Monthly Archive for August, 2006

MI-5, Series 2

MI-5, Series 2 (8/30/06) Netflix (2003 ***½) This 5-disc, 10-episode set collected the second season of the British show MI-5 (AKA Spooks). Using fast cutting, hand-held cameras and simultaneous depiction via split-screen, the show shared much visually with Fox’s 24. Each episode was a full 60-minutes long, and covered a surprising amount of territory story-wise, much more than the standard US 1-hour drama. As such, the episodes almost like “mini” movies. The characters and situations were consistently engaging. Throughout the season, a variety of anti-terrorism scenarios were played out. The writing was consistently excellent, though there were occasional lapses in story logic. As an American, it was interesting to observe the British attitudes toward the CIA, NSA, and other branches of America’s spy apparatus. The conflict between the shadow agencies of the two countries played a role in several of the episodes in the collection.

Lost Highway

Lost Highway (8/22/06) Netflix (1996 **½) Directed by David Lynch. The only other time I ever saw Lost Highway was when it was first released, and I remember being very disappointed by it. I was living in New York City and I watched it on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. My primary impression of the movie was it was dark and murky and didn’t make a lot of sense. Watching it again, ten years later, it didn’t seem quite as dark. There were many things I liked about the film and many things I didn’t. Robert Blake’s freakish appearance and his exchange with Bill Pullman (“Haven’t we met before?”) was still a delight. As jarring and problematic as it was, I conceptually like the idea of having a main character who transforms physically halfway through the film and then back again. To uncover the story’s form, the viewer had to work for it. Much was unspoken, and there was a real sense of a shadowy world that existed parallel to ours. What I didn’t like was that the pace was so slow for most of the film. It would have been nice if more had actually happened. As pleasant as it was to watch a sultry young Patricia Arquette in various stages of dress and undress, her character was flat (even if she wasn’t) and by the end of the film I grew tired of the sound of her low monotone voice. She sounded at times like a drugged robot. On a technical note, considering how much of the dialogue was mumbled or low, I absolutely hated that the DVD had no subtitles. Considering a similar issue on Mulholland Drive (no chapter breaks!), I can’t help but wonder if these choices were deliberate and made by David Lynch himself.

Amo, Amas, Amat, and More: How to Use Latin to Your Own Advantage and to the Astonishment of Others

Amo, Amas, Amat, and More: How to Use Latin to Your Own Advantage and to the Astonishment of Others (8/19/06) Nonfiction (1985 ***½) Written by Eugene Ehrlich. This book was a collection of better-known Latin phrases. In addition to pronunciation and translations, Ehrlich went one step beyond, frequently providing context for the phrases. Most would probably find it a a strange book to buy and read, so why exactly did I? While I regret not taking Latin in high school or college, that’s not the reason. When I saw Amo, Amas, Amat and More on a shelf in a used book store, I opened it up and flipped through, reading some of the phrases. I was intrigued by the relative complexity and nuance of some of the concepts expressed. Several times in the past I’ve read books of famous quotations, and I’ve loved reading examples of wisdom in concise form. It’s a common fallacy made by generations throughout the ages to believe there’s any originality our own ideas. This is, it seems, especially true in the collective ego of the modern age. For me this book represented distilled proof that the ancient Romans and Greeks encountered the exact same issues and complications in matters of love or work or politics that we deal with today. My second reason for getting this book had to do with my own writing. Having finished reading the book I’m hoping to take a second pass through in order to jot down the most useful phrases with the notion of incorporating them into some future writing projects.

Showcase Presents: The House of Mystery, Vol. 1

Showcase Presents: The House of Mystery, Vol. 1 (8/18/06) Comics (2006 ***) 552 Pages. Yes, another thick collection of DC comics back-issues in cheaply-printed black and white form. The stories themselves covered twenty issues that were printed in 1968 and 1969. Not that I need one, exactly, but my personal justification for buying the collection was that it worked not only as a fun read but also as a comic art reference book.

The stories (of which there were dozens) were illustrated by a variety of artists, some good and some not-so-good. I have a feeling the series was used by DC to test out new artists and to give established artists an opportunity to augment their regular income. As a kid, my favorite artist was Neal Adams, and Bernie Wrightson was a close runner-up. Adams created most of the covers in the collection and he and Wrightson illustrated a a handful of the stories. It wasn’t until I was older that I came to appreciate the drawing versatility of Alex Toth, who had a number of stories in the book as well.

As for the stories themselves? Well, none were so well-written as to stand out. They could be seen — and rightfully so — as watered down versions of the far more graphic and edgy E.C. horror tales of the 1950’s. The “horror” never really extended beyond a G-rated point. Nearly all the stories were introduced by a narrator character named Cain, the caretaker of The House of Mystery. In the intervening years since the stories were originally published, it’s been established in Neil Gaiman’s award-winning Sandman stories that the house (as well as The House of Secrets, cared for by Cain’s brother Abel) exists in “The Dreaming,” the kingdom of Morpheus, the “Lord of Dreams.” In essence, it does not exist in the waking reality. As I read this collection, I was surprised to see several instances in which Cain or the house itself actually played a role in the tales presented. For example, there were a couple of stories centering around boarders who rented rooms in the house. It’s been a while since reading the comic and hadn’t remembered any of this kind of direct intrusion by the narrative frame. My best guess is it was a device used occasionally for awhile and later phased out.

