Monthly Archive for January, 2013

30 Rock, Season 7

30 Rock, Season 7 (1/31/13) NBC (2012-2013 ***) Series created by Tina Fey, starring Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan and Jane Krakowski. 13 episodes, originally aired 10/4/12 – 1/31/13. When TGS (The Girlie Show) gets canceled thanks to Tracy and Jenna’s antics, Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy must accept the inevitable change and move onto the next chapter in their lives. Has it really been seven years? My wife and I have been loyal viewers of 30 Rock since it premiered way back in 2006 in the shadow of Aaron Sorkin’s similarly-premised apparent juggernaut Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Wisely, 30 Rock never allowed itself to get bogged down with the messy reality of what life backstage at a show like Saturday Night Live might really be like, other than on a very abstract level. For instance, the fictional TGS didn’t have guest hosts (at least none that I recall), and with only a few
exceptions early on, Tracy Jordan and Jenna Maroney were its only two regular players. In other words, 30 Rock‘s reality took place in a fanciful, unrealistic world filled with witty banter, a world where studio pages might just turn out to be immortal. So, now that it’s over, will I miss 30 Rock? Not really. Don’t get me wrong. It was certainly a pleasant enough diversion these past seven years, but I can’t say I got all that much enrichment in exchange for the time spent watching each and every single one of the show’s 139 episodes.

Across the Universe

 Across the Universe (1/31/13) FXM (2007 **1/2) Directed by Julie Taymor, starring Evan Rachel-Wood, Jim Sturgess and Joe Anderson, with cameos by Joe Cocker, Bono, Eddie Izzard and Salma Hayek. Set in the 1960s, a young Liverpool artist befriends a Vietnam-bound student and falls for his all-American sister. Imagine the musical Hair, re-envisioned with music by The Beatles, and you’d get something pretty similar to Across the Universe. I’ve never hidden the fact that I’ve been a pretty big Beatles fan my entire life, so I looked forward to this film. I loved the use of some of my favorite songs, in particular a lot of the more esoteric ones from the Fab Four’s catalog. With so many “expensive” songs on the soundtrack, I kept wondering what kind of music licensing arrangement the film’s producers had, and what fraction of the film’s budget went straight toward music rights. However, as much as I liked the use of Beatles tunes, the presentation of those songs seemed a bit repetitious. I lost count of how many were staged as slowed-down renditions sung wistfully while the camera orbited the singer. In other words, the songs kept hitting the same notes (pun intended) over and over. There also seemed to be a general problem of story pacing, and I question whether back-to-back psychedelic renditions of “I Am the Walrus” and “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” was the best idea. On the other hand, the use in “Happiness is a Warm Gun” of multiple Salma Hayek’s in a sexy nurse’s uniform was definitely a highlight.

Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb

 Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb (1/30/13) Graphic Novel (2012 **1/2) Written and illustrated by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm. This illustrated nonfiction book describes the science, engineering and personalities behind America’s Manhattan Project as well as its atomic aftermath. This was Fetter-Vorm’s first graphic novel project and at 150 pages it was a worthy effort. The content of the book was fine and clearly well-researched, and I appreciated the scope of the book and how the author was able to use the graphic novel format to dive in and shed some light on the scientific aspects involved. The presentation of the story’s narrative was a bit dry, and while there was some sense of the personalities involved, they weren’t explored with the depth I had expected. Oppenheimer was described early in the book as enigmatic and he remained so throughout. Reading the book made me want to re-watch the 1989 Paul Newman film Fat Man and Little Boy (named after the two bomb designs), which I don’t recall being a particularly great film. Reading Trinity, I became curious about how the 1989 film had handled the dramatization of real-world characters including Oppenheimer and General Groves. The weakest part of Fetter-Vorm’s book, unfortunately, was his artwork, which was at times so amateurish to be distracting. While I applaud his effort in executing a 150-page graphic novel project in the first place, I’m frankly more impressed that he was able to find a publisher.

Hysteria

 Hysteria (1/28/13) Netflix (2011 **1/2) Directed by Tanya Wexler, screenplay by Stephen Dyer and Jona Lisa Dyer, starring Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jonathan Pryce, Felicity Jones and Rupert Everett. In 1880s England, Mortimer Granville and Edmund St. John-Smythe invent a therapeutic electric device designed to give women relief from their… “hysteria.” This was a sweet little film, and its subject matter certainly provided ample opportunities for orgasm-based humor as well as a historical discourse on the evolving roles or women since the Victorian era. Unfortunately, though there was nothing specifically wrong with Hysteria, the film never managed to elevate itself beyond the level of competent, perfunctory filmmaking, and it was ultimately disappointing.

