Monthly Archive for November, 2014

Young Sherlock Holmes

Young Sherlock Holmes (11/29/14) Netflix (1985 ***) Directed by Barry Levinson, screenplay by Chris Columbus, based on the characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, starring Nicholas Rowe, Alan Cox, Sophie Ward and Anthony Higgins. The teen who will one day become the world’s greatest “consulting detective” teams up with a young John Watson and together they solve their first case. I had this film, which I’d seen in the theater when it was originally released, in my Netflix queue for some time, gathering the digital equivalent of dust. Then recently I read a story (in The Hollywood Reporter, I believe) that listed Young Sherlock Holmes amongst the films to be dropped dropped by Netflix at the end of November to make room for new ones. It was fun watching it again after all these years. Tonally, this film has an uncanny similarity with the Harry Potter films, the first two of which were directed by Chris Columbus. The similarity was so striking that at one point my wife walked into the room and wanted to know why was watching Harry Potter without her. One techno-geeky trivia note: This film has an interesting claim to fame in the history of digital F/X: The scene in which a priest finds himself face-to-face with a stained glass knight was the first blend of live action and CG, and was created in a collaboration between ILM and Pixar, back when Pixar was in the computer hardware business. The young Pixar artist who worked on the shots was John Lasseter, who of course went on to direct Toy Story a decade later and has subsequently become the creative head of Disney (which now owns Pixar).

American Horror Story, Season 1

American Horror Story, Season 1 (11/29/14) Netflix (2011 ***1/4) Created by Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy, starring Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott, Taissa Farmiga, Evan Peters, Denis O’Hare and Jessica Lange as Constance Langdon. 12 episodes, originally aired 10/5/11 – 12/21/11. A therapist and his family buy the notorious Los Angeles “Murder House” and discover they’re far from its only residents. When this series was first promoted, the big question in my mind (and apparently on the minds of others in the media) was whether it was even possible to do an ongoing, non-anthology, TV series in the horror genre. Well, it was possible, and as this show began I was surprised by how many different ways its creators intended to frighten me. Obviously I didn’t watch the show as it was originally broadcast, so I had some awareness of a “reveal” of sorts that when the first bloody, bone-chilling season was over, so was the story for all the characters involved. Though I imagine it had been done sometime before, this episodic show / miniseries hybrid was (to me, at least) a fresh approach to TV storytelling, one that fit in nicely with the manner in which we’re now consuming media content, often in binge-sized gulps. (MILD SPOILER AHEAD) One of the particularly enjoyable parts of Season 1 of AHS was learning over the course of twelve episodes which characters were, shall we say, not among the living. And the cherries on top of the frightful sundae were watching the show’s characters make the same discoveries!

The Newsroom, Season 2

The Newsroom, Season 2 (11/21/14) HBO VOD (2013 ***1/4) Created by Aaron Sorkin, starring Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer, Sam Waterston, Olivia Munn and Dev Patel. 9 episodes, originally aired 7/14/13 – 9/15/13. Will McAvoy and his colleagues at the 24-hour news station ACN live the frontlines of history during the period leading up to the 2012 Presidential election. While never on par with The West Wing (1999-2006), mediocre Sorkin is still better than most television. Watching this second season of The Newsroom, I felt much of what I felt during Sorkin’s short-lived Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (2006-2007): He had a hell of a premise and setting, but he never quite managed to figure out how to make it work for him. Instead, he got bogged down with interpersonal drama that never quite hooked me. Having said that, when it comes to drama-laden workplace environments, it’s awfully hard to compete with The White House.

The New Adventures of Batman, Season 1

The New Adventures of Batman, Season 1 (11/15/14) DVD (1977 **) Directed by various, featuring the voices of Adam West (Batman), Burt Ward (Robin), Melendy Britt (Batgirl) and Lou Scheimer (Bat-Mite). 16 episodes, originally aired 2/12/77 – 5/28/77. Batman, Robin, Batgirl and other-dimensional imp Bat-Mite protect Gotham City from a variety of super villains. God bless Filmation, the “animation-on-the-cheap” studio behind so many cartoons from my childhood. And I did watch these cartoons, both when they were originally aired and later when they were re-broadcast as part of the Batman / Tarzan Adventure Hour. Believe it or not, at one point Batman and Robin were on Saturday morning TV at the same time on competing networks: This program aired on CBS and (more famously) they were also on ABC with Super Friends (1973-79, 1981). I’m sure that is the answer to a trivia question somewhere. I bought this show on DVD because it featured the voices of Adam West and Burt Ward (though sadly excluded Yvonne Craig’s Batgirl). Did I enjoy it? Well, my tepid 2-star review probably provides a clue. It was actually quite a kick to hear Adam West’s voice, and he was terrific. Burt Ward’s voice, on the other hand, was not nearly as distinctive, though it was still nice to know it was my childhood idol. I was somewhat ambivalent about the inclusion of Bat-Mite, since his presence was based on the “Scrappy Doo” cartoon fad of the time, but of course the episodes would have improved by his absence. The animation quality was certainly not up to modern standards, but I had a certain interest in seeing all the re-use of animation assets. However, after watching a couple of episodes I wound up treating it more as a radio program, half-watching while working on an art project. But even then it was lacking: The writing, was pretty mediocre and, while I acknowledge that TV animation writing has come a long way (baby) since the 1970s, I have a feeling it was even sub-par for the time. Overall, the $17.80 I spent for the 2-disc DVD was probably not the best use of my money.

