Monthly Archive for December, 2011

We Bought a Zoo

We Bought a Zoo (12/31/11) AMC Burbank Town Center 8 (2011 ***1/2) Directed by Cameron Crowe, based on the book by Benjamin Mee, starring Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones and Thomas Haden Church. A grieving widower and his family look for a new place to live and their real estate agent sells them… Aw, come on, were you even slightly paying attention to the title? Of the movies Cameron Crowe has made over the years, this is possibly the least Cameron Crowe-ish (kinda like when David Lynch directed The Straight Story), but Crowe’s firm but gentle directorial hand was still present in every shot. We Bought a Zoo is truly a film for the entire family and Matt Damon was well-suited for the lead and was nicely supported, with Johansson delivering what may have been the most convincing performance I’ve ever seen her give, though that’s not saying much. Also, it was such a special treat to see a grown-up Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous) in a minor role.

That’s Entertainment! III

That’s Entertainment! III (12/30/11) TCM (1994 **1/2) Written and directed by Bud Friedgen and Michael J. Sheridan, with appearances by Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Ann Miller and more. Produced nearly 20 years since That’s Entertainment, Part II (1976), this sequel documentary focused on never-before-seen gems from the MGM “vault.” I suspect this mid-1990s film was made in large part to promote the availability of Ted Turner’s MGM library on VHS video. While it was interesting to see some of the “deleted scenes” and special material, the overall effect was very much like watching a set of “DVD extras.” Contrast that to the first two That’s Entertainment films, which consisted of the best show-stopping MGM musical numbers ever produced! It was also a bit sad to see Gene Kelly (who provided the documentary’s “bookends”) in his waning days, clearly winding down: This film was released less than two years before his death in February 1996.

Woody Allen’s New Orleans Jazz Band

Woody Allen’s New Orleans Jazz Band (12/29/11) UCLA’s Royce Auditorium (2011 ***1/2) Woody Allen, Eddy Davis and the rest of a 7-piece band played authentic Dixieland jazz to an appreciative, sold-out audience. If you can believe it, this is the third time I’ve seen my childhood idol Woody Allen live, and the second time playing his clarinet. The previous time I saw him play was in October 2009 at the Carlyle Hotel in New York, and as I mentioned in my review of that performance, our bill (dinner + drinks + cover charge) cost more than my first car (a used 1966 AMC Rambler Classic)! This time around, the tickets were considerably more affordable, though still not exactly cheap, and the “highbrow” crowd was polite and generous with their applause. As a matter of fact, we were seated across the aisle from the actor James Spader (Boston Legal, The Office)! As for the music itself, I’m not exactly a New Orleans Jazz aficionado. Many of the songs Woody and his band played were unfamiliar, and I must admit the first seven or so all sounded to me like variations on Johnny S. Black’s “Paper Doll.” As wonderful as the band and the music was, my guess is that most in the audience were there for the same reason my wife and I were: To see living legend Woody Allen in person.

Power Girl: Bomb Squad

Power Girl: Bomb Squad (12/29/11) Comics (2011 ***) Written by Judd Winick, illustrated by Sam Basar. Karen Starr (AKA Power Girl) must deal with the disintegration of her high-tech company due to embezzlement while simultaneously slugging it out with super-powered brutes masterminded by none other than… Maxwell Lord. Reading Power Girl is a bit of a guilty pleasure for me. I truly enjoyed the first two volumes penned by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray. Though Winick (Batman: Under the Hood) seemed at times to attempt to maintain that established spirit, he didn’t do the best job of it, and much of the joy of the first two volumes got lost. And without that “fun factor,” Power Girl became just another super heroine with ginormous bazzooms.

Little Women

Little Women (12/28/11 TCM (1933 **1/2) Directed by George Cukor, based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott, starring Katharine Hepburn, Joan Bennett and Paul Lukas. Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy March are four Massachusetts sisters unlucky enough to “come of age” during the American Civil War. It’s hard to believe that I, a 47-year-old man, have never seen any of the approximately 15 versions of this film, nor have I read the book on which it was based. Judging by this film, I can’t say I missed much. While I respected this film’s status as a “classic,” I found many of its component parts highly annoying, particularly the melodramatic plot and the over-the-top performances, including the one delivered by one of my favorites, Katharine Hepburn herself. I’m pretty sure her grating portrayal of the “tomboyish” authoress Josephine March contributed to Hepburn becoming known as… at least for a few years… “box office poison.”

