by Rags Morales. A friend of mine recommended reading this book, describing it as: “not a perfect graphic novel, but close.” The theme of Identity Crisis was moral ambiguity, and it explored the gray areas between heroes and villains. The book began with the death of Sue Digby, wife of the Elongated Man. It addressed the basic question of why superheroes wear masks — and the risks associated with choosing not to. The heroes who served as the focus of this book were The Justice League of America, members both past and present. All in all it was a satisfying read, keeping me engaged throughout. While Morales isn’t my favorite comic illustrator, his style served the story well.

The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes

The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1/19/06) Netflix (1969 **½) Directed by Robert Butler, starring Kurt Russell as Dexter Riley, Cesar Romero as A.J. Arno, and Joe Flynn as Dean Higgins. Plot: Set at Medfield College, Dexter Riley has a mishap with a school computer and is transformed into a mental wizard. Along the way he gets mixed up with big-time crook A.J. Arno. Madcap, paint-flinging antics ensue. I have a soft spot in my heart for this film, and I loved it as a kid. I can’t recommend it in good conscious, though. It falls into the category of “they don’t make ’em like that anymore… and with good reason!” I understand it was a Disney movie aimed at eight-year olds, but even so, the story had more potential than it realized. I think it was probably an attempt to capitalize on earlier successes with The Absent-Minded Professor and Son of Flubber. There were also a variety of elements that reminded me of Back to the Future. I can see why I was such a fan of Kurt Russell after seeing him in this film and its sequels (Now You See Him, Now You Don’t and The Strongest Man in the World): Russell had such a bright-eyed innocence. To be honest, he reminded me a little of myself as a kid. As an actor, he came off as unpolished, but he got the job done.