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2005 Journal

January

February

March

April

May

June

July

August

September

October

November

December

 

A word about the ratings system used

I use a four-star rating system similar to that used by Leonard Maltin and Roger Ebert. While I'm aware there are other ratings systems, this is the one I'm most familiar with and comfortable with.

It has been observed that I have a lot of 3-star films, and in fact the films in my media journal generally receive better than average ratings. The answer for this is simple: unlike professional film critics, I am selective about the films I watch. I'm far less likely to rent or go to a film that has gotten poor reviews or word-of-mouth.

****

My highest rating, reserved only for deserving classics and for what I consider "perfect" films. These are films I feel everyone should see.

***½

Very strong recommendation. This is a film which -- if in the theaters -- I would urge my friends to go see.

***

Recommended. This is generally a good, solid entertaining film.

**½

A reasonable video rental. I might recommend it to certain people depending on specific elements.

**

A disappointment. Not worth the time it takes to watch.

*

Horrid. Something somewhere has gone horribly wrong in the universe for this film to have been made.

 

Movies and TV

 

Books and Other Media

 

January 2005

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (1/1/05) San Francisco (2004 ***) Directed by Brad Silberling, starring Jim Carrey. When a trio of children lose their parents in a fire, a distant relative takes them in, then tries to do them in. I had relatively low expectations and more or less enjoyed it. Carrey was creepy but effective, and the children were likable enough. Still, it never completely came together for me as a unified whole.

The Great Gatsby (1/8/05) DVD (1974 **½) Directed by Jack Clayton, screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola, based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, starring Robert Redford, Mia Farrow and Sam Waterston. I don't think I've watched this film since I was in high school, where I seem to recall watching it in English class. Certainly as a 40-year-old I can appreciate its themes more now, although the affectations of the idle rich characters were hard for me to believe.

Million Dollar Baby (1/9/05) Glendale Mann 4 (2004 ***½) Directed by Clint Eastwood, screenplay by Paul Haggis, starring Eastwood and Hilary Swank. I went to see Million Dollar Baby on a rainy day while still suffering from a bad cold. Once again my enjoyment of a movie was diminished by my poor hearing. Most of the dialogue in the film was mumbled. I suppose I'll have to re-watch it on DVD someday. Also, I wished I hadn't read the reviews, since I anticipated the film's "surprise turn" in its third act.

Before Sunrise (1/9/05) DVD (1995 **½) Directed by Richard Linklater, screenplay by Linklater and Kim Krizan, starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. This film was less moving and insightful somehow than I anticipated. I admire Richard Linklater for making these conversationally-dense ("talky") movies, but I wasn't nearly as involved by Before Sunrise as I was by Waking Life. Also, I don't think Ethan Hawke delivered a very compelling performance; I know it was partly his character, but he still came off mostly as a jerk at times when he should have been more sympathetic.

Hair High (1/12/05) DWA Screening (2004 **) Written, directed and largely animated by Bill Plympton. It was, I suppose, an honor to see the latest film from Bill Plympton. He was a hero of mine back when I was doing my (mostly animated) TV show in college. Largely because of pacing reasons, Hair High was barely watchable at times, though the second half picked up a bit. I suppose it's hard to reset my expectations of what a film should be, and the aforementioned slow pacing was probably out of 1-man-production necessity. Still, I admire Plympton for his efforts.

In Good Company (1/16/05) Hollywood Arclight (2004 ***½) Written and Directed by Paul Weitz, starring Dennis Quaid and Topher Grace. I'd heard good things about the movie and it was even better than I expected. The simple premise (a young boss falls for his subordinate's daughter) was well-executed. It's definitely in the categories of movies I would have liked to have made. I particularly enjoyed Topher Grace (Traffic, That '70s Show) and hope he has a good, long career in front of him.

Before Sunset (1/19/05) Netflix (2004 ***½) Directed by Richard Linklater, starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. This was my first Netflix rental! Having bought and watched Before Sunrise I wasn't expecting much from its sequel, but I thoroughly loved it. It was far more romantic than I'd expected and worked far better as a movie than the first. The fact that the characters were older helped. The conversations in the first film seemed somewhat immature, but then the characters (and Linklater himself) were a decade younger.

The Boy With the Green Hair (1/20/04) Netflix (1948 **) Directed by Joseph Losey, starring Pat O'Brien, Robert Ryans and Dean Stockwell in the title role. This was one weird-ass movie. I rented it because my Father had mentioned it in one of our conversations. It had some kind of strange peace message, but it wasn't completely clear. Or maybe it was way too clear. I don't know. At times it reminded me of an Ed Wood movie, but it wasn't quite awful enough to be entertaining. It was also odd that it starred a very young Dean Stockwell (Al in Quantum Leap) as "the boy." What an odd career that man has had, huh?

Meet the Parents (1/31/05) Netflix (2000 ***) Directed by Jay Roach, starring Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller. I am probably the last person in the continental United States to see Meet the Parents. It was enjoyable enough, I suppose. I watched the first hour while walking on my treadmill and the movie took my mind off the physical exertion. Honestly, this wasn't my kind of comedy. I just didn't appreciate the form of humor derived from a guy feeling bad about things and having everybody be mean to him. It dredged up too many old feelings from the 2nd grade playground.

February 2005

Bad Santa (2/5/05) Netflix (2003 ***) Directed by Terry Zwigoff, starring Billy Bob Thornton, with Bernie Mac and John Ritter. What's not to like about an alcoholic safe-cracking Santa Claus? Well, it took me a long time to warm up to this movie. Roger Ebert recommended it and it was directed by Zwigoff, who directed Crumb and Ghost World, both of which I enjoyed. It wasn't a great movie, but I will say this: I was certainly far more interested in the characters by the end than I was at the beginning.

The Aviator (2/27/05) AMC Theater, San Francisco (2004 ***½) Directed by Martin Scorsese, screenplay by John Logan, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Cate Blanchett. I went to see The Aviator a second time a couple days after seeing Martin Scorsese in person at Dreamworks. This was a great film. I really hope it wins the Oscar for best picture. It's grand in scale and chock-full of dead-on directing decisions. (Ed. Note [2/28/05]: Sadly, neither the film nor Mr. Scorsese won.)

Dude, Where's My Car? (2/28/05) Netflix (2000 **½) Directed by Danny Leiner, starring Ashton Kutcher. It's mildly ironic that I watched this movie after viewing Aviator the day before: When Martin Scorsese visited Dreamworks he made a joke while he was discussing film preservation about Dude, Where's My Car? I cringed a little when he said that because I'd already added the movie to my Netflix queue, primarily because I'd already queued Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, which was sort of the film's follow-up. Anyhow, Dude frequently reminded me of the first "Bill and Ted" movie (which I liked), and I'm sure that was its goal. It was dumb fun but I never really laughed. It was also fairly short too, and for that I'm grateful.

March 2005

Robots (3/11/05) Hollywood Arclight (2005 ***1/4) Directed by Chris Wedge, co-directed by Carlos Saldanha. I went to see this with the other Dreamworks character TDs (technical directors) at the Arclight at Sunset and Vine. It was a 5:25pm showing on a Friday evening, so everybody got to leave work early, which was cool. I had been anxious about driving to Hollywood, not arriving late, etc. I'd only seen one other movie at the Arclight (In Good Company) and it had been a madhouse. But enough about the theater. What about the movie? I was generally entertained and dazzled by the visuals and was frequently surprised by the high caliber of Blue Sky's animation. That's not necessarily a good sign, because it may mean I'm getting an attitude because I work at Dreamworks. Anyhooo, as good as the animation was, I got a headache watching the film. I thought it was visually rich but it was very repetitive. Someone at work said it was gorgeous but they wished things stopped moving long enough to actually look at the world. I thought the story was weak but the writing was polished. The individual dialogue was well done but it was all superficial. At no point in the film was I "moved." There was nothing genuine. Too bad.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (3/12/05) Netflix (1969 ***) Directed by Ronald Neame, based on the novel by Muriel Spark, starring Maggie Smith in the title role. This was one of those rare "classic" movies I have never seen. I expected something akin to To Sir, With Love or Goodbye Mister Chips, about a beloved teacher, and was surprised when the story went in the opposite direction: Jean Brodie did have a significant effect on her "girls," but was far from positive. I was also surprised by the nude scene between the male art teacher and one of his 17-year-old students; I had accepted the 1960's production values and wasn't expecting it. One final note: It was especially odd to watch this film after seeing Maggie Smith in the Harry Potter movies playing a variation of the same character.

Kind Hearts and Coronets (3/13/05) Netflix (1949 ***) Directed by Robert Hame, starring Dennis Price and Alec Guinness. Price played a man eighth in line to become Duke who decides to kill all the family members who stand in his way. Guinness played all the intermediate family members. It was fun in that dry English humor kind of way. I had a hard time hearing the dialogue because of my bad hearing and the fact the closed captioning kept cutting in and out, so it only worked about 30% of the time.

21 Up (3/23/05) Netflix (1977 ***½) Directed by Michael Apted. The Up series gets increasingly interesting as it goes along. Watching this program had a unique effect on me as a viewer. It made me think about my life and the lives of others in a very different way. Taking these snapshots of a set of lives at seven-year intervals was very much like a form of time travel. The relative comparisons between the lives was heart-rending at times. As a viewer I observed decisions made by the individuals and the effects of individual personalities. As they grew, some of the children were definitely on a path toward happier lives than others. It was so sad to think that Neil, who began as a happy, vivacious child went on to become a young man with such a sad demeanor and outlook on life. I can't imagine not continuing to watch this series. One negative note: I wish to hell the DVD had been closed-captioned. It was incredibly frustrating for me to watch, knowing I could only comprehend about 60% of the thick English accents made worse by atrociously-recorded audio.

Cellular (3/25/05) Netflix (2004 **½) Directed by David R. Ellis, starring Kim Basinger and Chris Evans. I found myself losing interest halfway through this movie, not a good reaction to a film that's supposed to be a thriller. I suppose it would be entertaining for the young adult audience it was intended for. So why did I rent and watch it? Roger Ebert's review indicated they did a lot of "clever" things with cell phones. I am currently working on a story involving a cell phone and thought it might help with that. As it turned out... not so much.

Dot the I (3/26/05) Hollywood Arclight (2003 ***) Written and directed by Matthew Parkhill. My girlfriend went to see the San Francisco premiere the previous night. The director was a friend of a friend of hers, and so for me that was three degrees of separation. This was awfully good for a first offering and I wondered what the production was like. The performances were convincing, but mostly people are going to be taken with the twists and turns of the plot. For the most part I saw them coming, not quite a mile away but perhaps half that distance. Overall it was still quite entertaining and I was reminded of another first-time effort: Steven Soderberg's Sex, Lies, and Videotape.

Melinda and Melinda (3/27/05) Hollywood Arclight (2004 ***) Written and directed by Woody Allen, starring Radha Mitchell, with WIll Ferrell and Amanda Peet. Richard Roeper called this the best Woody Allen movie in fifteen years. Maybe it was; Woody's had some pretty poor showings lately. The high concept at work in Melinda and Melinda was that there is actually little difference between comedy and tragedy. What difference there is mostly depends on your point of view. I found both comic and tragic sides of this tale flat. The dramatic storyline seemed like a simulation of a drama and the comic version just seemed like reheated Allenesque hash. You should know it pains me to write these words, seeing as how much I love Woody Allen's past work: His movies fill about half the slots in my all-time top-ten list.

28 Up (3/31/05) Netflix (1985 ***½) Directed by Michael Apted. Robert Ebert called this series one of the 10 best films of all time and an important use of the medium. As the series progressed it became increasingly fascinating. Watching these "children" at age 28 made me think about where I was at that age, what I was doing twelve years ago. I think about the circumstances into which I was born and how that's affected the subsequent path my life has taken. There have been so many decisions, right and wrong, along the way. Ah well, enough reminiscing, back to the film. The production values kept improving, which was sort of telling. There was an aspect to the project itself aside from the lives of the subjects. One can't help but wonder how the series had affected their lives. It was disappointing to see two of the subjects elected not to be interviewed for the 28 Up film. I suppose they had their reasons, and hopefully they'll both be back.

April 2005

Sin City (4/2/05) Hollywood Arclight (2005 ***1/4) I went with my fiancée, and I think she thought it was dumb. It sure was violent. At first I was concerned the stylized dialogue would be distracting, but it really did seem to fit the “pulpy” subject matter. One of the reviews I read indicated the movie was basically the same thing over and over again. In a sense that was accurate. As I write this it's two days since I saw it and a lot of the images have stayed with me. It's impressive that it was made for a budget of $40M and made about $28M on its first weekend. I imagine it will do quite well the second weekend too, thanks to positive word-of-mouth. Plenty of teens will go to see the skimpy costumes and buckets o' blood. In the final analysis, Sin City was a noble experiment that more or less worked. It also brought even more mainstream attention to graphic novels, which is great. Now if Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller can only team up a second time for Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, based on Miller's 1985 graphic novel. I'd love to see that movie.

35 Up (4/6/05) Netflix (1991 ***½) Directed by Michael Apted. This series kept getting more engrossing with each installment. As the participants approached my own age, it did get a little unnerving, though. In a bizarre way it was like watching myself grow up. Clearly the participants seemed to view the series as something that had been inflicted on them. I found myself wondering just how long this experiment will continue. So far no one has died. I think it is going to be fascinating to watch them continue to age into their fifties and beyond.

42 Up (4/7/05) Netflix (1998 ***½) Directed by Michael Apted. So I watched the entire series, and over a relatively short period of time. It was (and continues to be) a grand experiment. I felt a definite shift between 35 Up and 42 Up; there was an increased feeling of hope. It was nice to see Neil (the subject who had became homeless) doing well. It was also sweet to see his friendship with Bruce, and to see Bruce had finally found a wife. On the whole, I liked the subjects in the Up series. They were not only a "glimpse of England's future" but also a glimpse into my own. Watching the progression of their lives, I felt a bit better about passing onto middle age myself. At this point I've “caught up.” There are no more DVDs to rent. The next film will be 49 Up, which should be released in 2007. You'd better believe I'll make a point of watching it.

