Monthly Archive for March, 2009

The Sunshine Boys

The Sunshine Boys (3/31/09) TV-TCM (1975 **½) Directed by Herbert Ross, screenplay by Neil Simon, starring Walter Matthau, George Burns and Richard Benjamin. Matthau certainly spent much of his career playing cantankerous (and grumpy) old men, didn’t he? He was definitely the star of this show, a Neil Simon movie based on a Neil Simon play. I liked Matthau, but I think I would have preferred a little less of him and a little more George Burns. I didn’t enjoy The Sunshine Boys as much as I hoped I would, and the main reason is that it wasn’t ultimately about very much. It was an opportunity to watch a broken-up vaudeville team argue with each other, but that’s about it. Also, the resolution seemed abrupt and artificial and it left me unsatisfied.

Ghost Town

Ghost Town (3/29/09) DVD (2008 ***½) Directed by David Koepp, screenplay by Koepp and John Kamps, starring Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear and Tea Leoni. Koepp has some impressive screenwriting credits, including Jurassic Park, Spider-Man, and War of the Worlds. Known best for big-budget thrillers, he’d never directed a romantic fantasy comedy before, but he did an excellent job. I believe Ricky Gervais is probably an acquired taste, especially for American audiences, but it’s a taste I happen to have. It’s harder than you’d think playing a likable jerk, and Gervais certainly gave a solid performance as a misanthrope forced by fate to listen to annoying ghosts like Greg Kinnear.

City of Heroes

City of Heroes (3/29/09) Graphic Novel (2005 **) Written by Mark Waid, Troy Hickman and David Nakayama, illustrated by various. This volume collected issues #1-6 of the comic book, based on a massive multiplayer online game. Once again I took a gamble and picked up this book for $7.50 at my favorite used book store. I probably could have chosen better. Effectively watered-down Astro City, City of Heroes occupied my time, but not my imagination. Mark Waid (who wrote the first story-arc in the collection) also wrote Kingdom Come, one of the most important graphic novels of all time. Sadly, this wasn’t his best work, and my inner cynic wonders if he wasn’t just doing it for the money.

Great Expectations

Great Expectations (3/28/09) Netflix (1998 ***) Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, screenplay by Mitch Glazer, based on the novel by Charles Dickens, starring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow. Cuarón went on to direct Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) and Children of Men (2006). This movie wasn’t what I expected. I hate to admit it, but I’m not normally a fan of costume period dramas, and I was at first puzzled, then relieved, to see this was set more or less in the present day. I’m fairly sure I read the original novel in my early twenties, and this movie made me want to read it again. My enjoyment was lessened by Ethan Hawke’s character wanting to be with Gwyneth Paltrow in the end despite her spending her life being a real c-word to him.

Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter

Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter (3/26/09) Netflix (2009 **) This “bonus” DVD, which went on sale at the same time as the film’s theatrical release, featured the animated short “Tales of the Black Freighter,” the faux-documentary “Under the Hood” and the first chapter of the Watchmen “motion comic.” It also included “Story Within a Story: The Books of Watchmen,” which provided a behind-the-scenes overview of the other features. These short pieces were neither up to the standards nor anywhere near as engaging as the film itself, and so I was disappointed and a little bored. Perhaps they would be more interesting to someone coming to the Watchmen universe totally cold. For me it didn’t add any particular appreciation either for the world or its characters. I was particularly let down by “Under the Hood,” which had tremendous promise, but suffered from an awkward framing device and an all-to-apparent low budget. As for the DVD’s centerpiece, I confess I never really enjoyed the “Black Freighter” story from the original comic book series, and seeing it animated — and uninterrupted — didn’t make me like it any more.

Kotch

Kotch (3/25/09) TV-TCM (1971 **1/2) Directed by Jack Lemmon (!), screenplay by John Paxton, based on the novel by Katherine Topkins, starring Walter Matthau and Deborah Winters. This was a gentle character study, I suppose, though I spent much of this film wondering where the hell the story was going. I can definitely imagine the story working far better as a novel than as a screenplay. It was consistently distracting watching Matthau, who was in his early sixties at the time it was made — playing a man in his eighties via a shuffling walk and very fake-looking gray hair color. Jack Lemmon’s directing wasn’t particularly strong. I wish I knew the circumstances behind this film getting made. The budget was obviously quite low. The whole production had the look of a made-for-TV movie, so I was surprised to see Kotch was nominated for four Oscars. I guess standards have changed since 1971.

It Happens Every Spring

It Happens Every Spring (3/23/09) TV-TCM (1948 ***) Directed by Lloyd Bacon, starring Ray Milland and Jean Peters. Milland plays a university professor who accidentally invents a substance that is repelled by wood. Naturally, he uses this invention to become a professional baseball pitcher with a real screwball. It’s always a treat for me to run across a good old film I’ve never seen before, and this one was a lot of fun, even if the ultimate message was that it’s okay to cheat. Milland always looks a little creepy to me, and even if he’s playing a nice guy I just don’t trust him. I’m afraid my impression of him will always be colored by later film choices like Dial M For Murder (1954), X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) and The Thing with Two Heads (1972).

Monsters vs. Aliens (3D)

Monsters vs. Aliens (3D) (3/22/08) DWA Crew & Family Screening, Gibson Amphitheatre, Universal Studios (2009 ***½) Directed by Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon. Jeffrey Katzenberg prefaced the screening by saying that our group of about 2,800 crew members and their families was likely the largest audience ever to see a digital 3D film. I’m anything but objective about this film; I worked as a character technical director on B.O.B. (voiced by Seth Rogen) for two challenging, sometimes stressful, years. My wife lovingly refers to B.O.B. as the third person in our marriage for that time. I’m quite proud of how good he looks in the final film, and he’s undoubtedly my greatest achievement professionally. The film itself isn’t bad either, even if the story is a bit simple. At first I felt having a female protagonist (Susan/Ginormica, voiced by Reese Witherspoon) was a real gamble, but over time I’ve definitely warmed to the idea and to the film’s “girl empowerment” message, and hopefully filmgoers will as well. On a certain level, any film called Monsters vs. Aliens (unless it’s a real dog) should be more or less review-proof. It’s not exactly a film you go into expecting to have to do too much thinking.

Coraline: The Graphic Novel

Coraline: The Graphic Novel (3/22/09) Graphic Novel (2008 ***1/2) written by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by P. Craig Russell. With the amazing visuals of the Henry Selick Laika animated film still so fresh in my mind, it was very interesting to see a completely different visual interpretation of the same material. And yet it worked, in a very different way. Russell is an accomplished draftsman, and the level of realism in his drawing gave the impression of a parallel universe version of the tale. Reading the graphic novelization, Gaiman’s word choices were more pronounced, and I was frequently reminded that the original story had been intended for children. I originally fell in love with Gaiman’s writing because of his Sandman stories, and there were traces of that throughout. Sometimes, however, it did feel I was reading a simulation of a classic bedtime story, but that is probably the price I must pay for living in a postmodern age.

Cassandra’s Dream

Cassandra’s Dream (3/21/09) Netflix (2008 ***) Written and directed by Woody Allen. Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell play brothers asked by their uncle (Tom Wilkinson) to commit a murder. The title suggests Greek tragedy, and there’s plenty to be found in this story. McGregor and Farrell were both wonderful and natural. I’m a longtime Woody Allen fan and this movie is one of his best-looking and tightest in years. In particular his dialogue seemed free of the kind of tics I normally associate with his writing, and it never called attention to itself. I wanted to like the film better than I ultimately did. My mild recommendation is mostly a reflection of the film’s final ten to fifteen minutes, which was disappointing.