Monthly Archive for March, 2013

Bell Book and Candle

Bell Book and Candle (3/31/13) TCM (1958 **) Directed by Richard Quine, based on the play by John Van Druten, starring James Stewart, Kim Novak, Jack Lemmon, Hermione Gingold and Ernie Kovacs. A New York City practitioner of magic “bewitches” a book publisher into falling madly in love with her. (Before moving on, I want to point out that the official title of the film does not contain a comma between ‘Bell’ and ‘Book.’ I have no idea why.) I watched this film about twenty years ago, largely because of my hero worship of TV genius / legend Ernie Kovacs. Watching it again after all these years, it hadn’t improved much with age. There seemed to be a lot of “phoning it in” class of acting, with Jack Lemmon giving what seemed to be the most apparent effort. It was hard not to think of the characters Gillian and Shep as prototypes for TV’s Samantha and Darrin. Clearly the TV show Bewitched, which ran from 1964-1972) took a great deal of its inspiration from Bell Book and Candle. The film’s backstory may actually be the most interesting thing about it: Stewart and Novak had appeared earlier the same year in a slightly better-remembered film called Vertigo. Their re-pairing was no coincidence: Novak had been loaned out by Columbia to Paramount for Vertigo in direct exchange for Stewart’s appearance in this film. By the way, this comedy’s title comes from a somewhat somber source: a Catholic excommunication ceremony that begins with ringing a bell, opening a (holy) book and lighting a candle, but ends with ringing the bell, closing the book and blowing the candle out.

Talking Dead, Season 2

Talking Dead, Season 2 (3/31/13 ***1/2) Each episode of AMC’s The Walking Dead is followed immediately by high energy comedian Chris Hardwick and his guests, including Walking Dead co-creator Robert Kirkman, Andrew Lincoln, Michael Rooker and Kevin Smith. 16 episodes, originally aired 7/8/12 – 3/31/13. I still love the audacity of this show. The fact that it even exists is a kick. Hardwick continued to exude a borderline manic enthusiasm which was perfectly in keeping with heated fan discussions of the latest Walking Dead episode. The show was extended to a full hour this season, as well as stretching it to match the 16 episodes of its parent show. While there were a few instances where the show felt a little “padded,” the discussion was still a great deal of fun, and I wonder if other TV shows will follow suit. It was especially entertaining when this show’s “special surprise guests” turned out to be the actors who had just been killed off in that week’s episode of The Walking Dead.

The Walking Dead, Season 3

The Walking Dead, Season 3 (3/31/13) AMC (2012-2013 ****) Series created by Frank Darabont, based on the comic by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard, starring Andrew Lincoln, Jon Bernthal and Sarah Wayne Callies.  16 episodes, originally aired 10/14/12 – 3/31/13. Rick and company learn that their safe prison home is threatened by Woodbury, a town led by a man called The Governor. I can’t believe there are some people who think this series is dull. I enjoyed every single episode and it ranked high on my “shows I can’t wait to watch” list. As a reader of Kirkman’s comics as well, it’s been interesting to see the TV show continue to diverge from the original source material, though elements from the comics occasionally show up, as in the case of some of the characters (like Tyrell) or a certain prison telephone. Without giving anything way, I know some people were disappointed by the season’s end, but I appreciated that it was not the ending I would have predicted. I very much look forward to the next season, which I presume will start in October, and wonder if the season length will continue to expand? With its ratings, it must surely be AMC’s most prized cash cow, even though it hasn’t received much in the way of critical acclaim, like AMC’s Mad Men or Breaking Bad.