Fat Albert (4/9/05) Netflix (2004 **½) Directed by Joel Zwick, starring Kenan Thompson. At two and a half stars I'm probably being generous. There's nothing exactly wrong with Fat Albert, but the whole movie showed all the earmarks of being produced in a parallel dimension, one to which I couldn't quite relate. It was released in the theaters around Christmastime 2004 and was certainly family fare, the kind of movie one could watch with one's grandmother. I was frankly intrigued by the premise, alluded to in the trailer in which the character Fat Albert met his creator, Bill Cosby. The explanation for Fat Albert and the Cosby kids' brief sojourn into our universe was touching in a schmaltzy way and I never expected the final scene of the film to take place in a cemetery. Okay, okay, I'll admit it tugged at my ol' heart strings more than it should have. Maybe I was just tired when I watched it. Funny thing is, the theme song continues to play in my head. Like a lot of people my age I watched Fat Albert when I was young. I'd forgotten how the show played a part in my childhood and as a result it was oddly comforting emotionally to spend some time with my "old friends." Hey, hey, hey.

Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography (4/10/05) Graphic Novel (2003 ***) Written and illustrated by Chester Brown. I was intrigued when I ordered this 260-page hardcover edition. Reading the description as having been "five years in the making," piqued my interest. As an American, I wasn't familiar with Louis Riel as a historical figure and he seemed an odd choice as the subject of such an undertaking. My best guess was there was a degree of funding from the Canadian government at work, and this was acknowledged in the foreword. I thought the book was quite good but not great. The wooden presentation reminded me of historical nonfiction comics I read as a child. I felt arbitrarily separated from the characters, and in all honesty the tempo of the writing wasn't always effective. Some sections (Riel's trial, for instance) were drawn out and I almost sensed the minimalist drawings were due to the work being padded. The violent aspects of the story also seemed uninvolving; the gun battles were depicted as if observed from a distance. Overall, Louis Riel was a solid work, but I only wish a talent like Brown had devoted his time to a project with greater universal appeal.

Millions (4/10/05) Los Feliz 3 (2004 ***½) Directed by Danny Boyle. This was an uplifting film, the kind of which they should make more. I was originally going to go see The Upside of Anger but my friend Kevin -- who'd seen both films and whose opinion I respect -- recommended Millions as the better choice. I'm glad he did. Danny Boyle had previously directed Trainspotting and 28 Days Later. Much has been written about Millions being a major departure for him. I don't know. There were certainly some disturbing horror-like elements in the film. Though it seemed to me like it ran out of steam in the 2nd half of the 2nd act, it was nice to be reminded that there are innocents who live in our world with all us cynical sons of bitches. And perhaps there's even an occasional saint as well.

Stan Lee's Mutants, Monsters & Marvels (4/12/05) Netflix (2002 ***) Directed by Scott Zakarin. This wasn't really a movie, but you know what? I'm gonna give this DVD three stars because I enjoyed it about that much. Of course I'm what they call a "fanboy" when it comes to comic books, so your mileage may vary. It was genuinely nice to see Kevin Smith talking with Stan Lee. One thing that came across in the interview (recorded prior to the release of the first Spider-Man movie) was that Smilin' Stan may be a little delusional, but not in a bad way: he described a cameo of his that was cut from the Spider-Man film and a line he had that was (mercifully) dropped. In his inflated opinion it would have "made the movie." Hell, at his age I guess he can believe what he wants and nobody will argue. Kevin Smith was not the worst interviewer in the world, but somebody should have told him not to continually go "Uh-huh, uh-huh..." with a live microphone; that was distracting. On a personal note, I actually saw Stan Lee in person recently. He was at Dreamworks for a meeting and I saw him in the hallway. Why he was there I had no idea. When I saw him I did a minor double-take, then smiled and he smiled back. It was nice. I suspect he enjoys spending his golden years basking in the glow of all the adulation he gets. He sure as hell deserves all of it.

Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (4/13/05) Netflix (2004 ***1/4) Directed by Danny Leiner, starring John Cho and Kal Penn, with Neil Patrick Harris. Much has been made of the scene in which “Doogie Howser” snorted cocaine off a hooker's ass. That was just one of the many amusing scenes in Harold and Kumar. I had heard it was a fun movie and it definitely is of the "pot-smoking buddy picture" genre. To my way of thinking, there's nothing wrong with that. Certainly the movie wasn't deep, but it was slightly meatier than its predecessor, Dude, Where's My Car? Near the end of the film, Kumar tried to convince Harold to hang glide off a cliff to avoid incarceration. He gave a short speech about how they were pursuing happiness just like their parents when they came to America. There was just enough sincerity in his words for me to buy it just a little bit. Yes, White Castle hamburgers are a fitting metaphor for the greasy apex of the American dream. Throughout the movie, race was an issue, but again it wasn't, if that makes sense. I can't help but wonder if the "white" in "White Castle" was intentionally symbolic. Or maybe the writers were just smoking a lotta doobie when they wrote the script. Extreeeeme!!

KILL Smallville ("Onyx") (4/13/05) TV-WB (2005 **½) After what seemed like months of reruns, the first "fresh" episode featured the tired "evil twin" plotline, this time with Lex Luther breaking apart into good and evil halves. At one point the evil Lex leered at, then kissed Lana Lang, causing Kristin Kreuk (the actress who plays Ms. Lang) to do that weird thing she does with her eyes where it looks like she's losing a contact. I ask myself sometimes why I continue to watch Smallville even though it's clearly treading water downstream. I don't have a good answer for that; maybe it's just a habit I can't break.

Revelations (Pilot) (4/14/05) TV-NBC (2005 ***) Created by David Seltzer, starring Bill Pullman and Natascha McElhone. I recorded the pilot episode of the show the preceding night and watched it while walking on my treadmill. To tell you the truth, I expected it to be way dumber than it was. I wasn't crazy about them using video footage of people jumping from high-rise buildings in the title sequence, though. Pullman's cynical, unbelieving scientist was teamed with a true believing nun played by Natascha McElhone. Why did that pairing dynamic sound familiar? Oh yeah: A little show called The X-Files. Some of the story elements were engaging, such as the mysterious shadow of Christ on the cross on a mountainside. When the shadow's head turned, it was kind of cool. This was supposed to be a midseason six-episode miniseries but I wonder if the powers that be aren't aiming to put it on the Fall schedule. I would bet money that's what will happen if the ratings are strong enough. The main downside to that scenario is it means the earth probably won't meet its "end of days" five weeks from now. Too bad. So, will I tune in next week? Almost certainly.

Dark Shadows Reunion (4/14/05) Netflix (2001 **½) This was an amateurish video recording of an on-stage 35th anniversary cast and crew reunion taped at the Director's Guild (DGA) in LA. Series creator Dan Curtis and several cast members engaged in discussion and took questions, though Jonathan Frid (Barnabas Collis) was notably absent. Because I'm a fan, this was mildly entertaining for me and certainly cheaper than going to a convention. The special features included an interview with Frid on the Merv Griffin show and an interview with Joan Bennett on the Mike Douglas show. Thanks to the dated early seventies production aesthetics, both interviews were surreal as hell.

Writers on Comic Scriptwriting, Vol. 2 (4/16/05) Nonfiction (2004 ***½) Written by Andrew Kardon & Tom Root. I’m currently studying comic writing and illustration in the hopes it will help me in the production of a project of my own someday. Awhile back I’d bought and read Artists on Comic Art and enjoyed it thoroughly. The format in this book was the same, with each chapter devoted to an in-depth interview with a different writer. As a result, I really felt like I got a sense for what it’s like to be a comic book writer: How they work, how they interact with artists, what their considerations are when working on a projects featuring well-known and lesser-known characters, how many books they’re able to write at any given time. When I originally ordered it from Overstock.com, I didn’t realize I had ordered the "sequel" edition, and so I’m very much looking forward to reading Comic Scriptwriting 1 when it arrives.

Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein, Book One: Prodigal Son (4/18/05) Novel (2005 ***) Written by Dean Koontz and Ed Gorman. I bought this in the St. Louis airport for a return flight to California. To be honest, I was hoping to pick up a paperback copy of The Davinci Code, which everyone seems to be reading these days. On the shuttle bus to the Burbank airport I saw a man with a copy. Perhaps his was a bootleg or maybe they were sold out. I don’t know, but it certainly wasn’t for sale when I attempted to buy a copy. Anyhow, Mr. Koontz’s reinvisioning of the Mary Shelly classic wasn’t nearly as dumb as I’d expected. I’ve only ever read one of his books, Demon Seed, a thoroughly idiotic book about a self-aware household security system. Koontz's Frankenstein was mildly entertaining and, thanks to the larger-than-normal typeface, a pretty quick read.

Another Nail (4/18/05) Graphic Novel (2004 **) Written by Alan Davis. I was lying in bed sick one morning and I needed something kind of dumb to pass the time. I’d bought and read this book before. It was a disjointed follow-up to The Nail, a DC superhero graphic novel I quite enjoyed. The premise of that book was what the DC universe might have been like had the Kents not discovered the infant Superman. One of the highlights of the original book was a scene in which a very twisted Joker tortured and killed Robin and Batgirl before Batman‘s horrified eyes. Another Nail continued the story more or less from where it left off, but the story was confusing and jumped around, featuring far too many characters, and I couldn’t describe the plot if I tried.

Pennies From Heaven (4/18/05) Netflix (1978 ***) Directed by Piers Haggard, teleplay by Dennis Potter, starring Bob Hoskins, Gemma Craven and Cheryl Campbell. This was the 1978 BBC miniseries on which the Steve Martin / Bernadette Peters film was based. Hoskins played its main character Arthur, a sheet music traveling salesman with his head in the clouds. The video I watched contained the first two episodes (of six, I think) in the series. It was entertaining and there was certainly a lot of good depression-era music to enjoy. It shared much in common with the big-budget American film, and it was obvious where bits and pieces of scenes and dialogue had been lifted directly. I will probably watch the remainder of the series at some point, but it’s not high on my list. To be fair, I know the way the story ends and seeing how it's an awful downer, I may put it off for awhile.

Teen Titans Vol. 1: A Kid's Game (4/18/05) Graphic Novel (2004 ***) Written by Geoff Johns. This book got fairly good reviews on Amazon, so I thought I'd give it a try. I have a long history with the original Teen Titans; seeing my uncle's collection of them (only a few issues, actually) when I was four or five is part of what started me collecting comics in the first place. The goal of this particular incarnation, I think, was to re-inject a level of the fun of the original series with the continued mythology of the early eighties. Johns' storytelling was generally good, though I got the sense the focus was on establishing the characters and relationships more than on an actual "plot." It might have been nice if there'd been a meatier main story.

Vernacular Drawings (4/18/05) Book (2001 ***½) Illustrations by Seth. I'd been meaning to buy this book for some time, but had a hard time justifying the (non-autographed) cover price of $35, even though the production of the book was beautiful. Seth explained in the foreword that the definition of "vernacular" in this context means "ordinary." Almost all the drawings -- cartoons, really -- were taken from published photos and advertisements in old magazines. Only the later drawings were drawn from photographs taken by Seth himself. I found the collection especially interesting because for the past few months I've been copying images myself, though not with the intent of "cartoon-izing" them. I've also long been fascinated with the same iconography that seemed to captivate Seth: Images of burlesque performers, men in 1950's business suits, portraits of the American and Canadian landscape, circa 1947 and before. It was a grand, admirable collection and I'm proud to have finally gotten around to owning it.

The Hospital (4/19/05) Netflix (1971 ***) Directed by Arthur Hiller from a script by Paddy Chayefsky. This is one of those movies I rented from Netflix, thinking I'd never seen it. Well, it turns out I have, though I wasn't able to find any evidence of exactly when in my film journal. Chayefsky's dialogue reminded me of what "real" writing can be. George C. Scott's character screaming "We cure NOTHING! We heal NOTHING!" certainly reminded me of Chayefsky's Network.

The Stepford Wives (4/22/05) Netflix (2004 **) Directed by Frank Oz, starring Nicole Kidman and Matthew Broderick. This was one of those times when I rented a movie even though I’d heard it was bad. Well, it was, and I could tell that from the very beginning. The writing was so weak it made me crazy. It’s hard to understand how this kind of movie gets made. Who was responsible for making the bad decisions? Was it the director, the producer? Surely the actors knew their dialogue was far from sparkling. The deleted scenes showed that most of the planned effects for the film ended on the cutting room floor. Why? Well, they were creepy. Also, the "Inspector Gadget" effects revolved around the identity of the women as robots. I guess someone in a boardroom somewhere decided it was better to leave that a bit more ambiguous. By the way, the surprise ending they hyped so much? Not much of a surprise, actually.

Open Water (4/24/05) Netflix (2003 ***) Written and directed by Chris Kentis, starring Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis. This shot-on-video "based on a true story" cautionary tale was better than I'd expected. Still, there was an occasional element of "not quite professional" acting and directing. I had a personal reason for wanting to watch: A number of years ago I was on a SCUBA trip in the Bahamas and there was a... mishap. As a result I have more than a little fear of the “open water” as well as a fear of putting my hands in professionals only to realize later that they're just a bunch of goofballs and my life was lower on their list of priorities than their suntans. I wondered if watching Open Water would stir up any old feelings, and it certainly did. Will I ever get "back on the horse" and go SCUBA diving again? Only time will tell.

Absolutely Fabulous: Series 4 (4/24/05) DVD (2001 ***) Series created by Jennifer Saunders, starring Saunders and Jane Horrocks as Joanna Lumley and Julia Sawalha. This was one of those shows that played frequently on Comedy Central and I'd always intended to watch it, but it just seemed to require so damn much attention. Someone at work was selling the fourth season DVDs for $5, so I figured "why not?" I watched the whole series on one lazy Sunday afternoon and for the most part I enjoyed the episodes. I liked the verbal humor a lot and the female slant on the writing. The question remains: Do I like it enough to Netflix more episodes? Not quite. It was an awfully noisy program to watch.

Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return (4/24/05) Graphic Novel (2005 ***½) Written and illustrated by Marjane Satrapi. This was the sequel to the autobiographical Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, which described what it was like to grow up as a young girl in Iran. That book concluded with 14-year-old Marjane sent to live in Vienna. In Persepolis 2, Marjane described her teenage years and twenties and how she returned to and ultimately left Iran. This book included her first relationships and failed marriage. In many ways it was a straightforward account as Satrapi described the "dark" chapters in her life, such as how her boyfriend's fear of arrest led to her becoming a drug dealer. Later, she avoided arrest (for wearing lipstick) by creating a diversion by accusing an innocent stranger of shouting sexually suggestive remarks. The illustrative style was far from polished, but it was effective and appropriate. As with any autobiographical comic work, the reader had to meet the material half-way. In the case of Persepolis, it was well worth the effort.

