Monthly Archive for April, 2012

Fantastic Four by Jonathan Hickman, Vol. 3: Unified Field Theory

Fantastic Four by Jonathan Hickman, Vol. 3: Unified Field Theory (4/30/12) Comics (2011 ***1/4) Written by Jonathan Hickman, illustrated by Neil Edwards, originally published in Fantastic Four #579-582. Johnny Storm takes his nephew Franklin to a toy store run by The Impossible Man and Arcade, then Reed’s father Nathaniel travels through time to enlist college-aged Reed, Ben and Victor Von Doom to help him fight… himself, then grown-up (future) versions of Val and Franklin Richards attempt to keep the universe from collapsing. Or something. I liked this episodic volume a bit more than the two that preceded it, mainly because it offered an entertaining variety pack of four (mostly) self-contained stories. Hickman continues to capture the spirit of the series I grew up with. Because I have the benefit of “hindsight,” I know how Hickman’s introduction of Reed’s “Future Foundation” will soon pay off. I also know that big changes lay ahead… in the very next volume!

Three Days of the Condor

Three Days of the Condor (4/29/12) TCM (1975 ***1/2) Directed by Sydney Pollack, based on the novel by James Grady, starring Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson and Max von Sydow. When a CIA analyst returns from a lunch run to find his fellow researchers massacred, he does the only logical thing: He kidnaps a beautiful woman at gunpoint, ties her up and (after a respectful interval) has sex with her. This was a gripping film, one that still feels fresh and familiar nearly four decades after it was made. For that, I’ll credit Redford’s naturalistic acting combined with Pollack’s realistic approach to the material, which spread a veneer of verisimilitude over a story that often stretched believability. Finally, and I don’t think this is really giving anything away, while my wife doesn’t generally like quasi-ambiguous endings, she felt this one was pitch-perfect!

Fantastic Four by Jonathan Hickman, Vol. 2: Prime Elements

Fantastic Four by Jonathan Hickman, Vol. 2: Prime Elements (4/27/12) Comics (2011 ***) Written by Jonathan Hickman, illustrated by Dale Eaglesham, originally published in Fantastic Four #575-578. Hickman’s Fantastic Four run continues with the discovery / creation of the four different cities predicted by “Future Franklin” at the end of the previous volume. With this, the second volume in a series, I found myself getting a bit more used to Hickman’s writing. One of the hallmarks of the original Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four was a tremendous sense of imagination. And Hickman did seem to be able to tap into that. Unfortunately, my main issue with his storytelling from the first volume remains true: With this relatively short set of four, largely independent stories clearly designed to set up something bigger, a “War of the Four Cities,” I was never honestly engaged. I never felt a true sense of peril, even though I happen to know a pretty climactic event is just on the horizon for the Family Fantastic.

Vertigo

Vertigo (4/27/12) Netflix (1958 ***1/4) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring James Stewart, Kim Novak and Barbara Bel Geddes. Set in San Francisco, a retired police detective with a nasty case of acrophobia (fear of heights) becomes obsessed with a possessed platinum blonde. My father and I wanted to see this film, introduced by Kim Novak herself, at the TCM Classic Film Festival. But after walking in the rain, then waiting for two hours to watch Novak’s somewhat disappointing interview by Robert Osborne, we ended up calling it a day instead. As kind of a consolation prize, a few days later I put Vertigo at the top of my Netflix queue. It’s worth noting that this film ranks at number 9 on the AFI’s Top 100 list, though I can’t say I’d rank it quite that high myself. I certainly respect it, but I don’t know how much I really liked it. Part of the problem was its slow pace, and at 128 minutes, it felt long. Not just long overall, but in many of the scenes it seemed Hitchcock told Jimmy Stewart to act at half-speed, as though he were moving underwater. It can be argued that Vertigo is a suspense film and so that pacing was appropriate, but there were several times when… well, frankly I got bored. The other main reason this film isn’t on my personal list of favorites is because of the direction the story took. I understand that the film’s major theme was obsession, but its third act descended into some pretty creepy territory, and the scenes between Stewart and Novak that had been designed to make me, the viewer, uncomfortable… Well, they just left a bad taste in my mouth. But in spite of my considerable reservations, there was plenty to like about Vertigo, too, particularly in the ear and eye candy department: Its score by Bernard Herrmann has been borrowed from and sampled over the years (Most recently by the Oscar-winning The Artist) for a reason. I also loved the title sequence and the film looks gorgeous, from beginning to end. Vertigo‘s now-famous visual effects were absolutely brilliant for the time, and they’re still awesome. A particular visual delight was that all the exteriors for the film were shot at several well-known locations in and around San Francisco. That was a special treat for me or anyone who’s ever lived in — or in my case, near — the “City by the Bay.”

Fantastic Four by Jonathan Hickman, Vol. 1: Solve Everything

Fantastic Four by Jonathan Hickman, Vol. 1: Solve Everything (4/23/12) Comics (2011 ***) Written by Jonathan Hickman, illustrated by Dale Eaglesham, originally published in Fantastic Four #570-574. Reed Richards’ decision to “Solve Everything” results in a membership in MMMARRRS (the Mighty Marvel Marching Alternate Reality Reed Richards Society). A friend loaned me a stack of Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four run. I wasn’t previously familiar with his writing, and my initial impression was mixed. Writing for “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine” is obviously a great honor, and potentially a bit intimidating, I suppose. It also requires lots of great “big” ideas, which Hickman brought. But unfortunately, along with those ideas, he didn’t necessarily bring a lot of engaging action. Interesting concepts and situations were introduced, but it seemed that every time the action began to heat up, the end of the issue came and it was all over. Still, the writing (and artwork) was certainly strong enough for me to keep reading. Besides, reading these contemporary books reminds me of why I became a Fantastic Four fan in the first place.

