Monthly Archive for October, 2007

Haunted Graveyard

The Hunting of the President

The Hunting of the President (10/30/07) Netflix (2004 **) Directed by Nickolas Perry and Harry Thomason, based on the book by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons. Morgan Freeman halfheartedly narrated this documentary which chronicled the active campaign by Ken Starr and others to remove Bill Clinton from the White House. Having recently watched the far superior Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, I found this documentary considerably lacking. There was an attempt by the filmmakers to make the film more interesting by inserting “appropriate” stock footage and graphics that were so ill-fitting or weak they made me laugh out loud. On top of that, the film didn’t even do a very good job as a documentary. We were told that Hillary was strongly disliked, at times more than her husband, but that was never explained. Also, the historically significant Monica Lewinski scandal was virtually glossed over.

The Kingdom

The Kingdom (10/29/07) DWA screening (2007 ***½) Directed by Peter Berg, starring Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman. An armed assault on a protected compound of Americans within the heart of Saudi Arabia triggers a response by members of the F.B.I., who circumvent protocol and manage to launch an investigation on Saudi Soil. Part police procedural, part hyper real action adventure, part political intrigue, I was fully engaged from start to finish and the story was strong with verisimilitude. I have to admit that when I watched the trailer and saw the cast included Jason Bateman and Jeremy Piven, names more associated with comedy than drama, I wondered if there’d been an error in judgment somewhere along the way. However, both actors contributed nicely to an ensemble led by Jamie Foxx, whose performance demonstrated he has the acting chops worthy of his Oscar.


JLA/Avengers (10/28/07) Graphic Novel (2003 ***) Written by Kurt Busiek, illustrated by George Perez. I’ve long since grown weary of these “event” comic series, and yet I keep buying them. They always seem to have hundreds of characters dealing with the end of the universe, time and/or reality as we know it. JLA/Avengers was no exception. Told in four parts/books, the first two were devoted to setup and an old-fashioned JLA treasure hunt, wherein members of the Justice League split up into smaller groups and competed with members of the Avengers to find a dozen vital artifacts, half from the DC universe, half from the Marvel universe. Kurt Busiek is a hell of a writer, though, and he had a couple of pleasant surprises for the reader, which managed to elevate the book somewhat, but not quite high enough for me to give it a strong recommendation; when I finished the last book I felt more disoriented and weary than satisfied.

ENRON: The Smartest Guys in the Room

ENRON: The Smartest Guys in the Room (10/24/07) Netflix (2005 ***½) Directed by Alex Gibney. The story of Enron was a gripping tale of corporate greed and deceit. Hopefully it will long serve as a cautionary tale for corporate executives for decades to come. On a broader scale, we all have to constantly relearn the lesson that all too often the emperor truly has no clothes. It would be harder for me to believe that Enron went from seventh largest U.S. company to bankruptcy had I not experienced (and participated in) the late 1990’s / early 2000’s dot com bust personally. My heart goes out to the Enron employees who lost everything by being encouraged to invest their 401K’s in Enron stock. Much of the film’s footage came from video that was produced internally by Enron, and it reminded me at times of the chilling home video in Capturing the Friedmans. As a documentary, it was mostly solid but slanted, which made me a little skeptical. The production was also a bit on the slick side at times, which was marginally annoying. One example: At one point the metaphorical narration of “a magician pulling a rabbit out of his hat” was accompanied by on-the-nose footage of same. Unnecessary.

Goal, Motivation & Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction

Goal, Motivation & Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction (10/24/07) Nonfiction (1996 ****) Written by Debra Dixon. Over a year ago I had lunch with a published writer — the sister of a friend of mine — and she strongly urged me to purchase and read Goal, Motivation & Conflict. Now I know why. It’s a shame the book is not more easily available (I ordered it from Gryphon Books for Writers), because it was one of the best, most straightforward books on writing fiction I’ve ever read. A surprisingly fast read, GMC laid out a very simple approach to plotting by understanding at a fundamental level what your characters need and why they need them. If you are a writer, I highly recommend this book.