Piled Higher and Deeper: A Graduate Student Comic Strip Collection (4/25/05) Comic strips(2002 ***) Written and illustrated by Jorge Cham. Jorge was a graduate student at Stanford when he did his weekly strip, which for five years was published in the Stanford paper. Thanks to the internet, it eventually found an audience in the graduate student population worldwide. I met Jorge once through a mutual friend, Nico Scapel. Heavily influenced by Doonesbury (acknowledged in the foreword), the strip gave the reader a taste of graduate student life. I was one of those once, actually, but since my graduate program was in art, not engineering, I never had to go through much of what the PhD's did. As a result, my appreciation of Cham's material was semi-vicarious. That said, I have a great deal of respect for what it took to produce such a body of work.

The Great Train Robbery (4/27/05) Netflix (1979 **) Written and Directed by Michael Crichton. Crichton is, of course, the mastermind behind Jurassic Park and TV's ER. I rented this movie because for some reason I was curious about his skills as a director. I found it interesting he was -- given his limited credentials at the time -- allowed the opportunity to helm a big budget (for 1979) action adventure picture starring Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland. I guess I found out just what the deal was: Both his storytelling and directing were reasonably competent, but far from inspired. The phrase that kept leaping to mind as I watched was "left-brained." The "heist" story (based on actual events) was clearly plot-driven, but unbearably linear. Even the "monkey wrench" complications resolved themselves in a frustratingly linear fashion. Characters behaved in erratic ways only to serve the plot, and so on. Ultimately I was disappointed. The movie was watchable, I suppose, but there was little in its content worth recommending.

Brief Encounter (4/28/05) Netflix (1945 **½) Directed by David Lean, based on a play by Noel Coward. Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard play a married woman and man who find themselves almost, but not quite, having an affair. I'd never seen the film before and was hoping it would be one of those rare discoveries, but it disappointed me. The film was just so overwrought and melodramatic. Clearly times have changed since 1945 and a woman being tempted to cheat on her husband doesn't carry the same dramatic weight it once did. It was interesting to see one of David Lean's earlier directorial efforts, though; The film was beautifully shot. In the interest of journalistic honesty, I must admit I was irritated the DVD wasn't subtitled and only half-watched the second half of the movie while doodling in my sketchbook.

 

May 2005

Batman: Hush, Vol. 1 (5/5/05) Graphic Novel (2004 ***) Written by Jeph Loeb and illustrated by Jim Lee. Someone at work recommended this book and since I'd already been thinking of buying it, I did. I guess I was a little let down. Lee's art is beautiful to look at, but the story never elevated beyond a standard Batman tale. Despite appearances by Catwoman, Poison Ivy, Killer Croc, and Superman, I had expected more. My biggest complaint was that the character psychology of Batman himself just didn't seem to ring true. A personal note: I read this book the same day we closed on our house in Glendale.

Monk: Season 1 (5//7/05) Netflix (2002 ***½) Series created by Andy Brekman. I finished watching the 4-DVD set of the first season of Monk, starring Tony Shalhoub as the former police detective with obsessive-compulsive disorder. This show airs on USA and I've been aware of it but never really watched it. A great thing about Netflix and the current state of the DVD industry is it is possible to watch all these shows I missed because I was too busy doing other things when they originally aired. One of the first things I noticed when I started watching the show was how great the premise was. The obvious literary predecessor for Adrian Monk is Sherlock Holmes. Monk's OCD drives the show and is, as they state a few times during the course of the series, both a blessing and a curse. It allows him to identify and solve these difficult cases, yet it is also the source of constant anxiety. While I don't have OCD, I certainly have certain OCD traits, so I could readily identify with this conflict. The OCD also provided a rich source of comedic potential, allowing Monk to work both as a police procedural and a comedy program.

Countdown to Wednesday (5/7/05) Netflix (2004 ***) Directed by Hal Long. This was a documentary about the modern comic book production process and featured interviews with a dozen or so professionals, including Stan Lee and Marc Silvestri. Countdown painted what I would imagine to be an accurate picture of the dedication and hard work it takes to succeed in various roles in the system. In fact, the film was organized by job description: Writing, Penciling, Inking, Lettering, Coloring, Post Production. This documentary definitely wasn't for everybody. I would imagine 95% of the general population would find it terribly dull. For me, an aspiring graphic novel creator, it was an excellent resource, underscoring much of what I've been reading about recently. I suspect this DVD was produced primarily for sale at comic conventions. The production values (especially the lighting for the majority of the interviews) were solid for the most part, but I did find the "pop-up" crawls on the screen bottom a little distracting.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (5/8/05) Los Feliz 3 (2005 ***) Directed by Garth Jennings, based on the books by Douglas Adams, starring Martin Freeman, Mos Def, Zooey Deschanel and Sam Rockwell as Zaphod Beeblebrox. I've been waiting for this movie for a long, long time. Hell, I even remember when John Landis was slated to direct. I was understandably concerned when Ebert and Roeper both gave it downturned thumbs that it might... er... suck. But I was pleasantly surprised. I liked it well enough, though that may have been because my expectations were appropriately set. It was a good, sweet tribute to Douglas Adams, actually. The casting was perfect, and I enjoyed the cameos from the old BBC series too, including Simon Jones and the original Marvin the robot.

Cats (5/12/05) Fred Kavli Theater, Thousand Oaks (2005 **½) I can't remember the last time I've been to see a live musical production. Don't get me wrong; I love them but never think to buy tickets. My friend Jennifer offered me two tickets which her parents (season ticket holders) had given her. I didn't relish the thought of driving all the way to Thousand Oaks, but one of my co-workers went with me and he did the driving. I had seen Cats twice before: Once in London in 1988 or '89, the second time at the Winter Garden in NYC. Both those shows were in smaller theaters, and the "cats" were able to climb around through the audience. The touring company performance was performed on a normal stage and so it was limited in that sense, and it wasn't nearly as effective. There were a number of musical interludes where the performers were engaged in their cat-like choreography and it seemed so "flat"; it was very different when it took place all around me. I remembered a real "magic" that was missing in this version. Quite frankly, the cast was made of reasonably talented individuals (some more so than others) who could either sing or dance but nobody could really do both exceptionally. The sound levels also seemed weird, as if some of the singers were electrically enhanced and others were not. When the show ended, only half the audience stood and applauded. I applauded but remained seated. The show's lasting impression? It made me want to plan a trip to New York City to see some real Broadway shows.

Y: The Last Man: Unmanned (5/16/05) Graphic Novel (2003 ***) Written by Brian K Vaughn, illustrated by Pia Guerra. After hearing good things about this series, I finally broke down and bought the first book, which collected the first six issues of the comic. The premise seemed a bit lame: What if there was a plague that wiped out all men on the planet except for one? It sounded like a weak Twilight Zone episode. And yet the execution made it feel fresh. This wasn't great comic fiction, but it was certainly entertaining. Was I captivated enough to buy more volumes? Not quite, but I might be willing to pick them up on sale.

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (5/18/05) DW Screening (2005 ***) Directed by George Lucas. It was an honor to get to attend an industry screening of the film the day before it opened. Fox/Lucas didn't have to do that, of course. I had heard mixed things about the film, but mostly good. Good ol' Ebert and Roeper gave it two thumbs up on this past weekend's show. I liked it more than I disliked it, though that's not saying much, I know. I can't say I was ever moved emotionally, but I never expected to be. There was certainly plenty of action to make up for it. Looking back, I could swear 25% of the screen time was devoted to some form of swordplay. Surely that can't be correct, right? Some of the dialogue was absolutely dreadful, though, and had the audience laughing aloud. Far more clever writers than I have skewered Lucas for choosing the names "Count Dooku" and "General Grievous," which unfortunately came into play frequently in the first act. Finally, I'll offer my pet theory about why Samuel Jackson's acting was so stiff: He was trying not to laugh!

Madagascar (5/21/05) DW Screening -- Universal City Cinema (2005 ***½) Directed by Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath. Seeing how I worked on Madagascar for nearly two years, there's no way I can be objective. I gotta say though, it all came together pretty damn nicely. It took me long enough to see it, even though it's not coming out for general release until the 27th: I didn't make it to San Francisco for the wrap party a couple weeks back and I could have seen it then. I really did enjoy it, though, and the humor and animation style worked nicely. I'm proud of the role I played in it. Now, I can only hope it does well at the box office, even though it opens in the shadow of guaranteed blockbuster Star Wars: The Revenge of the Sith.

Old School (5/24/05) Netflix (2003 **½) Directed by Todd Phillips, starring Luke Wilson, Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn. I was in the mood for a mindless comedy with a bit of gratuitous nudity thrown in and this film delivered. I watched it over a couple of evenings following an exhausting move to my new house. There's nothing special to recommend this movie, but like I said it was dumb enough for my worn-out brain. Watching Will Ferrell's bare ass running down the street was about as funny as I expected. The guy's got guts, I'll give him that.

The Da Vinci Code (5/30/05) Novel (2003 **½) Written by Dan Brown. Yes, it's true. I'm the last person in the WORLD to read this amazingly best-selling book. And you know what? As I read, I was flabbergasted it has sold as well as it has. It was a real letdown. Without a doubt, Angels and Demons is a superior book, especially in terms of pacing and action. Dan Brown is the master of the end-of-the-chapter cliffhanger and The DaVinci Code started out following that pattern, but then the cliffhangers became less and less engaging. I still don't know what motivated some of the characters to behave the way they did. All in all, it was still entertaining, because Brown is a decent writer. But God (or Jesus) only knows what inspired the massive rolling snowball of sales.

Carnet de Voyage (5/31/05) Graphic Novel / Sketchbook (2004 ***½) Written and illustrated by Craig Thompson. Thompson is the writer/artist of Goodbye, Chunky Rice and Blankets. I was touched by this autobiographical sketchbook journal of Thompson's, which chronicled his 2004 travels through France, Morocco, and Spain. Though he's ten years my junior, as a fellow Midwesterner, I could truly relate to what he wrote about and to his point of view. It was inspiring to see his drawings, which depicted what he himself was inspired by along the way. Works like this make me hopeful about the potential of comic books and graphic novels. Appropriately, I finished reading Carnet on a long airplane ride returning from vacationing in Mexico, the first time I'd left the United States in ten years.

 

June 2005

Road Trip (6/1/05) Netflix (2000 *½) Directed by Todd Phillips, starring Breckin Meyer, Amy Smart, DJ Qualls and Tom Green. You know what? I should have just stopped watching this piece of shit after about ten minutes. Why I continued onto the end I have no idea. I think I was just tired and didn't have the gumption to get up and change the DVD.

Jack Paar: As I Was Saying… And More! (6/3/05) Netflix (2003 ***) Directed by Michael Macari Jr. For those of you who don’t know -- and sadly there are more than a few of you -- Jack Paar was the host of the Tonight Show for five years, following Steve Allen and preceding Johnny Carson. Focusing on conversation rather than the comedy/variety aspects of the show, he laid the groundwork for Carson. He was the host at the time of the assassination of JFK and had both John and Robert Kennedy on his program. Since I was a young boy, I’ve had a soft spot for Jack Paar; don’t ask me why. Watching the clips and interviews in this retrospective was a pleasure. Jack Douglas, one of his writers, went on to write a series of humorous autobiographical books which I very much enjoyed. Steve Allen, Paar, and Carson all passed away within the past couple of years, and I feel very much like something has been lost with their passing.

Late Night with Conan O’Brien 10th Anniversary Special (6/4/05) Netflix (2004 ***) There’s an unintentional irony in the fact that I watched this program the night following watching a Jack Paar retrospective. I’ve always liked Conan O’Brien, but it’s been years since I stayed up late enough to watch his or any of the late night talk shows. It’s hard for me to believe it’s been so long since Letterman went to CBS and Conan took his vacated seat.

The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (6/5/05) Netflix (2004 **½) Directed by Stephen Hopkins, starring Geoffrey Rush and Charlize Theron. This made-for-HBO biopic had a lot of style, but still left me wanting. Rush did as good a job as anyone could have done, I suppose. It was well done for what it was, and seeing the recreations of Sellers’ films was cool, but the scenes of Sellers’ spousal abuse turned me off and my interest waned. What was missing, I think, was a feeling of focus or of growth. In the lingo of the Hollywood mavens, there wasn’t a clearly-defined "character arc." That’s probably unfair in a biopic that strives to remain true to its source material while retaining a degree of sympathy for a man who’s been dead for 30 years. More than anything else, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers made me want to watch Being There (one of my all-time favorite films) again. Unfortunately, it’s one of the few DVDs I do not yet own.

Beyond the Sea (6/9/05) Netflix (2004 ***) Written and directed by Kevin Spacey. Starring Kevin Spacey. Produced by Kevin Spacey. Buy the Beyond the Sea soundtrack and get eighteen Bobby Darin songs sung by Academy Award winning actor... Kevin Spacey. Here's what I think: When this movie worked it worked well. The musical numbers were a delight. There was an abundance of directorial "style" all over the film. And yes, Kevin Spacey has one hell of a singing voice and stage presence. But even with all that, the film still felt uneven. Some of the dialogue was clunky and the "fight" scenes between egomaniacal toupee-wearing Bobby Darin and alcoholic-in-denial Sandra Dee were grating. There were many scenes in which Darin interacted with his younger self, and that could've been engaging, but it wasn't consistent. It's interesting that I watched this shortly after The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, which took a similar approach and suffered from some of the same issues. Then again, maybe that's the nature of the biopic. When you take a person's life and force it to conform to a three-act structure, what does that yield? Well, it gives you a strong first act as your subject (be it Bobby Darin or Jim Morrison) rapidly rises to the top. Then the second half of the second act is devoted to some kind of existential malaise. The third act rises to a screaming crescendo as they make a miraculous comeback and/or come to terms with their inner demons... shortly before they expire.

Cinderella Man (6/12/05) AMC San Francisco (2005 ***½) Directed by Ron Howard, starring Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger and Paul Giamatti. I had heard great things about this film, most recently from my father. It was well written, well directed, well acted. And it truly was a "feel good" movie. Telephone-throwing antics aside, Russell Crowe is one hell of an actor. I can't think of anyone better, come to think of it. Paul Giamatti turned in another superb supporting performance. The story really did make me want to stand up and cheer at times. Sure it was manipulative, but I wasn't in an especially cynical mood the day I saw it and so that didn't bother me.