The Sterile Cuckoo

The Sterile Cuckoo (4/22/12) TCM (1969 **1/2) Directed by Alan J. Pakula, screenplay by Alvin Sargent, based on the novel by John Nichols, starring Liza Minnelli and Wendell Burton. College freshman Jerry Payne falls for a bipolar weirdo-hating girl named Pookie Adams. This was an odd movie, one that was absolutely a reflection of the period in which it was made. The Sterile Cuckoo was only Minnelli’s second feature film as a grown-up, and was a mere three years before her Oscar-winning role in Cabaret (1972). Her talent was clearly evident in every scene she was in, though. While I found the film’s story ultimately depressing and disappointing, Pakula’s direction was generally strong. This was a quirky, small film, and had the story been more enjoyable — and had I been introduced to it as a teenager — I can easily imagine it on a list with some of my other personal favorites, like Harold and Maude (1971) and They Might Be Giants (1971). However, some of the filmmakers’ choices were a bit questionable. For instance, why did Minnelli’s costar Wendell Burton play his role in a subdued manner, as though he were either on tranquilizers or suffering from borderline autism? And why was it necessary to feature The Sandpipers singing various verses of “Come Saturday Morning” approximately 500 times?!! It was a catchy little ear-worm of a song, and I know it was intended as a unifying element… but COME ON!!

Get Carter

Get Carter (4/22/12) TCM (1971 ***1/2) Directed by Mike Hodges, based on the novel by Ted Lewis, starring Michael Caine, Ian Hendry and Britt Ekland. When his brother dies in a suspicious Northern England car wreck, revenge-fueled gang henchman Jack Carter doesn’t buy the “official” explanation for a damned minute. This movie was introduced on TCM by Robert Osborne and Anthony Bourdain, who’d selected it. Bourdain explained that it was a brutal film, one that would make you look at Michael Caine differently. And he was right. Though portrayed somewhat sympathetically at times, Jack Carter was an unflinching sociopath who would stop at nothing to avenge his brother’s death. Though it was remade in 2000 with Sylvester Stallone, it’s hard to imagine that version could have possibly added anything to the original.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (4/21/12) Netflix (2008 **1/2) Directed by Bharat Nalluri, based on the novel by Winifred Watson, starring Frances McDormand, Amy Adams, Lee Pace and Ciarán Hinds. In London, on the eve of WWII, a desperate (and empty-bellied) governess named Guinevere Pettigrew finds herself working as a “social secretary” for an American singer, Delysia Lafosse. Though not a great film, there was something very charming about this little movie. And I’m not just saying that because you get to see the adorable Amy Adams running around in a towel. Miss Pettigrew seemed like a movie from another time, and not just because it was a period piece. It incorporated classic screwball comedy elements and it did so without a hint of detached irony. This small film featured a few familiar faces, but one face in particular drove me nuts trying to figure out where I’d seen him: It was Ciarán Hinds… who had played Julius Caesar on the HBO series Rome.

Barefoot Adventure

Barefoot Adventure (4/20/12) TCM (1960 ***) Written and directed by Bruce Brown, with original music by Bud Shank, featuring surfers Robert August, Del Cannon and others. Whether the beach location was in Southern California, Northern California, Oahu or Maui, Bruce Brown and his 16mm camera were there to capture the hot surfing action. Bruce Brown is best known for his 1966 surfer documentary The Endless Summer, which followed Mike Hynson and Robert August around the globe. But Brown had made several surf-centric films before that, including Barefoot Adventure. The version I saw on TCM included a videotaped introduction by Brown himself, who explained that while he’d found tapes of the terrific jazz soundtrack, the original tapes of the voice-over narration had been lost — if they ever existed, that is. You see, in the early 1960s, Bud Brown exhibited his films himself by renting out Elks lodges and high school auditoriums, then projecting the films as he provided the narration over a P.A. system. Hearing that “backstory” really made me smile. Anyway, for this version, Brown recorded a new narration, doing his best to remember what he’d said decades ago, but also occasionally letting the passage of history color what he said. It was also interesting to see his early technique and experiments with storytelling. His surfing footage was interleaved with goofy comedy footage that was charming in its innocence. I’m embarrassed to say it, but those corny skits of his were awfully similar to some of the film and video I shot back in my early 20s.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (4/19/12) Netflix (1978 **) Directed by Michael Schultz, starring Peter Frampton, The Bee Gees, George Burns, Donald Pleasence and Steve Martin as Dr. Maxwell Edison, who — believe it or not — majored in medicine! The film also featured performances by Aerosmith, Earth Wind & Fire, Alice Cooper and Billy Preston. Mean Mr. Mustard (Frankie Howerd) threatens the peace of the small town of “Heartland” by stealing the original Sgt. Pepper’s magical instruments. You know what? Don’t even try to pay attention to this film’s plot… or its character motivations, for that matter. It will only make you angry. I saw this movie in the theater when it was originally released and I even had its soundtrack, on vinyl! It’s funny how aging can turn pleasant teenaged memories memories into something sad and disappointing. When my wife and I popped the DVD into the deck, I brightly quipped: “I’ll bet this would make a great double-feature with Xanadu.” Two hours later I’d definitely changed my mind and said in apology: “I wish it had been better.” There were a lot of things that went off the rails with this film, but mostly I blame its director, Michael Schultz. There were plenty of scenes where, in spite of the obvious acting limitations of Frampton and the brothers Gibb, Schultz completely wasted opportunities to create something entertaining… or at least interesting.