Uncanny X-Force: The Apocalypse Solution

Uncanny X-Force: The Apocalypse Solution (1/27/13) Comics (2011 **1/2) Written by Rick Remender, illustrated by Jerome Opena and Leonardo Manco. Originally published in Uncanny X-Force #1-4 and Wolverine: Road to Hell. Mutants Wolverine, Deadpool, Archangel, Psylocke and Fantomex aren’t afraid to get their hands… bloody. They travel to the moon to fight The Final Horsemen and to kill the reborn villain Apocalypse… who for some reason is now a small child baring an eerie resemblance to a young Bruce Wayne. This book proudly carried a “Parental Advisory” label, and contained plenty of violent imagery and situations. My favorite of which was a scene in which Deadpool (or was it the nearly identically-attired Fantomex?) fed an emaciated Archangel using chunks of meat cut from Deadpool/Fantomex’s own flesh. Ultimately, this book was a long slugfest culminating in a conclusion that may have been inevitable but wasn’t entirely satisfying. The underlying theme of the book was whether or not the true definition of a superhero was someone willing to take down a bad guy no matter what the personal cost or moral jeopardy required.

Parenthood, Season 4

Parenthood, Season 4 (1/23/13) NBC (2012-2013 ***1/2) Series created by Series developed by Jason Katims, based on the characters created by Ron Howard, starring Peter Krause, Lauren Graham, Dax Shepard, Monica Potter and Erika Christensen. 15 episodes, originally aired 9/11/12 – 1/22/13. For a fourth year, the growing San Francisco area Braverman clan continues to endure the challenges of being parents, children, siblings or all of the above. Season 4 was possibly the best season yet, offering a terrific balance of humor and pathos. Storylines this season included Max’s ascent to middle school presidency, Kristina’s cancer diagnosis and treatment, Drew & Amy’s pregnancy and abortion, Sarah’s romantic love triangle with Mark & Hank, and Julia and Joel’s difficulties with their tentatively adopted son Victor. This television season, Parenthood has proven itself to be the drama we most look forward to, and in a strange way it occupies the same entertainment “slot” that was for years occupied by the ensemble drama E.R. Though the season’s cancer storyline could have proven to be a tremendous downer, it was handled with a surprisingly deft touch without diminishing the reality of the subject. I only hope it didn’t scare away too many viewers. As of this writing, it’s still unknown whether or not NBC will renew Parenthood for a fifth season. Given that fact, its final, highly-satisfying episode was written to work as either a season or series finale. But, of course, I certainly hope it returns.

Brick

Brick (1/23/13) Netflix (2005 ***1/2) Written and directed by Rian Johnson, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lukas Haas, Nora Zehetner and Noah Fleiss. When his ex-girlfriend disappears after seeking his help, outcast Brendan leaps fists-a-flying into the shadowy world of a high school crime syndicate. Who knew being a teenager in San Clemente, California could be so hard-boiled? I’d heard about this movie back when it was originally released. It’s conceit was intriguing to me: A contemporary high school drama using dialogue and situations straight out of Raymond Chandler. Intriguing, yes, but it smelled to me at the time like a gimmick. After watching Rian Johnson’s Looper recently, I bumped Brick, his directorial debut, up to the top of my Netflix queue, and I’m glad I did. The whole film impressed me, all the more so because it was clearly made on a limited budget, yet achieved surprisingly good production values. I highly recommend it to any of my friends with filmmaking aspirations. The key to what made its “high school film noir” conceit work was that though the characters spoke in a decidedly stylized lingo, everyone played it completely straight. There was another influence at work here also, that of David Lynch, particularly Twin Peaks. Brick shared many story elements in common with Twin Peaks, which itself was heavily influenced by film noir. In a way, Rian Johnson managed to transcend Lynch, producing something that felt both… well, Lynchian, yet decidedly more grounded, making it somehow stronger. There’s yet a final visual allusion I didn’t understand and will have to Google: Why exactly did Lukas Haas’ character “The Pin” wear an outfit that made him look so much like Jonathan Frid as Dark Shadows‘ Barnabas Collins? What connection or purpose did that serve?