Imitation of Life (6/16/05) Netflix (1934 **½) Directed by John M. Stahl. I rented this as the first half of a double feature, which had two versions of the same film on alternate sides of one DVD. Pretty cool. I think I may have seen this film a long time ago in film class -- parts of it looked awfully familiar -- but I'm not positive. The 1934 version (the subject of this review) starred Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers as white and black women who end up wealthy business partners. Beavers played a character based on Aunt Jemimah, whose fair-skinned daughter wanted to pass for white. Though there was another subplot with a mother and daughter in love with the same man, that was the central conflict in this melodrama. I'm only giving the film two and a half stars, because it really was quite dated and even though it's story nominally supported positive race relations, a lot of the racial stereotypes and language were painful to hear. Also, the story structure was lopsided: the first half went fast and the second half dragged. I never really bought the mother-daughter love triangle, either, mostly because the man they loved claimed to be 37 but looked 50. He also looked and acted pretty... well, gay. Criticisms aside, I look forward to watching the Lana Turner version; it's a unique opportunity to contrast and compare multiple takes on the same story. What changes were made in the remake, I wonder?

Imitation of Life (6/17/05) Netflix (1959 ***) Directed by Douglas Sirk, starring Lana Turner and Sandra Dee. I watched this 1959 version the night after watching the 1934 version. As I predicted, it was an interesting experience and terrific opportunity to compare the two. Much had shifted in the remake. The male love interest was introduced much earlier on and that storyline was resolved differently. The film was more wardrobe-driven too: Each scene was an opportunity for Ms. Turner to wear a different outfit. Granted, the 1934 film fit well into the melodrama genre, but in the '59 version everything was dialed up. People yelled and slapped each other in a style that laid the foundation for TV's Dynasty years later. Had I not just watched the 1934 film, that over-the-top soap opera aspect may not have been so readily apparent. There was also a hint of sex introduced quite early on. The "Aunt Delilah pancake queen" bit was dropped and instead Lana Turner was a struggling actress who made it big on Broadway. This provided a "glimpse" of the theater's "seedy underbelly," with implications of the casting couch. All in all, there were some elements I liked better in the '34 version and a few I liked better in the '59 version. I'm rating the latter slightly higher, in part because the racial aspects of the story were handled in a slightly less offensive manner, reflecting a change in attitudes in the 25-year gap. Though less naturalistic and gritty, the Lana Turner remake was ultimately more entertaining.

Out of the Past (6/17/05) Netflix (1947 ***½) Directed by Jacques Tourneur. Robert Mitchum starred in this archetypal noir thriller. And when I say archetypal, I mean it. All the genre elements were present, and in generous quantities: Tough guy private eyes, double-crossing (pardon me ladies) dames, plot twists and turns, car chases, rat finks getting plugged by a .38, bodies buried in the woods in the middle of the night. Jane Greer played the knockout and Kirk Douglas's steely eyes lit up the screen in a minor -- but important -- role.

Batman Begins (6/18/05) Glendale Mann 10 (2005 ***½) Directed by Christopher Nolan, starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine and Liam Neeson. I'm going to join the throngs of reviewers who have written that this was a wonderful movie, one that will surely revive a franchise nearly extinguished by Joel Schumacher's Batman and Robin. Beyond that, however, I want to offer a slightly more personal take: You see, I've always been a Batman fan. I loved the 1960's TV show so much as a child (I was 3 when it premiered) my mom painted a Batman insignia on the headboard of my bed. In emulation of my hero, I broke my arm when I was eight playing "Batman and Robin." Many of my first attempts at comic illustration featured a familiar character in gray tights and a blue cape. Through the years I read the exploits of "the world's greatest detective" and spent my allowances collecting back-issues.

When Tim Burton's Batman was released in 1989, I left the theater... angry. This anger led to a night of heavy drinking in which I remember slurring the words "I don't know who that was, but that wasn't f**king Batman!" In the throb of my hangover the next day I wondered: What had Mr. Burton done to favorite childhood hero? I had foolishly expected something more closely following the path laid out by Frank Miller's 1985 The Dark Knight Returns comic. Instead, Batman was set in a weird Edward Scissorhands Gotham City, enveloped in a soundtrack from the unmade 3rd film in the Pee Wee Herman series. It was as though the train had started out on the right track but then some crazy station master's assistant had thrown a switch, leading it onto a splinter line. In my mind, it was all... wrong.

That's why, sixteen years later, it was such a special delight to see Christopher Nolan do it so right. Don't get me wrong; I can appreciate the financially and creatively successful high-concept studio principals behind the creation of the 1989 film. And Tim Burton's version did show a certain vision. Over time, I even got to the point where I could appreciate and even enjoy it. But it's taken a mental compromise: Were I to watch it today, I would think of it as a kind of "alternate universe" Batman. Tim Burton's Batman. But now at long last I have a Dark Knight Detective without compromise, one that's spiritually in sync with my childhood hero. My sincere, grateful thanks to everyone involved.

Friday Night Lights (6/22/05) Netflix (2004 ***) Directed by Peter Berg. Billy Bob Thornton delivers once again, in a controlled, measured performance. The film's mission was to show the path from pre-season practice to state championship through the eyes of a coach and his 17-year-old football players. I don't want to give too much away, but the filmmakers took a real chance story-wise, and so it's not like every other sports movie. Then again, maybe it is. The best sports movies, like Cinderella Man (which I watched a little more than a week ago), are about much more than the sport itself. Okay, okay. That's a statement so self-evident it's almost trite. Cinderella Man was about finding hope in a decade when the nation was flat on its back. What was Friday Night Lights really about? Was it, as Thornton's character said in his final locker-room pep talk, about being able to look your fellow teammates in the eye, knowing you truly did your best? Yeah, something along those lines. Cynics might call that a cheap sentiment, but in my playbook it's still a good lesson to remember.

Pardon my Sarong (6/23/05) DVD (1942 **½) Directed by Erle C. Kenton, starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Most of my movie-viewing lately has been driven by my Netflix queue, so it's been a while since I've watched one of the Abbott and Costello films from the DVD sets I bought last year. I picked up where I left off in the series with Pardon My Sarong. According to the production notes, it was the 2nd highest grossing movie of the year, surpassed only by Mrs. Miniver. Though there's nothing wrong with the film, there was nothing special about it either. The A&C formula definitely was strongly in evidence, and -- in a way -- self-defining. I must confess my interest waned about halfway through and I half-watched while doodling in my sketchbook.

Who Done It? (6/24/05) DVD (1942 ***) Directed by Erle C. Kenton, starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. I have fond memories of watching this particular movie played late at night on KMTV’s Creature Feature program. In fact, I remember falling asleep halfway through, probably more than once. It was a fun romp with "the boys" sleuthing around a radio station in New York City, and it is definitely one of my A&C favorites!

National Treasure (6/25/05) Netflix (2004 ***) Directed by Jon Turteltaub, starring Nicholas Cage. You know what? This was the filmic equivalent of junk food. There was nothing wrong with it and it was entertaining. My attention didn’t waver, but it also didn’t leave me completely satisfied. Nicholas Cage is an okay actor, I suppose. He has his Oscar and all, so I hope he’s satisfied with that. I don’t know what more to say about this other than that when I originally saw the trailers for it I thought it was a blatant attempt to exploit the success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

Bewitched (6/26/05) Glendale Mann 10 (2005 **) Directed by Nora Ephron, starring Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell. I probably should have gone to a different movie instead. Or at least I should have checked rottentomatoes.com before seeing this. So why did I go? I was intrigued by the postmodern possibilities of the premise and the fact that the film was directed and co-written by Nora Ephron. Kidman as an actor is teriffic, Ferrell is a wonderful comedian, Bewitched was a great TV show… but it just didn’t come together as anything beyond mediocre. Unfortunately the magical potential was never realized, and that’s sad.

The DC Comics Guide to Inking Comics (6/26/05) Nonfiction (2003 ***½) Written by Klaus Janson. Janson's claim to fame is he inked Frank Miller's now classic The Dark Knight Returns. I'm giving this book a relatively high review, even though I think it could have been better. It's one of the few books currently available devoted entirely to inking comics, which is a shame. The text was clean and easy to follow, and it definitely offered some insights into the inking process. It was written at a level that was appropriate to... me. However, it seemed abbreviated, pared down. Much of the real estate in the book was devoted to images. Thankfully, the majority of them illustrated specific concepts. In general, I'm glad I bought the book and I got some good useful information from it. I only wish it had gone into greater depth.

War of the Worlds (6/28/05) Universal Citywalk (2005 ***½) Directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning. Membership has its privileges. In this case, my day job at Dreamworks Animation extended to a pre-opening-day employee screening of what is sure to be the blockbuster of the summer. Spielberg has demonstrated once again that he's more than just a famous guy; as a director, he really knows his stuff. For the past two decades, he's alternated between popular films and personal ones. With War of the Worlds he's shown he doesn't just have to do Schindler's List OR Jurassic Park, but can mix elements of the two.

The 9/11 references were inescapable, and the film didn't pull any punches. In a twisted way, one might even see this movie as part of the national healing process. Rated PG-13, there were some pretty damn intense scenes. I took a friend (who works at Disney) as my guest and she watched half the film peering between her fingers. There was a genuine sense of mortal peril too; as an audience member I truly believed a number of times that Tom Cruise or Dakota Fanning or the teenage son might well be destroyed by the enemy menace.

Now with all the praise I'm giving this "setting the bar" movie, I have to also say it's not perfect. One example: Tim Robbins as the "creepy guy in the basement with a shotgun" (I'm sure that's how he's listed in the credits) was a strange choice. The audience I was with laughed when his familiar face appeared. Also, there were a few more "tugging the heart strings" moments than were absolutely necessary.

Still, it was a real thrill, with a lot of neat touches. Things to watch for: (1) There was an amazing, technically seamless single-shot scene in a minivan with the camera passing through the walls of the car at will. (2) There was a clever reference to ET involving a bicycle, a treat for the observant. All in all, it was a tremendous film and I hope it attracts a lot of lazy Netflix-addicted folks back into the theaters!

 

July 2005

The Bourne Identity (7/1/05) Netflix (2005 ***½) Directed by Doug Limon. I watched this with my fiancée after a long day of looking at potential wedding locations. Funny thing, we’d both seen the sequel but not the original. It’s really quite good. On one of the DVD extras, Matt Damon spoke about how their (his and Limon’s) intent was to deliberately break the "action/adventure" mold by having the action character-driven instead of having things blow up every eight minutes. I think they were successful; the film had a very modern feel to its flow.

Mr. And Mrs. Smith (7/2/05) Universal Studios Citywalk (2005 ***½) Directed by Doug Limon. It’s sheer coincidence my fiancée and I went to this film the night after watching The Bourne Identity, also directed by Limon. My friend Kevin told me he’d enjoyed Mr. And Mrs. Smith, so I was looking forward to it, and it certainly did deliver in terms of pure entertainment value. The action set pieces were exciting and the one-liners were funny and delivered with grace. Where it fell a little short was story, but thankfully I wasn’t expecting much of that. It was a fine star vehicle for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. They both photograph well, that’s for sure!

Mad Hot Ballroom (7/3/05) Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena (2005 ***½) Directed by Marilyn Agrelo. This was my fiancée's pick and it was an excellent one. Enormously entertaining, this documentary followed several groups of 10-year-old's in the New York public school system as they progressed through a ballroom dancing module and into the citywide finals. An excellent use of film. I can't help but wonder how the film's subjects felt about the result. People caught in the act of being themselves are sometimes a little... goofy.

Best in Show (7/7/05) Netflix (2000 ***½) Directed by Christopher Guest, written by Guest and Eugene Levy. Set at a dog show, this was another of Guest's wonderful "mockumentaries." Fred Willard (who I honestly never liked until this movie) was a standout, delivering some of the funniest lines in the film. Much of the humor was skewed and subtle, so I can understand why not everyone would be as entertained as I was. It's been two years since A Mighty Wind came out; I wonder what Guest and his ensemble have planned for us next?

Frazetta: Painting with Fire (7/14/05) Netflix (2003 **½) Directed by Lance Laspina. This was a sometimes-interesting, well-produced documentary about fantasy illustrator Frank Frazetta. Of special interest to me were interview snippets from some of my favorite comic book illustrators: Neal Adams, Bernie Wrightson, Dave Stevens. One image I kept going back to was a shot of aan amazingly good still life Frazetta painted when he was eight years old; he truly was a child prodigy. What I didn't like so much about the documentary was it seemed meandering and unfocused. There was no real sense of beginning, middle, and end. Still, the production values were impressive and the Photoshop animations with Frazetta's famous artwork were well-executed.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (7/16/05) AMC Van Ness, San Francisco (2005 ***) Directed by Tim Burton. I'd heard mixed things about this movie, and have read the news stories in which Johnny Depp vehemently denied basing his character on Michael Jackson. I personally didn't see the resemblance to Jackson and had an overall good time. The Oompa-Loompa effects and musical numbers stood out -- visual eye-candy, if you will -- though I couldn't make out most of the lyrics; I look forward to the subtitling on the DVD. While there are many scenes and elements that directly paralleled those in the 1971 film (which I've loved since childhood), there were many differences as well: Willy Wonka's candymaking origin was explored, which gave rise to a different sort of ending, one not nearly as satisfying and heartwarming as the original. The ending of that film still tugs at my heartstrings after all these years.

The Last Shot (7/19/05) Netflix (2004 ***½) Written and directed by Jeff Nathanson. This film only got 2.5 stars on Netflix, so my expectations were fairly low. But you know what? I thought it was hilarious! I laughed out loud several times, thanks to clever lines like: "I tried committing suicide twice: Once in the bathtub... and once in Switzerland." Alec Baldwin and Matthew Broderick were so fun in this "based on a true story" comedy. The producers must've worked overtime too, because there were a ton of famous faces in supporting roles and cameos, from Calista Flockhart to Tony Shalhoub. It was also nice to see Buck Henry again.

The Love Bug (7/20/05) Netflix (1968 **½) Directed by Robert Stevenson. I was inspired to rent this because of the recent release of Herbie: Fully Loaded (which I didn't see). I realized it had been years since I'd seen the original, and had fond memories of it. Like the man said, they don't make 'em like that anymore... and with good reason. Watching it was... er, challenging at times. The writing and acting were so stylized and exaggerated. You might ask what the producers at Disney were smoking in the late sixties, but of course all they were doing was making a product to be consumed by an audience of kids and their parents. It was fun that so much of the film was set in San Francisco, a city I've come to know and love. At 108 minutes it was a bit too long, though, and the story structure seemed lopsided; there was a great deal of plot development in the first half hour, but then the last hour of the film was devoted to racing scenes and corny gags. I can picture parents my age renting this movie to watch with their children. And I can picture those young kids saying, "What the hell is this?"

