Monthly Archive for February, 2006

Since You Went Away

Since You Went Away (2/26/06) Netflix (1944 ***½) Directed by John Cromwell, starring Claudette Colbert, Joseph Cotten, Monty Woolley, Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple. This film depicted the world left behind when a man goes off to war. From the first frame it was clear the film was WWII propaganda through and through, but it was handled in such a way as to be palatable. Since You Went Away showed how lives were touched by the war and how those on the home front did their part. Agnes Moorehead played a woman who represented the type of person who saw the war as an “inconvenience” and complained about rationing instead of helping out in the war effort. It’s a rare treat for me to find classic films I’ve never seen before that are truly good, and so I try to seek them out. This was a long film, nearly three hours in length. It could have slipped into melodrama but it avoided that trap. It featured excellent production values, including some especially effective lighting setups and shot compositions. My only real criticism of the writing was that the foreshadowing was painted with too heavy a hand; it didn’t take much wit to realize early on that any characters referred to as “lucky” were likely to meet an unfortunate end.

The Transporter

The Transporter (2/25/06) Netflix (2002 ***) Directed by Corey Yuen, starring Jason Statham and Qi Shu. I rented this because my fiancée had expressed interest in seeing the recently-released Transporter 2. I am not the biggest fan of action adventure movies, but I was entertained by this one enough to recommend it. The main criticism I had of the film — and I don’t even know that it’s a fair one — is that it seemed to have been written by a 14-year-old. Everyone and everything in the world of The Transporter apparently operated based on a comic book logic set at a stunted level of maturity. In other words, though the characters were played in the movie by adult actors, I got the distinct impression they were merely avatars for teenage boys playing a video game.

Fawlty Towers: The Complete Series

Fawlty Towers: The Complete Series (2/24/06) DVD (1975, 1979 ****) Written by John Cleese and Connie Booth. In the opinion of many, it doesn’t get any better than this. Fawlty Towers has often been cited as the best television sitcom ever. Booth and Cleese were married at the time they wrote and appeared in this series, which was set at an inn in the British resort town of Torquay. There were two 6-episode series, the first shot in 1975 and the second shot four years later. Like many, I have fond memories of watching Fawlty Towers as a teenager as it aired on PBS stations and remember especially being knocked out by the sheer concentration of verbal and physical humor. Part of the joy in watching it — and why it still holds up — was that each episode was structured as a farce, usually revolving around some scheme or misunderstanding by Basil Fawlty. As the half-hour episode progressed, the level of emotional intensity got increasingly higher until it exploded in climax shortly before the end credits. If you’ll forgive me one side-note excursion into trivia-ville: I may be one of the few people who remember watching a short-lived American adaptation starring Maude‘s Bea Arthur in the Basil Fawlty role. According to the internet, the show was called Amanda’s and aired on ABC from February to May 1983.

The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion

The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (2/24/06) Graphic Novel (2005 **) Written and illustrated by Will Eisner. This was the last graphic novel completed by Eisner before his death at age 87. I’m a big fan of his and was saddened to learn of his passing. The Plot was published posthumously. It was a strange graphic novel in that it was really a research tract in comic book form. While I acknowledge the importance of publicizing the fraudulent nature of the greatest anti-Semitic hoax in history, the point was quickly made and on the whole I wasn’t that interested in the material. There was a point in the middle of the book in which Eisner devoted page after page to a side-by-side analysis of the “Protocols” and the original source material (“The Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu”) from which it was plagiarized. I admit I didn’t read this section in its entirety because after the first couple of pages I got the point. This material could have worked better as an addition to the appendix.

In Her Shoes

In Her Shoes (2/23/06) Netflix (2005 ***) Directed by Curtis Hanson, starring Cameron Diaz, Toni Collette, and Shirley MacClaine. This movie was as solidly “chick flick” as you can get, but for reasons I don’t entirely understand, I often enjoy those sorts of movies. The story in a nutshell: Diaz played the screw-up younger sister to uptight Collette. After sleeping with her sister’s boyfriend, Diaz left Philadelphia to stay with her grandmother (MacClaine) in Miami. Throughout the film there was an undercurrent of emotional manipulation, but it was just tolerable enough to work without sending me into a rage. Was it a great movie? No. At 130 minutes, it was about twenty minutes too long. But it did offer some strong performances and worked as a dysfunctional family comedy/drama.