1600 Penn, Season 1

1600 Penn, Season 1 (3/30/13) NBC (2012-2013 ***1/4) Created by Josh Gad, Jon Lovett and Jason Winer, starring Josh Gad, Jenna Elfman, Bill Pullman and Martha MacIsaac. 12 episodes, originally aired 12/17/12 – 3/28/13. President Dale Gilchrist has his hands full with a strong-willed first lady and an eldest son who is an incurable romantic with his head in the clouds. In spite of myself, this show grew on me. Though the writing was a little uneven at first, it seemed to find itself about halfway through it’s short run. I can’t help but wonder if some of that enjoyment didn’t come from missing The West Wing. In many ways this show could be seen as a sit-com version of Aaron Sokin’s award-winning show. It’s a shame that the ratings were as poor as they were and that the show won’t be back in the fall. I look forward to seeing what Josh Gad (Book of Mormon, The Daily Show) does in the future. On a minor note, there’s one thing that has bugged me from the first episode: I swear that 1600 Penn‘s opening theme music was lifted directly from NBC’s geneology show, Who Do You Think You Are?

Ghost World

Ghost World (3/27/13) Sundance (2001 ***) Directed by Terry Zwigoff, based on the comic stories by Daniel Clowes, starring Thora Birch, Steve Buscemi and Scarlett Johansson. Recent high school graduate and lifelong oddball Enid befriends a middle-aged blues fan and tries to figure out her place in a world filled with people she despises. It’s always a little sad when you have fond memories of a movie and you watch it again and it doesn’t hold up. Such was the case for me with Ghost World, which I once considered a personal favorite. Watching it again for the first time in a decade, I was incredibly bothered by Thora Birch’s acting, which was frequently awkward and amateurish. However, at least some of the blame for that clearly was due to Zwigoff’s less-than-great directing. Perhaps I’m the one who’s changed, though. Instead of finding Enid as endearing and sympathetic as I once did, I found her off-putting and hard to relate to. However, the film still had its occasional moments, such as the film’s opening scene, which found Enid dancing to the Bollywood musical Gumnaam (1965). I also felt that unlike many films that start out strong then peter out, Ghost World actually improved as it went along.

Skyfall

Skyfall (3/26/13) Netflix (2012 ***1/4) Directed by Sam Mendes, starring Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney. When a former agent targets M (Dench) and MI-6 for revenge, Agent 007 must return… from the dead. It’s hard to believe it’s been fifty years since Sean Connery first appeared as James Bond in Dr. No (1962). The makers of Skyfall were quite aware of that fact and sprinkled a few choice references to Bond’s golden anniversary throughout the film. But while celebrating Bond’s past, the film made a point of setting up the franchise’s future as well. Growing up, I always saw films in the James Bond franchise as big-budget action movies that were as satisfying (and nourishing) as popcorn and didn’t require much thought. This, the 23rd “official” Bond film, certainly was satisfying on that level. Javier Bardem was amazing as Silva, Skyfall‘s villain. And the groundskeeper Kincade, who appeared in the film’s final act, looked very familiar, but I didn’t realize until looking at the credits that he was played by none other than Albert Finney! All in all, Skyfall was a jolly good show (and addition to the franchise) and worth renting. Now, if only I could find a way to get Adele’s Oscar-winning song out of my freakin’ head!

For All Mankind

For All Mankind (3/25/13) TCM (1989 ***) Directed by Al Reinert, featuring narration by Jim Lovell, Michael Collins, Alan Bean and many other Apollo astronauts, with original music by Brian Eno. Culled from 6 million feet (!) of NASA footage, this documentary takes viewers along on an amalgam of Apollo lunar missions 8 through 17. If you consider yourself a “space geek,” this film is probably a must-see. Though some of the footage Reinert chose was familiar, the majority was not, and some of that “fresh footage” was utterly thrilling. Instead of aiming for a straight informative documentary about the history of the Apollo space program, Reinert created instead a mood piece that aimed to capture the awesome wonder of the fact that we once had the audacity to put men on the tip of a rocket and blast them to the moon. The voice-over soundtrack fully supported this, featuring no real “information,” but just the sounds of communication between mission control and the astronauts as well as narration in which the Apollo astronauts attempted to describe what they were feeling during their missions. Brian Eno’s original music played throughout, effectively underscoring the overall mood. It’s worth noting that director Al Reinert went on to co-write the screenplay for the 1995 film Apollo 13, and For All Mankind clearly influenced the superb HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon (1998), for which Reinert wrote one episode and contributed to the writing of a second.