Miracle on 34th Street

Miracle on 34th Street (12/28/11) TCM (1947 ****) Written and directed by George Seaton, based on a story by Valentine Davies, starring Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O’Hara, John Payne and a little newcomer named Natalie Wood. A delusional psychotic believing himself to be Santa Claus casts a spell over every innocent soul he meets, making them believe in GOODWILL, HOPE and CHRISTMAS MAGIC! Were I making a list of my top Christmas films, this one would go very close to the top, maybe even at position #1. Why? It not only provided an entertaining story with wonderful characters and performances, but it was very effective at making the “meaning of Christmas” (the belief that doing good is good for the bottom line) meaningful in the modern world. Also, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded that part of the human condition means occasionally believing in things that are a bit crazy. Though it’s been remade many times and even colorized, the original (and delightful) Miracle on 34th Street remains worthy of its status as a holiday tradition.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever (12/28/11) Illustrated Fiction (2011 ***1/2) Written and illustrated by Jeff Kinney. Greg Heffley, a kid with a penchant for autobiography and (borderline) criminal mischief, gets into hot water with the police but is saved (ironically) by a blizzard. Nearly two years ago (January 2010), I read the first book to my wife in bed when she was under the weather, and it really lifted her spirits. And so this year I bought Cabin Fever, the 6th book in Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid series as a Christmas present with the purpose of recreating the original experience. And we did. Perfectly healthy this time, we lay in bed and took turns reading sections to each other. Though the book’s intended audience is described by as “8 and up,” its juvenile humor was still perfect for a couple who are perpetually 12 years old at heart. Even though I hadn’t read any of 4 intervening books in the series (books 2-5), I was pleased to see that Cabin Fever still maintained much of the fun of the first book.

Mail-Order Mysteries: Real Stuff from Old Comic Book Ads!

Mail-Order Mysteries: Real Stuff from Old Comic Book Ads! (12/28/11) Illustrated Nonfiction (2011 ***1/2) Written by Kirk Demarais. As a kid, did you ever wonder what you’d get if you ordered “X-Ray Spex?” Now you can find out what you would have received in the mail. My wife bought me this book for Christmas (it was on my Amazon wish list) and it turned out to be awesome! The structure of Mail-Order Mysteries is quite simple: The original comic book ad for each item (and in some cases collections of related items) is shown, followed by photos of the actual item(s) and an analysis of what was promised versus what was delivered. In many cases, additional background information is given about the origins of the product. The message of Demarais’ well-written and lovingly-curated volume is that most “mysteries” were real disappointments. And yet others were surprisingly good values, much like his book. By my count, in my youth I ordered or owned ten (possibly eleven) of the wondrous items contained within, including: The Haunting Record, Vampire Blood, The Life-Sized Vampire Bat, The Magic Brain Calculator, The Vacutex Blackhead Remover, 50 Bike Decals, The Secret Book Safe, The Secret Agent Spy Camera (though it may have been my uncle’s), The Chinese Prayer Vase and, the most famous of all, Sea-Monkeys. But somehow the item I remember as being most eye-opening (e.g. disappointing) was the U-Control 7-Foot Life-Sized Ghost, which turned out to be a balloon, a white plastic sheet and a spool of fishing line.

Home Alone

Home Alone (12/27/11) FMC (1990 ***1/4) Directed by Chris Columbus, written by John Hughes, starring Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern and Catherine O’Hara. When his family flies to Paris for Christmas, 8-year-old Kevin McCallister gets lost in the shuffle and left behind in upscale suburban Chicago. Naturally he must protect his home from burglars using elaborate traps and machinations that would make Wile E. Coyote proud. I hadn’t watched this movie in years (decades more like it), though I did see it when it was originally released. I think it’s gotten a bad rap for a long time, though it seems to be creeping slowly into the list of adored Christmas classics. Thing is, it’s clear that Home Alone never attempted to be more than what it was meant to be: A family-friendly holiday comedy rich with sentiment and slapstick. And far more of the former and less of the latter than I remembered.

Young Adult

Young Adult (12/27/11) Pacific Theaters Glendale 18 (2011 ***) Directed by Jason Reitman, written by Diablo Cody, starring Charlize Theron, Patrick Wilson and Patton Oswalt. A “YA” author with a long list of mental problems returns to her Minnesota home town hoping to insinuate herself between her high school boyfriend and objective reality. Based on the TV commercials and trailer, I knew going in that this was going to be a downer of a movie. A well-written, acted and directed downer, but a downer nonetheless. And in spite of a number of laugh-out-loud moments… it ultimately was. To top it all off, the ending was intentionally ambiguous. Of course it was. Still, considering Young Adult marks a re-pairing of Juno‘s Reitman/Cody duo, this may be your cup of tea. And I must admit that Theron delivered an amazing portrayal (possibly even an Oscar-worthy one) of a beautiful woman who’s ugly to the bone.