Red Eye

Red Eye (2/22/06) DVD (2005 **½) Directed by Wes Craven, starring Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy. As with The Island, I watched this to kill time while home with a cold. My fiancée had brought a copy home and since she wasn’t interested in watching it, I took advantage of the opportunity to watch it while she wasn’t around. Red Eye was a surprisingly short movie, actually. I think the end credits started at the 71 minute mark. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing in this case, since the story was fairly simple and didn’t require a full 90 minutes to be told. My main complaint, and I’m not sure it’s even a fair one, was this: The writing seemed dumbed down, aimed at a 19-year-old slasher-film audience. I’m sure that was a deliberate choice, but as a man in his early 40’s, I was put off by it.

The Island

The Island (2/22/06) DVD (2005 **) Directed by Michael Bay. I was home sick and my fiancée had brought home a copy from work. I knew from the reviews that The Island was really two movies: The first half was a science fiction film and the second half was an action-adventure chase film. Did The Island deserve to bomb at the box office? The marketing could have been better, certainly. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good either. It had some nearly-clever ideas, but nothing particularly original. I think it was trying to be Blade Runner, but never set the bar especially high. Sometimes the time at which a movie is released affects its success, and I think that was the case here. Watching it, The Island seemed like the wrong movie for the wrong time.

How To Draw Caricatures

How To Draw Caricatures (2/21/06) Nonfiction (1984 **½) Written and illustrated by Lenn Redman. I ordered this book because I am interested in producing caricatures myself. I read the entire book from cover to cover in one sitting, and I found Redman’s writing style a bit rough and unpolished. This is often the case with artists who write about their work, and so it’s a forgivable sin, I suppose. As for the content of the book… well, Redman didsn’t offer much in terms of theory; he covered the basics (deviation from an average face) in the first few pages. The strength of the book lay in its examples, and we’re offered many good ones, mostly taken from photos of Redman’s friends and associates. He showed photographs of these subjects side-by-side with his caricatures. The last third of the book was devoted to examples from other caricature artists, many taken from Redman’s clip file. In my opinion, the value of this section was questionable. The analysis wasn’t strong enough to make them meaningful. My gut feeling was it was done as filler, to pad his material to book-length. I wish he’d devoted those pages to more of his own examples. At the risk of over-intellectualizing a subject that doesn’t need it, I would have enjoyed more of an in-depth analysis. Having said that, this was the only book I’ve ever read on the subject and so I don’t have a real frame of reference. There are only a few books available about caricature, and for all I know this may be the best of the lot.

Capturing the Friedmans

Capturing the Friedmans (2/20/06) Netflix (2003 ***) Directed by Andrew Jarecki. This was a hard documentary to watch. It was the story of what happened to a family after the husband and one of his sons were arrested for child molestation. The documentary presented both sides of the story and hopped back and forth between them, so the audience was never sure what the truth was and had to actively decide for themselves. Arnold and Jesse Friedman maintained their innocence. Were they lying? If so, to what extent? The extent of the charges was horrifying to the point of being unbelievable. Other family members were clearly living in denial about what really happened. The power of the film was heightened by video footage shot by David, the oldest son, which chronicled both family arguments and goofball behavior. Earlier film footage, taken by the father, showed what appeared to be a happy family, laughing and dancing and fooling around. What we ultimately witnessed in Capturing the Friedmans was a family unraveling at the seams.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Season 1

Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Season 1 (2/19/06) TV (1974 ***½) I first watched The Night Stalker as a lad of ten when it was originally broadcast, and I’ve never forgotten the program. Watching these episodes (aired on the Sci Fi Channel) for the first time in years, the appeal was still there. Darren McGavin really went out of his way to make Carl Kolchak a memorable character. I could see that in the choices he made and in the little “bits of business” he added to each scene. It was this sense of character which was sorely missing from the 2005 version and was undoubtedly one of the reasons it was canceled after only a handful of episodes. The Night Stalker stories themselves were a bit formulaic, and there was a bit of “fill in the blank” writing at work. What shifted from show to show was how the blanks were filled in. This was especially true of the guest stars, who ranged from Jim Backus to Larry Storch. I liked that the representatives of law enforcement changed from week to week, resulting in different (but always confrontational) relationships between Kolchak and the police. With all that going for it, why was it canceled after only 20 episodes? It may have been because Carl Kolchak himself was a bit of an acquired taste and the creature effects consistently… “left something to be desired.” Which is a nice way of saying they sucked.