Michael Nesmith

Michael Nesmith (3/24/13) The Canyon Club, Agoura Hills (2013 ****) First, a word about The Canyon Club: On Facebook, my wife described this venue as “Roadhouse meets House of Blues meets dinner theater in a bordello.” That description was amazingingly accurate. Having said that, I’d definitely go to another show there in the future. I’ve written before that Mike Nesmith was not only my favorite Monkee when I was a kid (he was my wife’s favorite too), but his pioneering video album Elephant Parts, which intercut SNL-ish sketches with music videos, was a huge influence on my own TV productions while in college. As a consequence, I was reasonably familiar with Nesmith’s post-Monkees solo work. I knew going in that Nesmith was not planning to play much if anything from his “wool hat” years and I was concerned that the crowd would turn against him. I shouldn’t have worried. “Papa Nez” opened with one of the Monkees’ songs he wrote and is well associated with, “Papa Genes Blues,” and the crowd just ate it up. Though he’s gained a reputation over the years as an egotist and a bit of a… well, asshole, his persona for the evening was entirely affable and warm. He proceeded more or less chronologically through his FIFTY YEARS of songwriting, hitting upon some of my personal favorites like “Joanne,” “Rio” and “Cruisin’ (Lucy and Ramona).” From Nesmith’s Facebook posts, I was also used to his idiosyncratic writing voice, which he used to great effect in his song introductions. Each song was prefaced with a little framing story, creating a narrative context. It’s a technique I’ve never seen used before (at least to this extent) in a concert, and it seemed to be well-received. In all, I’m very glad to have gone. I had been frankly disappointed by the Nesmith/Dolenz/Tork Monkees show I’d seen at the Greek Theater in November, and it was nice to see one of my heroes in a much more intimate setting.

The Machine That Kills Bad People (La macchina ammazzacattivi)

The Machine That Kills Bad People (La macchina ammazzacattivi) (3/23/13) TCM (1952 **) Directed by Roberto Rossellini, starring Gennaro Pisano, Giovanni Amato and William Tubbs. In a small, corrupt Italian seaside town, a photographer is granted the power to kill with his camera. This film was nominally a comedy, and certainly it was frequently apparent that its goal was a darkish humor, but I didn’t find it especially funny. I must confess there were cultural aspects of the story I didn’t really “get,” like a running gag about a visiting American and his family having to change their accomodations over and over due to sudden and unexpected deaths. This movie has apparently gained something of a cult following due to its auspicious director, its audacious title and the fact that it was considered “lost” for so many years. Part of the story behind this film is that Rossellini more or less lost interest in the production and so it was finished by another filmmaker before originally distributing it to lukewarm reviews and box office.

The Incredible Shrinking Man

The Incredible Shrinking Man (3/22/13) TCM (1957 ***1/4) Directed by Jack Arnold, based on the novel by Richard Matheson, starring Grant Williams, Randy Stuart, April Kent and Paul Langton. Radiation and insecticide exposure cause a man to shrink and force him to come to terms with his place in the universe. Plus, he battles a tarantula to the death! This is one of those rare “classic” Sci-Fi movies that began as just another B-movie but then grew (pun intended) into something far more compelling and even mildly satisfying intellectually. Looking at the film’s credits, it’s not hard to figure that screenwriter Richard Matheson is to thank for that. I remember watching this film as a youngster (on Creature Feature, naturally) and being thrilled by Scott Carey’s miniature battle for survival but not really “getting” the film’s overtly philosophical conclusion at all. Watching it again, years later, I’m able to appreciate some of the adult subtext at work, such as knowing looks exchanged between Carey and his wife when he tells her “there’s a limit” to what she should have to accept, a reference to his diminishing capability to satisfy her sexually. There was also a strange subplot in which he falls into a somewhat suspicious “friendship” with equally diminutive (but downright gorgeous) blonde “dwarf” who’s clearly a potential romantic rival for his wife. But that storyline was killed before it had a chance to develop. I wonder whether this “emotional infidelity” subplot appeared more prominently in Matheson’s original book.