Penguins of Madagascar

Penguins of Madagascar (11/15/14) L.A. Regal Cinema (2014 ***1/2) Directed by Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith, featuring the voices of Tom McGrath (Skipper), Chris Miller (Kowalski), Christover Knights (Private), Conrad Vernon (Rico), John Malkovich (Dave), and Benedict Cumberbatch, whose character’s name is classified. The world’s greatest penguins join forces with a super-secret elite squad called “The North Wind” to stop an octopus named Dave from his plans of world domination. It’s always fun to see films produced by my studio that I haven’t worked on personally, though several of my friends and co-workers did. In the case of Penguins of Madagascar, while I was generally aware of the production, I hadn’t even seen any screenings. I was delighted by the final project, which more or less picks up the Penguins’ story where Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted (2012) left off. Not surprisingly, there are a lot of great laughs in Penguins, a film that is nominally a spy spoof in the tradition of Matt Helm and Austin Powers. As with any film in that genre, there are comedy action sequences galore, and the Venice, Italy chase scene was absolutely superb!

Night of Dark Shadows

Night of Dark Shadows (11/10/14) TCM (1971 *1/2) Directed by Dan Curtis, starring David Selby, Grayson Hall, Kate Jackson, John Carlen and Lara Parker as Angelique Collins. When a painter and his wife move to Collinsport, Maine to take over a mansion they’ve inherited, they learn their new home is already occupied… by the ghost of a witch named Angelique! Look, folks: I’m a dyed-in-the-wool fan of the classic Dark Shadows (1966-1971) TV show. Hell, I even own the Barnabas Collins and Angelique action figures. But with all due respect to Dan Curtis, this second film was almost unwatchable. And to tell you the truth, I didn’t make much of an effort to follow its storyline. But hey, did I mention it features a young Kate Jackson of Charlie’s Angels (1976-1981) fame?

Swing Kids

Swing Kids (11/8/14) HBO (1993 **1/2) Directed by Thomas Carter, starring Robert Sean Leonard, Christian Bale, Frank Whaley, Noah Wyle and Barbara Hershey. Set in Germany during the rise of the Nazi party, a group of young men find that celebrating American swing dancing while simultaneously joining the “Hitlerjugend” (Hitler Youth) are mutually exclusive. You’re going to laugh at this, but I recorded this movie mainly because I confused it with Newsies (1992), a different early 1990s Christian Bale film I’ve been meaning to watch since it became a Broadway musical. And someday I shall see that film. As for Swing Kids, my main takeaway was that as much as I love swing music and movies about rebellious teenagers in general, the story contained a number of uncomfortable and awkward choices. Then again, hindsight is 20/20, and here in 2015 everybody knows that music is good and it’s not a good idea to join youth groups dedicated to the advancement of the Fatherland.

House of Dark Shadows

House of Dark Shadows (11/8/14) TCM (1970 **1/2) Directed by Dan Curtis, starring Jonathan Frid, Grayson Hall, Kathryn Leigh Scott, Roger Davis, Nancy Barrett and John Karlen. The sleepy seaport town of Collinsport, Maine gets a new resident: A 200-year-old vampire who comes across as tragically sympathetic in spite of his bloodthirsty habits. First, a confession: I’m a definite fan of the original Dark Shadows (1966-1971) soap opera, and am even old enough to have caught a couple of (literally) nightmare-inducing episodes during its original run. This feature-length re-telling of Barnabas Collins’ story, directed by the soap opera’s creator, is an odd film, and very much a product of the era in which it was produced. Sadly, it’s not a particularly good film. Unlike the TV show, which was largely shot on sets in a Manhattan TV studio, the film was mostly set on location. I can’t help but wish the production values had been better. Then again, it was a film undoubtedly produced on a budget and aimed at the teenage drive-in crowd.

The Shining

The Shining (11/8/14) MAX (1980 ****) Directed by Stanley Kubrick, based on the novel by Stephen King, starring Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd and Scatman Crothers. A writer takes a job as the winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel, but the isolation proves the old adage that “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” After watching the documentary Room 237 (2012), I felt inspired to watch its subject, a film I hadn’t seen in a long time. The Shining truly is a masterpiece, regardless of what Stephen King thought of it and whether or not Kubrick really had a secret agenda. As is the case with many great films, I’m hard-pressed to think of anything to write about it that hasn’t been written far better by others far more articulate than I. But I will offer this: There is something about the film that is so atmospheric. I wonder: Has anyone considered setting a video game in The Overlook Hotel? Perhaps it would make for a wonderful setting for an immersive experience….

Grace is Gone

Grace is Gone (11/8/14) MAX (2007 ***) Written and directed by James C. Strouse, starring John Cusack, Shélan O’Keefe, Gracie Bednarczyk, Alessandro Nivola and Marisa Tomei. When a man learns that his wife was killed in combat in Iraq, he does anything to put off telling his two young daughters. I had known about this film (and its compelling premise) from its original release, and there was something about the idea of the film that haunted me. I had a morbid curiosity about how the filmmakers would handle the pivotal scene in which Cusak’s character finds out his wife had died. I recorded Grace is Gone, meaning only to watch the first act, but of course I got sucked in. In the end, it’s really a dyed-in-the-wool slice-of-life Indy film about a tragic event. It did everything it was supposed to do, but I confess I was never at any point fully engaged emotionally.