Six Feet Under -- Season 3 (7/21/05) Netflix (2003 ***½) Thank God for Netflix! The Six Feet Under DVDs are prohibitively expensive, and I don't understand why. I guess their fans are loyal enough to shell out $90 or more for a DVD set. Not me. I've watched the season 3 discs over the past couple of months. The first episodes in the season truly impressed me. Something about the writing was sharp, yet sublime. The characters were given real issues to deal with and seemed to pop off the screen. It was interesting this season to watch Claire deal with her first year as an art student; I could relate as she struggled to "draw a perfect circle." As the season wore on I felt the writing lost a little of its earlier charm. Situations seemed a bit more random and disconnected, both physically and thematically. After Lisa's disappearance, Nate -- arguably the central character -- became sullen, drunk, and 1-dimensional. All in all, it was another fine year in the Fischer funeral home. Though I suppose I'll have to wait for nearly a year for its release on DVD, I look forward to season #4.

Fantastic Four (7/23/05) Glendale Mann 10 (2005 ***) So here’s the deal: I’m giving FF three stars, because I just plain enjoyed it and I wasn‘t bored. After watching it get trashed by critics, I really didn’t expect much. In fact, I was going to give the movie a pass completely, but then I read a review by Fred Hembeck on his blog. He said he’d gone in with reduced expectations and really ended up liking it. So I figured: "maybe it’s not so bad." Perhaps it's relevant that I’m a Fantastic Four fan from way back when, and I have to say I’ve been waiting my whole life for a movie version. It certainly was not what I envisioned in my dreams, but then my take on the franchise for a long time has been that it should have been done as a period piece, set in the early 1960’s during Kennedy’s term in office. They should have played up the B-movie science fiction aspects, which, in a way, I suppose they ultimately did. Anyhow, I generally thought the movie was fun and good, mindless summertime fare.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (7/26/05) Book (2005 ***) Written by J.K. Rowling. I had read in a review that one of the "beloved" main characters died in the end of book #6. Whether that happens or not I'll not say, but that thought was in the back of my mind as I read this 650-page book over a weekend and a couple of evenings. When I finished, I was mostly satisfied but not totally. Rowling is a good writer and is a master of the chapter-end cliff-hanger page-turner. Her writing in this book was simple but deft.

The situations in which Harry found himself ranged from those of a typical sixteen-year-old to that kind of mortal peril found only in the wizarding world. That actually was kind of a balancing act, one I found didn't always work. Honestly, it was a little weird when Potter was torn between focusing on: (a) his love life; (b) his schoolwork; (c) the upcoming Quiddich tournament; or (d) playing a central role in the fight against Voldemort and his army of death eaters. Hmmmm. Giving Rowling the benefit of the doubt, perhaps there was a deliberate message: life is composed of "big stuff" and "small stuff" and both have importance. Sounds reasonable enough.

This being the sixth book in a seven-book series, there was a lot of set-up for the final installment. I think that was to be expected. Reading Half-Blood Prince, I found myself thinking about the movie franchise: Will it sustain? The fourth film comes out in November. How do the actors feel about their commitment to Hogwarts? There has been an intertwined relationship between the book and film versions of the Potter stories; I must admit it is easier for me to recall details from the books that have been made into films.

Fat Actress: Season 1 (7/27/05) Netflix (2005 **½) Series created by Kirstie Alley and Brenda Hampton. Part of the joy of Netflix is being able to watch (or half-watch) shows that originally aired on premium channels I don't get. When the marketing blitz for the show was going on I was intrigued, but... no Showtime, no show. Mere months later I was able to watch all seven half-hour episodes on DVD, though most of the time I drew in my sketchbook while it played. Fat Actress was a pseudo-reality Arrested Development-style show about Kirstie Alley's life, which has been augmented to a ridiculous degree with fictional elements, such as when her crackhead brother came for a visit. Each episode was co-written by Brenda Hampton and Kirstie Alley, though one of the bonus featurettes made a point that there was a great deal of dialogue improvisation. The show was watchable but little more; I wanted to like it more than I actually did. Looking back, I probably could have passed on watching the series, but at least my curiosity has been satisfied.

The King of Comedy (7/27/05) Netflix (1983 ***½) Directed by Martin Scorsese. I don't think I've seen this film since the late eighties. Poor Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro). At times his heartfelt disconnect with reality was hard to watch. He wanted so badly to get his comedy stylings on the Jerry Langford show that he kidnapped the host with the help of a crazed fan played by Sandra Bernhard. Jerry Lewis was an interesting choice as Langford. He played kind of a one-note character who alternated between stoic and pissed off. I can't help but wonder if it would've been better had the part been played by someone else. Still, it was a good film. Not Scorsese's best, but good.

The Bad Seed (7/28/05) Netflix (1956 ***) Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, based on the play by Maxwell Anderson. How this movie came to to end up in my Netflix queue, I do not recall. Basically this was a story about a very naughty little girl, who was not merely a "bad seed," but an eight-year-old evil homicidal murderess. The whole story played out like a... play. The dialogue and action were very stage-like. Watching it in the year 2005, this "cautionary tale" came off as over-the-top and melodramatic. A modern remake -- not that I'm suggesting it would be a good idea -- would have ample opportunities for explicit violence and gore. In fact, some of the 1950's restrictions yielded some unintentionally amusing moments: (minor spoiler) At one point the girl set the creepy handyman (played by familiar character actor Henry Jones) on fire and he ran screaming around the house. But you don't actually see his charred body; what you saw instead was the girl's mom watching from the living room window, her head panning slowly as she watched. It was freakin' hilarious, I tell ya! Well, I guess you just had to be there... The trailer (which I watched as part of the bonus materials) asked the audience not to reveal the film's "shocking climax" at the end of the film. I'll respect their request, but let me just say it was amusing in its own bizarre way.

Batman: Black and White (7/29/05) Graphic Novel (1998 ***½) Written and illustrated by a variety of writers and artists in anthology form, the preface made it clear that was really the point. This edition collected the first several issues of the mid-nineties series. It was a good read, though most of the dialogue and text was minimal, allowing the primary focus to be -- without the distraction of color -- the fantastic artwork.

Beg the Question (7/30/05) Graphic Novel (2002 ***½) Written and illustrated by Bob Fingerman. I’ve seen Fingerman’s art before, but I wasn’t really familiar with his body of work. I picked up this book (a collection of stories originally published in Minimum Wage Comics) because… well… er…. Okay, okay, it was on sale in hardcover for $4.95, and it was hard to go wrong at that price. I was intrigued by the absolutely solid cartooning style and also by the story, about a young 22-year old cartoonist and his girlfriend living and loving in New York. The story covered the period between proposal and their marriage ceremony. There was a lot to like about this work, which came across as a very polished underground comic. How autobiographical this book was I don’t know; at one point the author himself made a "guest appearance" in the offices of a porn magazine. One of the cover review/blurbs pointed out Fingerman’s fearless dealing with issues of sex, relationships, pornography, race, and abortion. That was certainly a true statement, I never felt the stories were exploitative.

 

August 2005

I Remember Mama (8/2/05) Netflix (1948 **½) Directed by George Stevens, starring Irene Dunne. So I got an itch to watch some "lost classics." These are well-known films I somehow never managed to get around to watching. I Remember Mama fell nicely into that category. Some films, like The Big Sleep, have stood the test of time and are just as fresh today as they ever were. Some do not, however, and sadly I Remember Mama is one of those films. I'm a sentimental sap and all, but it was far too saccharine for even my tastes. I imagine it might send some of my more cynical friends and colleagues into a diabetic coma.

Goodbye, Mr. Chips (8/3/05) Netflix (1939 ***½) Directed by Sam Wood, starring Robert Donat and Greer Garson. If you read yesterday's review of I Remember Mama, I criticized it for being too sickening sweet. Goodbye, Mr. Chips was sweet too, but far more palatable, somehow. I think it's because the story showed the progression of teacher Chips over his lifetime. It opened with him as an aged, venerated teacher, but then went back and showed how he was not always so universally beloved by his students. He had to be taught how to love and be loved. A very sweet film, indeed, but in a good way.

Unfaithful (8/6/05) Netflix (2002 ***) Directed by Adrian Lyne, starring Diane Lane and Richard Gere. This was a well-crafted film populated with characters who rang true. It was also nearly unbearable to watch at times. Diane Lane played a woman who made the transition from bored homemaker to adulteress. Richard Gere went from clueless workaholic to cuckold to... something else. Was it involving? Somewhat. Do I intend to watch it ever again in my lifetime? Nah, that's okay.

Wedding Crashers (8/7/05) Mann 10, Glendale (2005 ***½) Directed by David Dobkin, screenplay by Steve Faber and Bob Fisher, starring Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn. It was Sunday morning and after a few hours of housework I was in the mood to see a matinée. That's the way my brain works. I considered my options; I still wanted to see The Bad News Bears, but checking Rottentomatoes.com showed it as being "mostly rotten." On the other hand, Wedding Crashers got surprisingly high reviews. I didn't expect much, to be sure. The first time I saw the trailer I figured I'd give it a miss and catch it on Netflix in a year or two. It was promoted as firmly set within that "junk comedy" genre that includes all the Rob Schneider films. And so -- yo-ho-ho -- expectations set on "low" I went to see it and -- lo and behold -- I was pleasantly surprised to be entertained from the first scene and throughout the film.

Constantine (8/7/05) Netflix (2005 ***) Directed by Francis Lawrence, starring Keanu Reeves and Rachel Weisz, based on the the comic book Hellblazer by Garth Ennis. At the SIGGRAPH computer graphics conference the first week of August 2005, I saw a presentation by one of the technical directors who worked on the “hell effect” that was used in about three minutes of this film. Kind of a throw-away Netflix rental, I surely didn't expect much from Constantine. It got lukewarm-to-negative reviews when it was in the theaters. But I liked it well enough in a comic book kinda way. It definitely had a graphic novel sensibility. What do I mean by that? There was something "comic bookish" in the way the characters were designed and revealed and the way things played out, with certain twists along the way. It was very easy to imagine the whole thing in graphic novel form.

Hitch (8/12/05) Netflix (2005 ***) Directed by Andy Tennant, screenplay by Kevin Bisch, starring Will Smith, Eva Mendes and Kevin James. Smith plays a professional cupid able to help everyone but himself. I expected a pleasant, light romantic comedy, and was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the writing. Sure, there were a number of contrivances and plot holes, but it was also quite entertaining. Not great cinema to be sure, but fun.

Hotel Rwanda (8/13/05) Netflix (2004 ***½) Directed by Terry George. Don Cheadle was amazing in this true story of a hotel manager who, through his heroic action, saved more than 1300 people. The film showed the transition from suburban middle class status quo to genocide. Some of the scenes were truly horrific, yet the film was only rated PG-13. Very moving stuff. I can't imagine actually going through something like that, yet in 1994 it really happened.

March of the Penguins (8/16/05) DWA Screening (2005 ***) Directed by Luc Jacquet. One of the cool things about working at Dreamworks is the free screenings! I liked March of the Penguins but didn't love it. The production values were good but not great; Much of the footage was grainy and/or muddy, especially the night scenes and underwater footage. It was, however, fascinating to get a glimpse into the lives of emperor penguins as they braved the harshest environment on the planet in order to procreate. Kudos to the production crew for working in such brutal frigid conditions.

Baby Boom (8/17/05) Netflix (1987 ***) Directed by Charles Shyer, starring Diane Keaton and Sam Shepard. I hadn't watched this film in years, and frankly it was a bit dated. The film was certainly pleasant enough, but there was ultimately no real meat to its message. The story structure seemed a bit odd, too. While on the one hand it was a classic example of the 3-act frame, the narrative seemed stretched during the first half of the 2nd act and compressed during the second half. The problem was that while enough time supposedly passed for JC Wiatt (Diane Keaton) to build her gourmet baby food empire, the baby didn't get any older. Also, Keaton's chemistry with Sam Shepard as her token love interest was virtually non-existent.

The Ben Stiller Show (8/18/05) Netflix (1992 ***) I think I'm one of the few people who actually watched this show when it originally aired on Fox in 1992. It had some funny moments, though the show clearly ran out of steam toward the end of its 13-episode run. In fact, the final episode was virtually unwatchable. I'm still not sure how Stiller, a virtual unknown at the time, got his own sketch comedy show. He had good company, though, sharing the spotlight with Janeane Garofalo, Andy Dick and Bob Odenkirk. The show was self-effacing from the very beginning, which may have contributed to its limited appeal and weak ratings. There was one ironic moment when Dennis Miller talked with Stiller about cancellation and told him not to worry about it, that he would go on to bigger and better things. And indeed he did.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin (8/21/05) Glendale Mann 10 (2005 ***½) Directed by Judd Apatow. Steve Carell played Andy, the title character in this comedy about a nerd who never quite got around to having sex. I liked this movie a lot. As a shy, late-blooming, comic-collecting self-described geek, I could truly identify with the film. Though hilarious, there was a spine of truth that ran throughout; As crazy as things got, it never strayed far from that reality. The dialogue was raunchy, but occasionally inspired. In one brilliant scene, two of Andy's buddies played a violent videogame while verbally attacking each other's heterosexuality. It sounds odd to describe, but the dialogue rang particularly true.

Inn of the Sixth Happiness (8/23/05) Netflix (1958 **½) Directed by Mark Robson. Ingrid Bergman played an Englishwoman who dearly wanted to be a missionary in China, though her fixation was never adequately explained. I'd never seen this movie and it got very positive reviews on Netflix. I was hoping for a "lost classic," but was somewhat disappointed. Filmed for Cinemascope, the film was beautiful to look at but was at least 45 minutes too long and was weighed down by superficial characters and over-the-top melodrama and schmaltz. Based on a true story, it was obviously intended as a vehicle for Bergman as she attempted to regain her status on the American screen.

Road to Perdition (8/24/05) Graphic Novel (1998 ***) Written by Max Allan Collins, illustrated by Richard Piers Raynner. This work was the basis for the Tom Hanks / Paul Newman film, which I haven't watched since it was originally released, even though I own a copy. According to the book jacket, it took Raynner four years to complete the illustrations for this book. The story -- about a father and son on the run in the 1930's -- was interesting enough, though I don't really know how to judge Collins' writing; it's never made much of an impression on me. In this book the text was often quite sparse, with far more action than dialogue. I'm primarily recommending this book on the basis of the near photographic illustrations, though that recommendation comes with one important reservation: the characters' faces were far too amorphic; the central character, Michael O'Sullivan, was at times drawn to resemble disparate visages ranging from Kirk Douglas to Boris Karloff! Almost certainly that was done for deliberate effect, but it was often only by context that he was identifiable.