Amelie (Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amelie Poulain)

Amelie (Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amelie Poulain) (8/13/06) DVD (2001 ***½) Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. This was a wonderful, visually rich film. Audrey Tatou was so adorable it was excruciating at times. Nearly every shot was a treasure, and by the time you finish watching it you feel as though your eyes have had a feast. Having said that, the story wasn’t nearly as strong as the visuals, and even when I first watched it I felt some of the material was derivative. I sensed the writers had a handful of clever ideas written on separate scraps of paper and the film was an expression of those disparate notes. Unfortunately, they never really came together as a unified whole. Still, Amelie is a beautiful film and after watching it you can’t help but feel better about life.

Zelig

Zelig (8/11/06) DVD (1983 ***½) Written and directed by Woody Allen. I have a soft spot in my heart for this film. It came at a time when Allen was writing and directing some of the best films of his career, a period that happily coincided with the years I spent in college. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, Zelig was a fake documentary like This is Spinal Tap or Take the Money and Run, and it worked extremely well. The seamless integration of Allen and then-girlfriend Mia Farrow with historical 1920’s and 1930’s newsreel footage was quite a technical achievement in the early 1980‘s. Though it was nominally a comedy, with a number of deliberately funny lines, it’s tone remains quite sweet and poignant. (Favorite)

Life or Something Like It

Life or Something Like It (8/10/06) Netflix (2002 **) Directed by Stephen Herek. Angelina Jolie plays a Seattle TV news reporter told by a homeless prophet (Tony Shalhoub) that she has less than a week to live. I remember when the film was originally released thinking the premise was an interesting one. Unfortunately that premise was neither explored nor developed into anything as engaging as it might have been.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Girl in Gold Boots

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Girl in Gold Boots (8/10/06) Netflix (1969/1998 **) Original film directed by Ted V. Mikels. Unlike Glen or Glenda, which I reviewed recently, this film did not fall into the “so bad it’s good” category. The only redeeming two redeeming qualities were: (a) several scenes of scantily-clad go-go dancers and (b) a fun glimpse of the seedy side of Hollywood circa 1969. As an episode of MST3K, it came later in the series, after Joel Hodgson had been replaced by Mike Nelson. Quite honestly, it was one of the weakest episodes I’ve seen.

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (8/9/06) Glendale Mann 10 (2006 ***) Directed by SNL-alum Adam McKay, who co-wrote the film with Will Ferrell. Not long ago I reviewed Elf, which, after watching Talladega Nights, I still feel is Ferrell’s best film. That is not to say there’s anything wrong with this one. Is there any premise more ripe for comic treatment than Nascar racing? Probably not. It’s a sport that speaks to a large segment of the American (“These colors don’t run”) population. In spite of coming from the Mighty Midwest, I’m not part of that demographic, however. Sacha Baron Cohen (who, it seems, will always be referred to parenthetically as Ali G) played Jean Girard, a gay French driver who dared to come to America to challenge the best, Ricky Bobby. Cohen played the character with what is possibly the worst French accent in the history of American Cinema, but that was probably the point. The plot revolved around a riches to rags to riches story as Ricky Bobby loses his nerve following a spectacular crash and must recover his dignity. As with any movie of this sort, the plot existed only to provide a comfortable frame of reference for the audience. The gags along the way were amusing, and I laughed out loud a handful of times.

Essential Fantastic Four, Vol. 1

Essential Fantastic Four, Vol. 1 (8/8/06) Comics (2005 ***½) Written by Stan Lee, illustrated by Jack Kirby. Volume 1 reprints issues 1-20 plus Fantastic Four Annual #1, a total of 544 pages! Reading this collection was nothing less than a front-row seat for the birth of the “Marvel Age” of comics. It was fascinating to watch Lee and Kirby as they slowly but surely hit their stride, and by the end of this collection they were pretty much playing their A-game. Legend has it the birth of The Fantastic Four was inspired by the financial success of The Justice League of America over at DC Comics. Lee was asked to provide a similar “team” book and he readily complied. What made him a genius was he took the superhero team concept several steps further by having the Fantastic Four squabble and bicker like the archetypal family they were. He also kept reader interest up by introducing great villains like Dr. Doom and the Submariner (resurrected from the 1940’s) and by offering his readers a number of cross-overs between his other books like The Hulk. The deliberate nature of the cross-overs suggests the business-minded side of Stan was concerned not with the success of a single title but with a dozen. And seriously, as guest appearances goes, it doesn’t get much better than a slugfest between The Thing and The Hulk. I fervently hope that if there is a second Fantastic Four movie it offers us that cinematic match-up! Watching Jack Kirby develop as an artist during the early days of the book was fascinating a well. It’s a little hard for me to understand, actually; After all, the man had been drawing comics for twenty years before The Fantastic Four, and yet his visual style only really matured and became consistently dynamic and rock-solid during this period. Was it because he drew as many different books as was humanly possible, or was it something more? Maybe there was something in the water, or perhaps he was just inspired by explosive success of what they were doing. Either way, it was a mighty exciting time in the history of comics, that’s for damned sure.