The Smothers Brothers

The Smothers Brothers (10/21/07) The Orleans Showroom, Las Vegas (2007 ****) Four stars? You betcha! Yes, you could say I am a pretty damned big fan of the Smothers Brothers. I was fortunate to be in Vegas during their limited four-night run, and seeing them was a high point of my trip. I got a little excited when I saw their familiar faces on a billboard during the short taxi ride from the airport to the Planet Hollywood hotel. My first order of business once my wife and I were in the room was to call and reserve the best ticket they had (My wife and her friend went to Mama Mia instead — their loss). I’ve been a fan of The Smothers Brothers and their distinctive combination of folk music and sibling rivalry comedy since early childhood. Seeing them in person (and from the third row, no less!) was an absolute delight. Judging from the laughter and applause, the audience (most of which I kindly refer to as “cotton tops”) had a great time. It’s a real shame the Smothers’ controversial late-60’s CBS TV show still isn’t available on DVD; I suspect that part of the reason they showed a short mid-point slide show / video presentation may have been to generate interest in its release. At one point during the video there was a montage of the covers of their albums, nearly all of which I once owned… until they were lost when my basement flooded in 1993. As a point of mild interest, this was the second time I’ve seen them perform live: The first time I was a teenager in the early eighties at Ak-Sar-Ben auditorium in Omaha.

Bee Movie

Bee Movie (10/18/07) DWA Crew Screening (2007 ***½) Directed by Simon J. Smith and Steve Hickner. It’s always a little dodgy reviewing movies I worked on. How could I possibly be objective? The simple truth is I can’t. For the record, I worked on Bee Movie for eighty-two (sometimes long) weeks and saw multiple screenings along the way. Overall, I’m pretty happy with the way it turned out. The character design, production design and execution was beautiful in a way different from any of Dreamworks’ previous films. Each movie project is a process and this was no exception. It was interesting observing the effect of Jerry Seinfeld’s involvement on the project: Having a personality as well-known as Seinfeld contribute not just his time but his personality to an animated film was an experiment that had never been tried before. Considering he was more or less a novice to the world of animation before the project began, it could have been an awful disaster, but instead it became something pretty special. Jerry Seinfeld isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but that’s true of any great comedian. The bottom line is that if people are predisposed to like or dislike Seinfeld they’re going to bring that to Bee Movie.

High Society

High Society (10/17/07) Netflix (1956 ***) Directed by Charles Walters. Had The Philadelphia Story never been made, I might be more inclined to give this movie a higher rating, but the fact is that the original (albeit non-musical) film was made and was superior on virtually every level. Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly played the roles played far better by Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Katharine Hepburn. Historically, this was the last film Kelly made before her marriage to Prince Rainier and it was a pity her last performance was little more than a pale imitation of Hepburn’s. Louis Armstrong — who I loved as a musician and singer — was thrown into the mix in a clumsy attempt at a “hep cat” framing device. Technicolor added absolutely nothing and actually killed most of the atmosphere of the original. Similarly, the film was shot in widescreen, which resulted in wide shots and clumsy staging instead of the intimacy created by the close-ups of the 1941 version. Having said all that, Cole Porter’s music was definitely fun, with the high point being the duet between Crosby and Sinatra, “Well Did You Evah?” (“What a swell party this is…”) though whenever I hear it I still think of the Iggy Pop / Debbie Harry version from the concept album Red Hot + Blue: A Tribute to Cole Porter.

Weeds, Season 2

Weeds, Season 2 (10/8/07) Netflix (2006 **½) Series created by Jenji Kohan. Mary-Louise Parker continued her role as the pot-selling (and now growing) Mom in this second season of the acclaimed Showtime series. Overall, the second season lost much of the energy of the first, primarily because there was a lot of gear-shifting — make that gear-grinding — with the storylines. The writing took on a decidedly uneven quality that often resembled a poorly-planned daytime soap opera. Plot lines seemed to be tried out and then abandoned with little thought, such as one in which Nancy Botwin’s brother-in-law Andy attempted to become a rabbi to escape active duty in Iraq. The relationship subplot between Nancy and DEA agent Peter Scottson suffered the teleplay equivalent of being driven into a concrete embankment; it would’ve been obvious (SPOILERS) to a twelve-year-old that Scottson’s character was hastily being set up for destruction. Will I watch season three when it comes out on DVD? Yes, probably. However, after being jerked around by the writers for twelve consecutive episodes I’m far less enthusiastic about the currently-running season than I was after watching season one.