Monthly Archive for June, 2006

Superman Returns

Superman Returns (6/30/06) Glendale Mann 4 (2006 **½) Directed by Bryan Singer. Yeah, I was disappointed. I had expected much more from the director who‘d given us X-Men and X-Men II, two of the best modern superhero movies. I don’t think my expectations were too high going into the film, either. Though I’d tried to avoid reading too many reviews, the criticisms I’d read all proved to be true: The sections of story that deserved exploration (like what happened to Superman in space) were glossed over. Other parts (the special effects related to Luthor’s evil scheme) were dragged out interminably. The results of casting decisions were mixed: I can see why he was cast, but Brandon Routh as Clark Kent / Superman was never quite believable to me. Kate Bosworth might have been a good Lois Lane had her character been given more emotional range. As well-cast as Kevin Spacey was as Lex Luthor, the script never gave him a real chance to explore the “fun” side of the character in a way Gene Hackman did. Part of my disappointment had to do with the years and years of waiting for this project. I remember reading for over a decade about the Nicolas Cage Superman and the Kevin Smith Superman and the Superman Versus Batman project. All of those films (especially the Kevin Smith version) probably would have been more interesting. Bryan Singer’s version seemed too much like a love letter to Christopher Reeve and the first two Richard Donner Superman films and it didn’t take the character anywhere new. The bottom line is this: If I had made “my” Superman movie (and there‘s no indication that‘s ever going to happen), this was definitely not the one I would have made.

Annie Hall

Annie Hall (6/27/06) DVD (1977 ****) Directed by Woody Allen, starring Allen and Diane Keaton. The first Woody Allen film I ever saw was Love and Death. It was the summer of 1981 and I was a teenager at the time — barely old enough to drive. Love and Death (1975) and Interiors (1978) made for an odd double-feature as part of a film series at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. This was during the early days of home video and so I rented and watched Annie Hall (on Betamax, no less) shortly thereafter. In spite of the fact that the film was aimed at an audience far older than 16, I loved it. In fact, it’s probably the film that cemented me as a Woody Allen film. Seeing it now, for the first time in ten years, it’s still as good as the day it was made. I have more of an appreciation for what it has to say now too; Woody Allen was my age now when he made the film. It truly is a great film. I’ve occasionally wondered how much of the success of the screenplay should be attributed to Allen’s co-writer Marshall Brickman. There were a lot of fantastic, sharply funny lines. If you compare it with a more recent Woody Allen movie like Curse of the Jade Scorpion, where more jokes flopped than succeeded, Annie Hall was just a gem. My fiancée, who watched it with me and was seeing it for the first time, said she was glad she saw this film after When Harry Met Sally. She was slightly irritated by all the elements stolen by Rob Reiner and Nora Ephron for their film. I prefer to be slightly kinder. When Harry Met Sally was a far more accessible film (made at a time when Woody Allen wasn’t exactly beloved by the general public), and it worked on its own, regardless of the spiritual kinship it shared with Annie Hall. (Favorite)

The Clearing

The Clearing (6/26/06) Netflix (2004 **½) Directed by Pieter Jan Brugge. Robert Redford and Helen Mirren play a husband and wife whose life is disrupted when an armed gunman (Willem Dafoe) kidnaps the husband and takes him into the woods. Though the dramatic focus was on the kidnapping and subsequent ransom, the emotional focus of the film was on the couple’s marriage. I got that, but I never really believed in any of the characters, and they never felt fully realized. With a running time of 95 minutes including credits, it was a fairly short film, yet I still feel more could have been done with the characters in that time. I certainly have no complaints about any of the main actors, though their performances were universally subdued.

A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes

A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (6/25/06) Nonfiction (1988 ***) Written by Stephen Hawking. When I was fourteen I stumbled upon a nonfiction book written by Isaac Asimov. It was a collection of articles about the physics of astronomy. From that book I learned for the first time about Newton’s formulas of gravitation and it was really my introduction to physics. A Brief History of Time is probably the most famous book on astrophysics written for the layperson. I know a lot of people have bought and read it, but as I was reading it myself for the first time I wondered how much the average reader truly comprehended. It was written in a fairly accessible language, though there are times when the subject matter became tangled and convoluted enough to challenge comprehension. Hawking also occasionally injected humor, with mixed results.. It was the kind of “geek classroom humor” that wasn’t really funny, yet the class was still expected to laugh. On a related note, Hawking described the physical effects of throwing an astronaut into a black hole so many times I began to wonder if he secretly disliked some people at NASA.

Bullets Over Broadway

Bullets Over Broadway (6/25/06) Netflix (1994 ***) Directed by Woody Allen. This was a fun movie set during prohibition about what happens when the theater meets the mob. Come to think of it, the title captured that quite nicely, didn’t it? The dialogue was at times delightful. The emotional core of the film pertained to a young playwright/director (John Cusak) who slowly came to realize a hit-man (Chazz Palminteri) had greater natural writing ability in his pinky than he had in his whole body. It wasn’t a perfect Woody Allen film or even one of his best, and the ending, while logical, felt false, but it was still entertaining.