My Man Godfrey (8/25/05) Netflix (1936 ***) Directed by Gregory La Cava, starring William Powell and Carole Lombard. As your friendly neighborhood hearing-impaired movie reviewer, I find myself in an awkward situation: You see, the quality of this DVD was atrocious: The sound was muddled and there were no subtitles. As a result, I had an especially difficult time understanding the dialogue. I probably only heard about half of it, honestly, so can I truly judge it? I'll do my best. It was an enjoyable, virtually textbook, screwball comedy and I'd love to see it again if it ever becomes available in a better print. There was much to like about it, though the character played by Carole Lombard was so deranged it defied belief that socialite-turned-bum-turned-butler Godfrey wound up falling in love with her. (Apparently Powell was married to her for awhile in real life!) As was the case of many depression-era screwball comedies, the rich were portrayed as asylum escapees and the city dump-dwelling destitutes were portrayed as saintly, noble gents simply "down on their luck."

The Brothers Grimm (8/28/05) Glendale Mann 4 (2005 *½) Directed by Terry Gilliam. I wanted to like this movie, but it was just an unholy mess. I couldn't understand a damned thing the characters were saying and didn't really care about them anyhow. Everything about the film was just muddy, which is truly too bad, since Gilliam once directed three of my favorite films of all time: Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Fisher King. Such a shame, such a waste.

Heaven (8/28/05) DVD (1987 ***) Directed by Diane Keaton. Does heaven exist? What's it like? Is there love in heaven? What do people really believe? This documentary film, with a short running time of 70 minutes, was evenly-divided between clips of old films and interviews with (mostly) oddballs. Its recurring (and repeated) theme was "are you afraid to die?" I first saw Heaven in 1988, shortly after it was released on video, and I've watched it a number of times over the years. According to my movie journal, I last watched it two years ago on 8/16/03. At the time I gave it ***½ stars. This time around I cajoled my fiancée into watching it and her response when it was over was: "This is one of your favorite movies?" I still have a soft spot for the movie, but I kind of saw her point. Yes, I give it extra points for the audacity of its subject matter. But I'm older now and my point of view has shifted. The eccentric pyrotechnic visuals added little or nothing to a real understanding of the afterlife. I would love to see another film on the same subject, but handled very differently.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (8/31/05) Netflix (1966 ***½) Directed by Richard Lester. Zero Mostel was at his very best in this madcap romp that never quit. Phil Silvers (who just looks weird without his trademark glasses), Jack Gilford, and Buster Keaton were a delight. It's hard to believe skinny little Michael Crawford went on to be the heartthrob (I guess) of Phantom of the Opera. Though I'd seen Forum on Broadway in the late 90's during Whoopi Goldberg's run, I can't believe I never saw the film version before now. It was the epitome of the 1960's film, and a jolly fun time. Richard Lester -- who also helmed The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night -- did a masterful job, though some of the arbitrary handheld shots bugged me. And just when you thought it was all over, Richard (Roger Rabbit) Williams' end titles/credits sequence provided a little bonus treat.

 

September 2005

Harold and Maude (9/3/05) DVD (1971 ****) Directed by Hal Ashby. I watched H&M with my fiancée, a little fearful of whether she'd love it as much as I; a friend from work had suggested I break up with her if she didn't! Thankfully she embraced the film, even crying appropriately at the end. The film itself truly held up to the passing of the years. I saw it for the first time when I was a sophomore in high school and it will always hold a special place in my heart. I hadn't seen it in a couple of years but the dialogue remained indelibly etched into my memory. There are some films where the casting was perfect. I couldn't imagine anyone other than Marlon Brando playing Vito Corleone, nor could anyone other than Bud Cort have played the young, death-obsessed Harold. Ruth Gordon was nothing short of splendid as the sunflower-loving (and life-affirming) Maude. Their pairing was inspired.

Visions of Light (9/4/05) Netflix (1993 **) Directed by Arnold Glassman. I didn't realize until just now (as I was looking up the "directed by" info) that this documentary was produced over a decade ago. It seemed a tad fresher, somehow. While its makers aimed for a fixed target and hit close enough to that mark, I was actually disappointed. I had hoped for a documentary that would truly dig into the nuts and bolts of cinematography and lighting, and Visions of Light merely skimmed that surface. Simply put, I learned nothing from it I didn't already know. The take home message -- one that was certainly consistent with the mission of the AFI -- was that old films and the people who made them should be admired and revered. In my case they were truly preaching to the choir.

The Constant Gardener (9/5/05) Glendale Mann 10 (2005 ***½) Directed by Fernando Meirelles. Meirelles directed the critically-acclaimed City of God, which I never got around to seeing. I recently read an essay by screenwriter Terry Elliot in which he wrote that good movies often run a close race with their lesser twins. It's easy to see how The Constant Gardner could have gone terribly awry. The effervescent visual style wasn't the obvious choice for the John le Carre thriller. But somehow the unconventional marriage of form and substance worked on its own terms, much like the complex marriage portrayed in the film. Leaving the theater, I felt as though I had visited Nairobi and London and Amsterdam. I even felt a little like I'd had the shit kicked out of me in my hotel room... but in a good way.

No Plot? No Problem! (9/7/05) Nonfiction (2004 ***) Written by Chris Baty. Baty's claim to fame is that he started the "National Novel Writing Month" (Nanowrimo.com) writing marathon. Each November, thousands of people worldwide attempt to write 50,000 words of prose in the space of thirty days. I gave it a shot myself back in 2001; I burst through the 50,000-word mark but only made it about halfway through my outline. Whether that constituted success or failure is not for me to say, but I'm considering running again this year, with the intention of making not only the word count, but creating a book with a beginning, middle, and end. What a concept! At any rate, Baty has written a 50,000-word book all about how to accomplish such an insane goal. He coaches potential Nanowrimo participants through the process... and beyond. Though mildly interesting, I didn't get much from the book that I didn't already know. As a writing book, it worked in the context of the contest, but the emphasis on making your word counts by any means necessary may not encourage the best writing. To be fair, the end of the book was devoted to revision and the polishing of one's book -- should it be deemed worthy -- and Baty estimated that process to take about a year.

Gidget (9/8/05) Netflix (1959 *) Directed by Paul Wendkos. The first word that comes to mind in describing this movie is... “creepy.” There was an ugly undercurrent of pedophilia throughout, and I got the sense that Gidget was written, directed and produced by perverts. So just why on God's green earth did I add it to my Netflix queue in the first place? Simple: After watching Beyond the Sea, I thought it might be a hoot to watch an old Sandra Dee movie. It seemed an innocent enough choice, but boy was I in for an unpleasant surprise. Some of the writing was so awful it reminded me of Ed Wood's Glen or Glenda. A surprisingly frequent focus of the film was the fact that Ms. Dee's 16-year-old bosom was less than ample. Compared to her busty friends, she was as flat as her second-hand surfboard. All the surfer boys either ribbed her repeatedly about her lack of... boobage or (brrr...) kept finding excuses to touch her inappropriately. Cliff Robertson played a 40-year-old nihilistic "surf bum" who lived on the beach. (Apparently you could do that in 1959.) In one scene, Francine (AKA "Gidget," short for "girl midget") went with him to his friend's romantic beach shack, putting her virtue and virginity at risk. She did this ostensibly to make her crush Moondoggie jealous, but it didn't really make much logical sense. Anyhow, the whole film was "wrong" on a variety of levels and left a rotten taste in my mouth. To top it all off, even though Gidget was originally shot in Cinemascope, the DVD version was pan and scan. Yeccchhhh!

Breakfast After Noon (9/8/05) Graphic Novel (2001 ***) Written and illustrated by Andi Watson. I bought this book based on the positive reviews on Amazon.com. It was okay, but didn't have the emotional weight of Blankets or Jar of Fools or other comparables in the genre. The book was set in England and followed the relationship of an engaged couple who suddenly found themselves out of work and on the Dole. This change in their economic landscape resulted in increasing tensions. Aside from that, not much really happened, though. Rob (the male character) slipped from denial to depression while his fiancée Louise took computer retraining classes. The resolution (which I won't reveal) seemed less than natural and I didn't personally believe it. It was a quick read -- 200 pages took me about an hour -- with more visuals than dialogue, Watson's deceptively simplistic (and undoubtedly economic) drawings were appropriate to the subject matter... but... several times I wished he had provided more detail and nuance in the characters' expressions.

Writing Treatments that Sell: How to Create and Market Your Story Ideas to the Motion Picture and TV Industry (9/11/05) Book (2003 **½) Written by Kenneth Atchity and Chi-Li Wong. I read this on a flight to and from St. Louis. I must confess I was disappointed; I expected more emphasis on the actual writing of treatments, but instead the focus of the book was split between story structure and the business of selling your story ideas. Having read a number of books on story and writing screenplays, this limited the usefulness of this book for me. Also, the few examples of treatments that were included were pretty weak. The authors used examples from their clientèle, which were mostly made-for-TV films I'd never heard of. I expected far better.

Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (9/17/05) DWA Screening (2005 ***½) Directed by Nick Park and Steve Box. Wallace and Gromit are such gentle, beloved characters. The Curse of the Were-Rabbit took them from their award-winning animated short roots to feature length, and I think the transition worked. I saw the film in a packed theater, full of Dreamworks employees and their families. Kids and adults alike seemed to have a jolly good time, myself included. There were plenty of homages to classic horror films and a few twists and turns even I didn't anticipate. I can't help but wonder how it will compare against Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, which is coming out about the same time. Corpse Bride looks slicker and more modern, due at least in part to the digital cameras used. I worry W&G's box office will be negatively affected by the fact it's more old-fashioned in appearance.

The Hot Rock (9/19/05) Netflix (1972 **) Directed by Peter Yates, screenplay by William Goldman. The Hot Rock was a caper movie, a star vehicle for Robert Redford and George Segal, with Zero Mostel thrown in for good measure. The best way to describe this film is it was a prototype for later, better-executed movies like The Sting (1973) or The Italian Job (2003). Throughout the film, every choice the writer and director made was obnoxiously obvious. The characters were broadly drawn and their motivations were not terribly subtle. At one point Redford's character basically spelled out his obsession with being "jinxed" in a manner that was not even slightly believable. All the characters were quirky for the sake of being quirky. Sadly, there was zero on-screen chemistry between Redford and Segal, and no attempt was made at exploring their (potentially buddy) relationship. In a way, the film was a cliche' of a cliche', and worked as a specimen of a developing genre. It may be a good movie to show in a film class as an example of what not to do.

Lord of War (9/20/05) Universal Studios Citywalk (2005 **) Written and directed by Andrew Niccol, starring Nicolas Cage. I wanted to like this movie more -- I really did -- but ultimately I have to look at what I walked out of the theater with, and it was... a “hat full of nothing.” It might have worked as a black comedy, but the humor would have needed pumping up. It could've worked as a drama, but then the central character would have needed to truly be in jeopardy. (SPOILER) I thought the end was a total cop-out and nullified any danger that drove much of the action throughout. What was the point of the film? I guess the film's goal was to increase my awareness that on any given day, in many of the global military conflicts, the guns being used have been supplied by the United States.

Trace (9/22/05) Novel (2004 *) Written by Patricia Cornwell. I've read a handful of Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta books in the past and it's been about five years since last I read one. During a recent trip to St. Louis I found myself in need of a book to read on the long flight and so I picked up Trace in the airport gift shop. I could have chosen better. It was, in a word, awful. Every single character in the book was unpleasant, and most of them disliked each other. The plot structure was a total shambles, leading me to honestly wonder whether or not Ms. Cornwell actually plotted the project before she started writing. There was a weird story shift in the middle of the book as Scarpetta's gruff-but-lovable sidekick Marino became involved with the kinky mother of the murder victim. Not only did it not advance the main story, it didn't even make much sense. My only explanation is that when Cornwell got to the end of her book she found herself short of her 400-page goal and went back in and added filler. What a freakin' hack. On top of everything else, the killer's motives and psychology were never fully defined, and.... Ah hell, why am I even bothering?

Corpse Bride (9/24/05) Glendale Mann 10 (2005 ***) Directed by Tim Burton and Mike Johnson. To what degree Tim Burton was a hands-on director, I do not know. You can get an accurate sense of Corpse Bride from its trailer and commercials. It worked most effectively on a visual level; There were, of course, familiar Nightmare Before Christmas design conceits throughout. My main criticism was that both the story and its characters were a bit thin (no pun intended), and I was never particularly engaged emotionally, no matter how beautiful it was to look at. Though obvious to the point of obnoxiousness, it's worth comparing it to Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, which I saw one week before. Both were animated using stop-motion techniques, and both had nominally Halloween-related themes. W&G was gentler and looked more old fashioned... and was much, much funnier. Corpse Bride (thanks in part to the digital cameras used) looked more modern and stylized. Wallace and Gromit were solid (clay) characters with "believable" proportions. The characters in Corpse Bride were exaggerated to the point of impossibility; I wondered occasionally how the skinny legs on Victor (the main character) supported his weight. The lighting in Corpse Bride was far more pyrotechnic and was used as a major design element, while the lighting in W&G was effective but sometimes perfunctory. Though I liked Wallace and Gromit just a tad more, I have to give Corpse Bride credit for having the guts (so to speak) for being a children's movie about... well, death.

Band of Brothers (9/24/05) Netflix (2001 ***½) This was the 10-part HBO miniseries based on a book by Stephen Ambrose. With Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks as executive producers, it was a spin-off project from the Oscar-winning Saving Private Ryan: Could you take the battlefield techniques used so effectively in that film and use them in episodic television? Hell, yeah. Starting with the invasion of Normandy on D-Day and ending with the surrender of the Japanese army and the close of WWII, the episodes were punctuated by realistic battle sequences like the famous Battle of the Bulge. In one episode entitled "Why We Fight" the soldiers were on patrol in the woods and discovered a Nazi death camp. They learned the camp guards had killed as many prisoners as they could before locking the gates and fleeing. And so the soldiers (and the viewers) caught a glimpse of an even greater horror than that of war itself. Band of Brothers was very moving stuff and I highly recommend it.