Lincoln

Lincoln (1/22/13) DWA Screening (2012 ****) Directed by Steven Spielberg, based on the book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, starring Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. As the Civil War winds down to its inevitable conclusion, “Honest” Abe Lincoln pulls out the political stops to get the 13th Amendment passed, thereby abolishing slavery in the United States. Let me get this out of the way first: Daniel Day Lewis was absolutely astounding in his utterly believable, nuanced portrayal of one of America’s greatest historical figures. If he doesn’t win an Oscar, I will eat my stovepipe hat. This film was marketed heavily during our recent presidential election, and released shortly after Barack Obama was re-elected. The timing of Lincoln‘s release may have been orchestrated or may have simply been a coincidence. Either way, contemporary politics made the 19th century politics portrayed in the film all the more meaningful. When one thinks of the 21st century writer’s approach to presidential political drama, it’s hard not to think of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. There was a little touch of Sorkin sprinkled here and there, but not nearly as much as I’d expected. What did surprise me was how star-studded the film was, including what seemed like scores of familiar faces, which were mostly covered by beards and handlebar mustaches. Those faces included: James Spader, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Jared Harris (Mad Men), Bruce McGill (Animal House, Quantum Leap) and many more. At one point I could’ve sworn I saw Will and Grace’s Sean Hayes in the background, but surely I was mistaken, right?

Jubilee!

Jubilee! (1/20/13) Bally’s Las Vegas (2013 ***1/2) Originally produced by Donn Arden, costumes designed by Bob Mackie and Pete Menefee. According to Wikipedia, Jubilee! has been running continuously since 1981, making it “the longest-running production show” in Las Vegas. I first saw the show when I was 18, which would have been a couple of years after it opened. Let’s just say the show made an indelible impression on me. To paraphrase my wife, “I think it might have been the boobs.” Seeing it again as a middle aged man, the topless showgirls and their… er, assets… were still pretty impressive, and in such abundant numbers, too: At one point I counted twenty-two of them on the stage at one time (topless showgirls, not breasts), but they kept moving around, so there may have been more. Flesh-tastic fun aside, I loved the whole scale of the production, which was definitely a taste of Busby Berkeley-inspired Vegas spectacle from years gone by. The costumes were fantastic and the sets were big and impressive. Everything sparkled and glistened, and there was a sense of what I believe they used to call “high class.” The show’s format was divided into big-scale musical numbers punctuated by smaller acts that included juggling, acrobatics and feats of strength. To be honest, a little of that went a long way, but the big numbers were worth the wait. One of them, “The Sinking of the Titanic,” seemed a little tonally inappropriate, given that it was basically a musical comedy take on an epic tragedy that ended in 1,500 deaths. According to Wikipedia, that act’s lavish sets go all the way back to the show’s original production. Ultimately, the best thing about Jubilee! was that the entire production was executed without one single hint of irony. And believe me, that was a pretty damned impressive accomplishment.

Walt Disney’s Donald Duck: “Lost in the Andes”

Walt Disney’s Donald Duck: “Lost in the Andes” (1/18/12) Comics (2011 ***1/4) Written and illustrated by Carl Barks. Donald and his nephews race through fantastic adventures both long and short, using their ingenuity to overcome whatever obstacles lay before them. This collection was the first volume in Fantagraphics’ The Complete Carl Barks Disney Library series and contains stories originally published in 1948 and 1949. According to the introduction, this and future volumes in the series are/will be presented in chronological order, but with the stories within each volume rearranged to balance longer stories (20-30 pages) with shorter, 10-page ones. In addition to “Lost in the Andes,” The “full-length” stories included: “The Golden Christmas Tree,” “Race to the South Seas” and “Voodoo Hoodoo.” As can be expected by any stories originally printed in the 1940s, many of the stories were not exactly politically correct by 21st century standards, and frequently depicted less-than-flattering racial stereotypes. The writing and storytelling was still exceptional, however, and it’s clear even from these early stories why Carl Barks’ reputation as a master was well deserved. In my early childhood, around age five or six, my mother encouraged my love of reading by buying me a subscription to Walt Disney Comics Digest, which I had for several years. I read those 100-page pleasures repeatedly and though I haven’t read one since childhood, I recognized at least one of the stories in this collection: “Race to the South Seas,” which pit Donald and his nephews against the despicably lucky duck, Gladstone Gander. While I enjoyed these stories, I have to acknowledge that as good as they were, they were still intended primarily for a young audience, an audience I don’t quite fit into anymore. As such, I read this book largely as an experiment. Will I buy and read future books in the Carl Barks Library? Perhaps, but likely not for awhile.