Cartoon Cool: How to Draw New Retro-Style Characters

Cartoon Cool: How to Draw New Retro-Style Characters (6/25/06) Nonfiction (2005 **) Written and illustrated by Christopher Hart. It appears Chris Hart has found a niche (specialized cartooning) and has been working hard the last decade or so to crank out books in an effort to fill it. Cartoon Cool was not a bad book, but it was far too lightweight for my tastes. Honestly, it would have been a better book for me to have read when I was thirteen. Even then, I probably would have criticized the book for lacking depth. It was a fast read, and I read it cover to cover in about an hour and a half. Within the book, I found the section devoted to Retro-stylized character poses to be far more interesting and informative than the section on character design, which was far too generic and limited.

Cars

Cars (6/23/06) Burbank AMC 16 (2006 ***) Directed by John Lassetter. I have the utmost respect for John Lassetter personally and Pixar in general. I think three out of four stars may be the lowest rating I’ve ever given a Pixar Film. There were so many wonderful technical accomplishments in Cars that I hate to do it, but I must. There were two main problems with the film: (1) The premise (a world inhabited by autos) was nearly impossible to elevate to the same crowd-pleasing level as Finding Nemo or The Incredibles. To their credit, Lassetter and his team at Pixar came as close as anyone possibly could have to making that inherently-limited framework work. (2) The movie’s screenplay — nominally a combination of drama and comedy — was never funny. It had humorous moments, but no big laughs, and the pacing was too slow; it felt dragged out. I’m not the only one who has observed the plot similarity between Cars and Doc Hollywood, and the association with the Michael J. Fox film wasn’t helped by Paul Newman’s character being named “Doc” Hudson. Also, there were times I felt I was listening to a live-action movie. Lassetter’s love of automobiles and rural America was clearly in evidence. The “Route 66” environments were wonderful and lovingly rendered, and I couldn’t help but wish they had served as the background for a set of human characters instead of… well, cars.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Teenagers From Outer Space

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Teenagers From Outer Space (6/22/06) Netflix (1959/1992 ***) Original film directed by Tom Graeff. “Torture!!” Joel Hodgson and the ‘bots talk their way through another poorly written, cheaply made 1950’s movie. It’s been years since I last watched an episode of MST3K. It probably comes as no surprise to those who know me, but I used to be a big fan. MST3K and Twin Peaks were two of the best things about the early 1990’s. For kicks I thought I’d rent one of the many volumes available on DVD. Did it hold up? I don’t know if I can answer that objectively. I laughed aloud a few times, that’s for sure. Maybe I’ll rent more volumes in the future. As one of the hearing-impaired, I do wish someone had spent the money to subtitle the videos. I know it would be a real challenge since it would require two layers of subtitling, one for the original movie and one for the commentary. As for the film itself, it’s still my belief you can learn as much about filmmaking (and acting) by watching bad movies as you can from watching good ones. As such, Teenagers from Outer Space would make an excellent educational tool.

Tank Girl

Tank Girl (6/21/06) Netflix (1995 **½) Directed by Rachel Talalay, starring Lori Petty. Earlier this year I read the first volume of the comic book on which this movie is based. I wasn’t crazy about it, honestly. I’m not exactly sure why I decided to rent Tank Girl; I suppose it’s because I’d heard about it a number of times over the years from various sources. It’s a strange movie, one that falls rather conveniently into that category of “cult favorites.” Though it’s hard to tell if that was the primary goal of its filmmakers, it certainly has some things in common with other “acquired tastes” like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The plot wasn’t much to speak of, but the film did have a handful of worthwhile moments, my favorite being the jarring big scale production version of “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love),” set in the middle of a futuristic brothel. Lori Petty did a fine job playing the borderline sociopathic, kangaroo-loving imp Rebecca (AKA Tank Girl), and Naomi Watts appeared in a supporting role as the introverted “Jet Girl.”

Abbott and Costello Go To Mars

Abbott and Costello Go To Mars (6/18/06) DVD (1953 ***) Directed by Charles Lamont, starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. This was an interesting film in the series. At the time it was made, science fiction was on the rise, and so it was a natural choice to send the duo to Mars. Of course, as anyone who’s ever seen the film knows, the title was a bit of a misnomer; they never actually got to Mars. Instead, they ended up on Venus… by way of New Orleans! According to the production notes on the DVD, the budget had to be increased to allow for the sci-fi-related effects, props, and sets. They weren’t exactly top notch, but were effective for the time. One of the odd choices story-wise was that unlike most of their films, Bud & Lou’s characters (Lester and Orville) didn’t know each other prior to their adventure. That didn’t make much of a difference in their interactions, however. Here’s a little trivia, courtesy of Imdb.com: Two minor players in this film went on to bigger and better things: Anita Ekberg played one of the Venusian guards and Harry Shearer played one of the young kids at the orphanage in the beginning.