Neil Diamond in Concert (9/29/05) Staples Center, Los Angeles (2005 ***) It feels weird to review a rock concert, but I guess it makes sense in the context of my media journal. Years from now it'll be fun to look back, read and remember, huh? I bought the tickets as a present for my fiancée. We drove to downtown LA the night of the wildfires; the air smelled of smoke and there was an orange haze all around. Though I'd been there recently for the SIGGRAPH conference, I'd never been to a show at the Staples arena. It was a big, sold-out performance. In the audience, gray and silver hair was commonplace; most folks were even older than me! The couple seated in front of us made an interesting pair: She was a skinny mid-fifties fan who rocked out with reckless abandon. He was an older, hearing-aid-wearing gent who sat while others stood and used his binoculars scan every location in the arena except the stage! But enough with the people-watching. The show was... fun, though the song selection was odd at times; I'm not a huge Neil Diamond fan, but I had still hoped to recognize more of his songs. Some of the visuals played on the big video screens were over the top. The patriotic imagery during "Coming to America" made me a little uncomfortable. Mr. Diamond is getting up in age (64, according to Google) and the physical demands of doing a live 2.5-hour concert were obvious. Understandably, he has had to scale back a bit, but still is one hell of a performer. Watching his geriatric gyrations, I couldn't help but think back to a concert I went to in the Summer of 1974 in Omaha, Nebraska: The performer that night was none other than Elvis Presley!

 

October 2005

A Very Long Engagement (10/6/05) Netflix (2004 **) Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, starring Audrey Tautou. Having loved the earlier film Amelie, I wanted to enjoy this movie way more than I ultimately did. The film was beautifully photographed, something I remembered well from the trailer. That aspect probably worked far better on the big screen than on the letterboxed 26-inch TV on which I watched it. The main problem for me was the pacing. It dragged on and on and there were stretches where nothing much happened. Perhaps deliberately slow pacing works better if the audience is prepared for it. Far more of the "action" took place on the battlefield than I would have expected; I had hoped there'd be more romantic interaction between the lovers. In fact, the sequence depicting their meeting and subsequent romance was shown in flashback and didn't appear until an hour into the film. Why? Also, many of the quirky narrative elements (there was a subplot involving an assassin that made little sense) seemed awfully random and off the spine of the story.

The Midas Trap (10/10/05) Novel (2005 ***) Written by Sharron McClellan. This book was #39 in the "Silhouette Bombshell" series. Judging from the ads in the back, Silhouette may be an imprint of Harlequin, but I'm not certain. My primary reason for ordering and reading it was it was written by the sister of a friend of mine. It featured an intrepid woman archaeologist named Veronica Bright in search of the "Midas Stone" which -- legend had it -- allowed its holder to transmute base elements into gold. The book opened as a mysterious and handsome stranger enlisted Bright by producing a lifelike statue of a mouse made of solid gold. An MRI revealed a perfectly-crafted set of golden internal organs to match the realistic exterior. The conclusion: The mouse was once a living creature! Twists and turns abounded, including a midnight raid on the Vatican that would surely have pleased Dan Brown. As much as the book provided a pleasant diversion, I have a handful of minor criticisms: (1) The main action took a bit too long to get going; the first third of the book felt meandering. (2) Veronica had a shotgun named "Lily" she lugged around the globe like a security blanket, but never actually got around to using. (3) There was a sequence in which Veronica dressed as a belly dancer in order to get past the security of a well-guarded mansion that had me scratching my head in disbelief and flashing back to old episodes of I Love Lucy. Still, all in all, it was a fun, well-written read. The end of the book set itself up for one or more sequels, and I hope Sharron gets an opportunity to revisit the world she's created.

Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story (10/15/05) Universal Studios Citywalk (2005 ***½) Written and directed by John Gatins. Starring Kurt Russel and Dakota Fanning. I'm not the kind of guy who actively seeks out movies about horses and the little girls who love them, but there was a Dreamworks employee screening and so I figured: Why not? I went in with low expectations and they were exceeded on nearly every level. It's got to be hard making a film like this. So much of what has to happen story-wise is virtually set in stone. Finding ways to make the formula fresh was undoubtedly a challenge. The key to Dreamer's success as a film, I think, lay in the tight script, solid acting, and good directing choices. In other words, the makers of the film made no attempt to dazzle or distract; they just made the best film they could with the material. And it worked. There's a good lesson to learn in that.

Funny Face (10/18/05) Netflix (1957 **) Directed by Stanley Donen, music by George and Ira Gershwin. This was a movie I didn't think I'd seen before, but I had... a long, long time ago. I think I probably rented it sometime in my college years, shortly after seeing Roman Holiday for the first time. I know now why I forgot it: From almost the first frame, this film rubbed me the wrong way. It's a funny thing to say about a musical, but it just seemed so... artificial. I like Fred Astaire and love Audrey Hepburn. So what didn't work? There were a few beloved Gershwin songs, like "S'Lovely," but most were instantly forgettable. The plot (Hepburn played a philosophy student swept into the role of fashion model by photographer Astaire) alternated between silly and insulting. Astaire's character at times was a chauvinist pig... and in the context of the movie he was right to be so! Hell, the very premise of the film was flawed: After all, there was nothing particularly "funny" about Audrey Hepburn's face, was there?

Family Guy Presents: Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story (10/21/05) Netflix (2005 **½) Directed by Pete Michels and Peter Shin. This was the direct-to-video movie based on the Family Guy series. I had been looking forward to it, imagining the direct-to-video format would give the writers liberty to go places they couldn’t go in the series, much like the brilliant South Park theatrical release. Sadly, they didn’t take advantage of the opportunity and I was sorely disappointed. In fact, much of the material was inferior to that used on the show.

The Thin Man (10/22/05) Novel (1934 ***) Written by Dashiell Hammett. It's been awhile since the last time I watched the film of the same name, but William Powell and Myrna Loy are forever indelibly burned into my brain as the characters Nick and Nora Charles. As I read the book I kept picturing them. The 1930's language in the book was a bit hard to read at times, honestly. Other times, however, I found the humor delightful. There were a lot of great, quotable lines to be found. It read more as a comedy of manners, something meant to be performed on stage, than as a detective whodunit. As a mystery, it was not particularly tight in its execution. There were many characters and situations that, while fun, didn't directly contribute to the story, and that led to some confusion.

The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery (10/23/05) Non-fiction (1998 **½) Written by Robert J. Ray. I bought this book because I'm planning on writing a murder mystery for the National Novel Writing Month. I read it with the specific intention of gaining insights about the conventions of the mystery. I was especially interested in a detailed look at how to solve problems specific to the genre. Sadly, I didn't get what I was looking for. 75% of the book was devoted to the writing process itself, and could be applied to the creation of any novel. It wasn't a complete waste of time, though. I did get a handful of useful ideas from the book, but it was nothing I couldn't have gotten from a much shorter well-written magazine article.

How to Train Your Dragon (10/26/05) Novel (2004 ***) Written and illustrated by Cressida Cowell. This was basically a children's book, written slightly below the age level of the Harry Potter series. My reason for reading it was that Dragon is one of the projects in the Dreamworks Animation pipeline. And so it made good sense to find out what kind of project I may be working on a year or two from now. It was a pleasant enough read. The story was quite simple, and I think it will make a good animated film. I especially liked the contrast between dragons of different sizes: Some were the size of a cat and some were as big as a large apartment building. I'm sorry to report, however, that the ending wasn't completely satisfying. Hopefully the film version will be stronger.

It's a Good Life if You Don't Weaken (10/27/05) Graphic Novel (2003 ***½) Written and illustrated by Seth. This was originally serialized in Seth's Palookaville comic book between 1993 and 1996. The story was about a young man's obsessive search for a gag cartoonist from the late 40's through early 60's who, by having a single cartoon published in the New Yorker, reached the pinnacle of success... then faded into obscurity. The main character tried to find meaning in his own life and found hope of a kind in the life of "Kalo," the pseudonym under which the object of his pursuit, Jack Kalloway, worked. A work of quasi-autobiographical fiction, Seth cast himself in the lead role but also included his friend and fellow cartoonist, Chester Brown. Seth's drawings were deceptively simple, yet so strong. They had an element of a throwback to an earlier, simpler, time, and there was a lasting quality to them. Thematically, the book made a good companion piece to Seth's Vernacular Drawings which I reviewed earlier this year. Though slow-moving and not quite perfect (too much smoking!), this was definitely the kind of book I hope someday to be capable of producing. True, it was a little sad, with an undercurrent of repressed angst. I saw that as a reflection of the time in which it was written. While I'm no longer the furrowed-brow-tortured-soul I once was, I felt an undeniable sense of connection with the main character. In my life I've shared many of his attitudes about existence: I still distrust change and sometimes wonder if -- in many ways -- the world wasn't a better place before I was born.

Crash (10/27/05) Netflix (2005 ****) Directed by Paul Haggis. This was probably the best movie I've seen all year. It was nothing short of astonishing how its filmmakers were able to make a movie about racism in all its permutations and keep it from being heavy or depressing. In fact, at the end I felt positively uplifted. The writing was solid and deft, the kind of masterful writing that makes me want to give up my own efforts because I know I'll never reach that level of skill. It was an ensemble piece in which the characters intersected and passed through each other's lives, sometimes crashing into each other, both literally and figuratively. Each character in this morality play was unique: Real yet emblematic at the same time. One of the main themes of the film was that bad people sometimes do good and good, well-meaning people sometimes are capable of bad, even fatal decisions and acts. We may try to be heroes and still screw up beyond measure, or we may have heroism thrust upon us without asking for it. Ultimately, we're all in it together. Set in L.A., the movie was all the more real to me now that I have made it my home.

No Direction Home (10/30/05) Netflix (2005 ***½) Directed by Martin Scorsese. This documentary focused on Bob Dylan's first few years as a performer. It was really a companion piece to Dylan's autobiographical Chronicles, Vol 1, which I read and thoroughly enjoyed. Bob Dylan is truly an American icon. This film featured an interview with him reflecting back on what was a seminal period not only of his life but in the life of America. Though I'm really a second-generation fan, his music spoke to me so very loudly when I was younger, and it provided a soundtrack of sorts for a period of my life, just as I'm sure it did for millions of baby boomers. Bob Dylan has an unfair reputation as a sort of burned out husk of his former self, which is neither fair nor accurate. He's still damned sharp and articulate, though ready to admit when he honestly doesn't know what the hell was going on. As one of the most acclaimed directors of our time, it appeared a strange project for Scorsese to be involved with, and yet it wasn't: One of his first films was The Last Waltz (1978) about Bob Dylan's backup musicians who went on to become The Band.

 

November 2005

A Nightmare Before Christmas (11/1/05) Netflix (1993 ***½) Directed by Henry Selick. Was this movie really made in 1993? It sure doesn't seem that long ago. It's impossible to watch this film and not compare it with this year's Corpse Bride. I think Nightmare was a superior film, though I recall I was disappointed when it was originally released. I don't know how to explain that. Maybe I was having a bad day the first time I saw it, or perhaps I'm older now and hence have more of an appreciation for it. At any rate, the visuals were top-notch, and the story -- though not perfect -- was vastly superior to Corpse Bride.

The Bad News Bears (11/2/05) Netflix (1976 ***) Directed by Michael Ritchie. It's been years since I last watched this film. At the time it was released, I was the same age as many of the kids in the little league team. Consequently, as I watched there was an odd feeling of traveling back in time. I remembered most fondly the foul-mouthed Tanner character. The one complaint I had about the film's story was that at a certain point Walter Matthau's character became an asshole and there was no real good reason for that aside for purposes of plot. He was supposedly carried away by the success his team was having, but that still didn't explain why he was such a jerk to Amanda, the Tatum O'Neil character. I suppose it was necessary for the emotional arc of the film, but it was still unmotivated.

Oxymoronica: Paradoxical Wit & Wisdom from History's Greatest Wordsmiths (11/6/05) Nonfiction (2004 ***) Written by Mardy Grothe. This book was a collection of seemingly self-contradictory literary quotes. My fiancée bought it for me last year for my 40th birthday and it took me over a year to read the whole thing. I generally enjoy quotations, and I've read collections of quotes before, but it remains a different kind of reading experience. One must read books like this more actively and with greater care, especially with clever, largely dense, quotes like these. As such, Oxymoronica is probably not for everyone.

Pride of the Yankees (11/12/05) Netflix (1942 **½) Directed by Sam Wood, starring Gary Cooper. Once again I found myself in a situation where I rented a movie thinking I'd never seen it before, when in fact I had, albeit a long, long time ago. Watching the film I kept thinking about the writing and acting and how it was such a reflection of a much simpler time. There was no subtlety to be found anywhere in this production. Cooper played Lou Gehrig as a kind of simpleton goof. Nearly all the characters were romanticized, exaggerated cartoons of real people. I guess there was only so much material to work with, but I got the sense most of it was fabricated, a product of the Hollywood machine. I felt at times the screenplay was written on auto-pilot, yet apparently it was nominated for an Academy Award for best writing. Like the man said, they surely don't make 'em like this anymore.

Darby O’Gill and the Little People (11/18/05) Netflix (1959 ***) Directed by Robert Stevenson. This film scared the living shit out of me when I was a kid, and I had nightmares about banshees for months afterwards. It seems silly now, but I had real fears of opening up the front door only to have a screaming banshee show up, which was exactly what happened to poor Darby near the end of the film. In watching this movie thirty-some years later, I searched to see if I could identify why exactly the imagery was so potent in my young mind. I got an inkling of what affected me so, but it wasn’t any one thing; it was the whole cumulative effect of the surreal story, the dramatic lighting, and the spectacular special effects. There was a "making of" documentary on the DVD that showed how the filmmakers accomplished a number of the in-camera leprechaun effects; the techniques were absolutely out of this world in terms of cleverness of execution. Another DVD “special feature” was an entire episode of the old Disneyland program in which Walt Disney himself traveled to Ireland, though I suspect he never actually left Burbank. His mission was to enlist the aid of Darby O’Gill and King Brian of the leprechauns to help him make his picture. I highly recommend watching this program: It was a real trip to see the 1950’s PR approach and watch good old Walt act.

The Candidate (11/19/05) Netflix (1972 **½) Directed by Michael Ritchie, starring Robert Redford and Peter Boyle. This film was an interesting precursor to the TV program The West Wing, one of my favorite shows. To use the adjective currently in fashion, it was decidedly wonky. The core message of the film lay in observing how the title character -- played by Redford – began his campaign with noble aspirations and principles but -- through the course of the Senatorial campaign -- became a politician, the very antithesis of his former self. This happened because the system was flawed: In order to gain points in the polls, he had to dilute his message until he no longer said anything more concrete than his opponent, a Republican with the unlikely name Crocker Jarmon. I wanted to like this film more than I did, though I was impressed with the writing and execution. It was a film worth watching and appealed to me in the same way West Wing does. However, the film's message was (and is) a real downer and in all honesty I don’t know that I’d ever choose to watch it again.

Good Night, and Good Luck (11/20/05) Glendale Mann 10 (2005 ***½) Directed by George Clooney, starring David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow. My immediate reaction upon leaving the theater was this: What must it have been like to live in an age when men showed true integrity? This was a superb film about a time in U.S. history that has loud echoes in the present day. It was an inspirational film, but not the kind that makes you want to hit a home run or score a touchdown. In my case, it made me want to be a better man. The message was simple: If you’re willing to be brave and stand up for what you believe in, powerful tides can be turned. Strathairn’s performance was Oscar-worthy. The production design and lighting of this film was pitch-perfect; I felt I was behind-the-scenes at CBS in the mid-fifties. It saddened me to think about the erosion of the mass media since then. But, as the film pointed out, the seeds for that (in the form of ratings and sponsor pocketbooks) were there all along.

The Justice Society Returns (11/20/05) Graphic Novel (2003 **) Written and illustrated by various. I picked this book up at a used bookstore in downtown Glendale. It looked visually intriguing, and I liked the design of the comic cover art before each story. It was set in the 1940's near the end of WWII, which meant it featured the golden-age Justice Society, not the current-day one. I found this more interesting, somehow. The book was, like most trade paperback graphic novels, a collection of comic books originally published separately. In order to appreciate the project, it was helpful to understand the context: The story formula of many of the old Justice Society and Justice League comics went like this: Some large threat would present itself; the team would split itself up into smaller sub-teams, dealing with a number of smaller menaces; the final act would involve the team reassembling for one final triumphant slug-fest in which the original large menace would be vanquished. This formula provided a comfortable structure and limited how many pages the writers and artists had to juggle a large number of characters at the same time. In this collection, that story formula was expanded so that each chapter -- which would normally occupy a few pages -- became a single comic issue. This may have worked if the writing had been better and/or more consistent. Some of the sub-stories attempted to dig into in-depth character development and relationships, but there was no thematic unity of the sub-plots. The net result was disappointing.

Dreamtoons (11/22/05) Cartoons (2000 ***) Written and illustrated by Jesse Reklaw, originally published as a weekly comic strip called "Slow Wave." I picked this book up at a used book store for $6.50. The material was based on dream descriptions submitted by friends and readers, a premise that intrigued me. Why? In the late nineties I went through a period of obsession with dreams and dream interpretation. In the intervening years I've thought a few times about doing a similar comic book project myself. The nature of dreams is that they're generally far more interesting to the dreamer than to their audience. With this in mind, Reklaw made a wise choice by restriction the length of each dream to a single single-page three or four panel strip. He also edited the narrative to maximize the surrealism and absurdist potential. This condensed the material to the point where the stories seemed almost Haiku-like, which helped to keep the material from being boring.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (11/25/05) Glendale Mann 10 (2005 ***½) Directed by Mike Newell. I’m a fan of the books and the films, in the sense that I’ve read them all and seen them all. I’d heard a lot of talk about how Goblet of Fire was the best Harry Potter film so far. Now that I’ve seen it, I have to agree. It was darker in tone, making for a heightened sense of danger. Oddly, not a lot of books were cracked in 14-year-old Harry’s 4th year at Hogwarts. Instead of devoting screen time on the activities of the classroom, the focus was on the Tri-Wizard tournament -- which took place over the entire year -- and on the school dance. The trials and tribulations of the young teen wizards felt right for the most part, though there was a subplot (in which Ron Weasly became jealous of Harry‘s fame) which never quite worked for me. Nonetheless, the performances were solid, and the nose-free Voldemort, played by Ralph Fiennes, was a treat. On top of everything else, I thought the effects were spectacular, especially Harry’s rooftop battle with a dragon and the second of the three challenges, which took place underwater and involved a vicious attack by mermaids.

The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (11/26/05) Netflix (1977 **½) Directed by Micheal Pressman. It's interesting how some films, even bad ones, can burn their imprint into our brains. I deliberately rented this movie because it, for me, is one of those films. When I was thirteen, my aunt took me on a Caribbean cruise. On the ship they showed films in the evenings, and Breaking Training was one of them. I can't explain the odd combination of brain chemistry and puberty, but even now, nearly thirty years later, I still vividly remembered scenes, dialogue and camera angles. The film itself probably wasn't worth watching, much less reviewing. Walter Matthau and Tatum O'Neil, who were in the original film, were absent, and this fact was barely touched upon early in the film. The writing was at times atrocious, yet the end of the movie -- in which the Bears played at the Houston Astrodome -- worked surprisingly well.

Lost in La Mancha (11/27/05) Netflix (2002 **½) Directed by Keith Fulton. This documentary tells the sad story of a film that was never successfully made. It was the anatomy of the disintegration of a production and, I suppose, a cautionary tale. I have much respect for Terry Gilliam, mostly because of work he did decades ago. His most recent effort, The Brothers Grimm, was a terrible mess and a real disappointment to me. It was interesting to see how a series of bad luck caused the plug to be pulled on a film. In this case, the project showed troubles early on but the real blow came when the actor playing the lead developed medical problems that made it impossible for him to ride a horse. Yes, that could be a problem if the role you're playing is Don Quixote.

 

December 2005

Bruce Almighty (12/3/05) Netflix (2003 **½) Directed by Tom Shadyac. To be honest, this was my fiancée’s choice, not mine. I had watched it once before on 12/29/03. It wasn't horrible, but there was nothing special enough for me to fully recommend it. It was an innocuous enough mindless fantasy comedy, I suppose. The message was quasi-spiritual in nature and unlikely to offend anyone. Given all that, it might make a reasonable rental. I'm not a big fan of Jim Carrey, but he did a good job and there were a handful of funny moments. My personal favorite scene was one in which Carrey took over the body of a rival anchorman named Evan -- played by Steve Carell -- during a newscast. I wouldn't be surprised if this was the single scene responsible for launching Carell's career. In fact, there's even a sequel planned for 2006 based on his character called Evan Almighty.

Mystery Writer's Handbook (12/3/05) Nonfiction (1982 **½) Edited by Lawrence Treat. I bought this paperback at a used book store and read it because I'm in the process of writing a mystery novel. The format of the book was one I'm familiar with: It was a collection of short essays written by various writers about different facets of writing. In this case, the focus was nominally on writing mysteries, but much of the material (characters, setting, etc.) could be applied to any fiction, really. I have mixed feelings about this format. It's easy to read in the same way popcorn is easy to eat. Each chapter was likely originally published as a magazine article, and consequently some “chapters” (articles) were far more substantial and informative than others. When I got to the end of the book, I asked myself what I'd learned that I didn't already know. The answer: Not as much as I'd hoped. In addition, since the book was over twenty years old, the usefulness of some of the material was lessened because trends in mystery writing have changed over the years. In the future, I may well consider reading a similar, more up-to-date book on the subject.

Match Point (12/8/05) Hollywood Arclight (2005 ***½) Written and Directed by Woody Allen. Thanks to a contact my fiancée had at work, she and I were able to get on the guest list for a very special screening of Match Point at the Arclight in Hollywood. Why special? Well, the screening was followed by a Q&A session with Woody and the cast! As a long-time fan of Woody Allen, through thick and thin, I was very excited about this opportunity to see my idol in person. The film itself was excellent, certainly the best film Woody Allen has created in a number of years. It was set in London, which somehow made his writing and directing work even better than setting it in New York. Why? Maybe it was because Woody's writing is somewhat stylized and that stylization fit well with a slightly foreign aesthetic. The performances were good throughout, as were the production values. Thinking back on some of his lesser films like Small Time Crooks (1999) and Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001), that really makes a huge difference. Sometimes worried he was getting sloppy, but that was definitely not the case with this film.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (12/11/05) Glendale Mann 10 (2005 ***½) Directed by Andrew Adamson. There's been much written in the press lately about the Christian symbolism in the film. It's certainly present if you look for it, but I didn't find it off-putting or distracting. I read the first (published) book in the Narnia series most recently about four years ago. At the time I was doing a bit of spiritual soul-searching and read it shortly after reading C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity. The film made me want to re-read not only the book on which it was based but the entire series of books. I worked as an FX animator under Andrew Adamson on Shrek. My impression of him at the time was that he was incredibly detail-oriented, a quality that's served him well. He was fair but not always easy to please. With that "personal connection," I was especially interested in seeing how he would direct a live action film. I must say I was delighted with the result. My fiancée (who saw the film with me) was a far bigger fan of the original books than I. As we left the theater, she paid Adamson and the makers of the film a great compliment: For her it captured much of the magic she remembered when she read the original book as a little girl. High praise, indeed.

DC: The New Frontier Volumes 1 & 2 (12/15/05) Graphic Novel (2004 ***) Written and Illustrated by Darwyn Cooke. This storyline was a "re-envisioning" of the DC Comics Universe in the period of the cold war. One thing that was especially interesting about it was the co-mingling of minor characters like The Challengers of the Unknown with major characters like Superman and Wonder Woman. I enjoyed Cooke's writing voice and his retro illustrations were perfectly appropriate. However, I was ultimately disappointed by the resolution of the story. Much was set up but the pay-off turned out to be just another earth-threatening calamity in the form of a monster called "The Centre." Recently it feels like fifty percent of all superhero-based graphic novels resort to that kind of plot device. There should be a better way to end these kinds of stories, perhaps using something equally climactic but on a personal level.

Munich (12/20/05) DWA screening (2005 ***1/4) Directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Eric Bana. Munich depicted a fictionalized version of a real-life top-secret Israeli team that sought out and assassinated the architects of the 1972 massacre at the Olympic village. Bana played the team leader who was hand-picked by Golda Meier. This was a challenging movie to review, hence the awkward "***1/4" rating. It was certainly well directed and its subject matter was fascinating. There were a number of highly entertaining scenes of suspense, including a scene involving a booby-trapped telephone that would make Alfred Hitchcock proud. Would I recommend Munich on that basis? Yes. So why the tenuous 1/4? The main problem I had with this movie was that it was too long and the end of the second act and the entire third act were really depressing. In fact, there were three or four times when I thought the movie had reached its logical end, but then it kept going. I had a similar reaction to Spielberg's A.I. The reason I'm as torn as I am is that while the end of the movie was a drag to watch, it was consistent with the downwardly spiraling psychic disintegration of the main character. It was also thematically related to the core of the movie: Vengeance may start out neat and clean, but when you go after terrorists on their level, it gets messy.

The President's Analyst (12/21/05) Netflix (1967 *½) Written and directed by Theodore J. Flicker. James Coburn plays a psychiatrist with a very, very powerful patient. When the pressure of that responsibility gets to him and he tries to quit, agents from the "CEA" and the "FBR" and spies from around the globe go after him. While this film was clearly a product of the times in which it was made, it offered little to my modern eyes. Flicker's directing and Coburn's acting were embarrassing at times. Though I watched this film all the way through its 100 minutes, I was sorely tempted to stop after the first 20 minutes or so. Looking back, I chose poorly.

King Kong (12/24/05) Glendale Mann 10 (2005 ***) Directed by Peter Jackson. I’d heard from friends that King Kong was longer than it needed to be, and I after seeing it for myself I agreed with that assessment. Don’t get me wrong; It was a spectacle, and that’s what I paid my money to see. There was a certain irony in that: I went to the theater to see the beast, just like the people in the film. Upon exiting, my biggest complaint was the casting of Jack Black. I’ve loved him in other films, but he was terribly miscast in this one. Adrian Brody was another odd choice, and he was less than believable as the romantic lead. The effects were still dazzling, however, and as a professional character technical director, I was very impressed by the emotive range of Kong.

Sky High (12/28/05) Netflix (2005 ***) Directed by Mike Mitchell, starring Michael Angarano, Kurt Russell and Kelly Preston, with a nice cameo by Lynda Carter. This was a fun film, definitely a Disney film. I am a real sucker for superheroes and related stories. I think I also have a soft spot for teen coming-of-age stories, though I’m not sure exactly why. Sky High married these two elements together quite nicely. Disney films often seem to take place in a different dimension. Teenagers in that magic land (“kingdom,” if you prefer) are quite a bit simpler and… cleaner… than real teens. One special note: on the DVD there was an alternate opening, set in 1985, which provided the back-story set-up for the hero/villain conflict. I’m not exactly sure why the filmmakers decided to drop it, but perhaps it created some confusion about who was the main character of the film.

The Maltese Falcon (12/29/05) Netflix (1941 ****) Directed by John Huston. This was a marvelous film, a true classic. It was based on the book by Dashiell Hammett, who also wrote The Thin Man, which I read recently. Much has been written about this film, so it’s hard for me to even attempt an analysis The cast was amazing; It’s hard to imagine a greater dream ensemble than Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Elisha Cook, Jr. I think I prefer Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946) to Sam Spade in Falcon, but that’s only a matter of degrees.

Radio Days (12/29/05) DVD (1987 ****) Written and directed by Woody Allen. This is one of my favorite films of all time, and I wanted to share it with my fiancée, who‘d never seen it. I remember very well when it was originally released; I was in college at the time and I loved it so much went back to see it a second time. Radio Days was clearly a labor of love, an unabashedly nostalgic look back to Woody Allen’s childhood. It was particularly masterful how he was able to intertwine stories of his fictional family with the stories of the stars of radio’s golden age. Bravo!

Mona Lisa Smile (12/30/05) Netflix (2003 ***) Directed by Mike Newell. Not that it's important, but this was my fiancée’s Netflix pick, not mine. I saw it when it was first released and it didn't make much of an impression on me. To my pleasant surprise, I enjoyed it more than I remembered. The film was set at Wellesley College in 1953/1954. Julia Roberts played an art history teacher from California who moved East because she wanted to make a difference. Eventually she did, of course, in the spirit of inspirational teacher films like To Sir, With Love, Dead Poets Society and Goodbye, Mister Chips. The supporting cast included Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles and Maggie Gyllenhaal. One of the things I enjoyed about the multiple storylines was that each offered a twist: You had a hint of the direction they were going, but each offered a surprise. That would not have been the case with a weaker screenplay. There was a hint of depth that made me assume the movie was based on a book, but a quick check on Amazon.com showed that was not the case; there was a book version, but it was an adaptation of the screenplay.

South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (12/31/05) DVD (1999 ***) Directed by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. This was kind of an odd choice to watch on a stay-at-home New Year’s Eve, I know. I had a copy still in shrink wrap which I’d bought for $9.99 at Fry’s Electronics at least a year and a half ago. I was knocked out by it when it was originally released, and went to see it twice in the theater, a real rarity for me. On this viewing, however, it didn’t seem as fresh as I remembered it. Why was that? Was it because the world, post-9/11, has changed? Or have I? Don’t get me wrong, it was still a good movie, and the music was particularly strong, especially the musical montage tribute to Les Miserables. It was just that I didn’t see it as brilliant as I once did. Oh well, happy new year!