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Film/Media Journal Archives

2005

2006 Journal

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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.

***1/2

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.

**1/2

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.

 

The 2006 Four Star (****) Club

 

Movies and TV

 

Books and Other Media

 

January 2006

Syriana (1/1/06) Glendale Mann 10 (2005 ***) Directed by Stephen Gaghan. I wanted to like it more. Ebert and Roeper both had Syriana high on their list of the year's ten best films. It was a challenging movie to watch, as it delved deep into the corporate/governmental "strange bedfellows" domain related to the world's dwindling supply of oil. George Clooney played a CIA operative who was, for all practical purposes, "down on his luck." To be honest, I'm still not sure I understood the plot. perhaps (as another reviewer suggested) a second viewing would remedy that, but I don't think it's likely I'll be watching Syriana again anytime soon.

The Incredibles (1/1/06) DVD (2004 ****) Directed by Brad Bird. Brad Bird is a freakin' genius! The Incredibles was a brilliant film, one in which good decisions were plentiful. In my opinion it was the best computer animated film yet made. My love for The Incredibles may have something to do with my undying affection for comic books and superheroes. Every time I watch it I get knocked out by the pitch-perfect animation of Jason Lee's Syndrome character. The little acting nuances were fantastic. Though it beat Shrek 2 for best animated film, I must reluctantly acknowledge that I think the best film won. Oh, and by the way... have I mentioned yet that Brad Bird is a freakin' genius?

The Bad News Bears Go To Japan! (1/3/06) Netflix (1978 *½) Directed by John Berry. There were several times while watching this film I thought about turning it off, and maybe I could have without risk of injury to my person. There were two main problems with this film: (1) It was a comedy that was simply not funny. (2) There was too much Tony Curtis and not enough screen time spent on the kids themselves. Some of the sequences (like one with a Japanese TV show) didn't even really make any sense. Throughout, I could sense Curtis was doing his very best, and I got the feeling he was trying to be the "consummate professional" even though he had little or nothing to work with.

Holiday Inn (1/5/06) Netflix (1942 ***½) Directed by Mark Sandrich. Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire teamed up in this vehicle which spotlighted their singing and dancing talents. I'm torn in my appraisal of the film in that I enjoyed it a hell of a lot but also recognize it promoted values that were pretty questionable. The sexist plot revolved around Astaire's habit of stealing Crosby's girls. Women in the film were shown as unthinking objects of desire judged by their looks and dancing abilities. There was also a particularly offensive number, devoted to Abe Lincoln's birthday, performed in blackface, that came off as blatantly racist to a modern audience. Still, how can I be too upset while listening to Bing Crosby singing Irving Berlin's "White Christmas"?

The Office, Series 1 (1/7/06) Netflix (2001 ***½) This was the BBC series on which the American Steve Carrell series has been based. I'd not seen it before, but being a fan of the NBC show, I was curious how the two versions differed. What I found was they were far more similar than I'd expected. Though the BBC version was slightly more risque' than the American version, the shooting style and setup were virtually identical. The similarities didn't stop there: It appeared obvious to me Carrell patterned many of his character Michael Scott's behaviors on Ricky Gervais's performance as office manager David Brent. I'm a big fan of Steve Carrell, but after watching the six episodes in the first series of the BBC show, I think I preferred Gervais' version.

Black Hole (1/8/06) Graphic Novel (2005 **½) Written and illustrated by Charles Burns. I borrowed this impressive (368 pages) hardcover book from a friend at work. His warning: "It may give you nightmares." I can't say that was true. The imagery was disturbing, yes. Burns has a distinctive visual style, one I've enjoyed in his "Baby Boy" stories in Raw. The setting of Black Hole was a nightmarish version of Seattle of the mid-1970's. The characters were all high school age teens, some of which were mutants as a result of their sexual relationships. The story could be seen as an AIDS allegory, but it was also about alienation in general. As solid and impressive as Burns' visuals were, his writing (to me) didn't seem to be quite at the same level as his art. The conclusion of the story, which I won't reveal here, was disappointing. As with many graphic novels, this one was originally published in serial form, and the direct result of that was a story that didn't feel as rounded out as it might otherwise have been. Overall, I mildly recommend the book, though I have no plans to buy it for my own collection.

Batgirl: Year One (1/10/06) Graphic Novel (2003 ***½) Written by Scott Beatty and Chuck Dixon, Illustrated by Marcos Martin. I passed up an opportunity to buy this second-hand, immediately regretted it, then later ordered it online. For those who don't know, the Batgirl character (as most of the world thinks of her) no longer “exists.” She was brutally shot and crippled by The Joker in Alan Moore's Batman: The Killing Joke. This to me was a waste of a good character, and so we can only really see Batgirl in action in flashback stories like this one. The beauty of the "Year One" premise is it allows a fresh look at familiar characters, stripped of all his (or her) continuity baggage. The filmgoing audience responded to this formula in Batman Begins. I appreciated Beatty & Dixon's clean, non-pretentious writing style. Martin's visuals matched and supported the story; they were pared down to the point of abstraction, yet managed to avoid looking cartoony.

King Kong (1/13/06) Netflix (1933 **½) Directed by Merian C. Cooper. After seeing Peter Jackson’s version of this classic tale, I was curious to see the original. How would it hold up? Unfortunately, it didn’t really hold up very well at all, at least in my view. Others who have a more sentimental attachment to the big ape may see things differently. I can easily imagine it being impressive for the time (1933), but the dialogue was so stage-like and the acting was consistently atrocious by modern standards. I did find it interesting to see how closely certain parts of the film were followed in the recent remake, and could almost imagine myself in Peter Jackson’s shoes, watching the original and thinking: "Keep that. Keep that. Change that. Keep that." That even extended to at least one of Kong’s actions: After he killed a T-Rex (hopefully that doesn’t come as a spoiler) he exercised its lifeless jaw to be sure it’s dead. On a more personal note, a couple of times while watching the film, I was magically transported about thirty years into the past. I must have been eight or nine, watching it on a late night Creature Feature. There was one especially evocative scene in which Kong returned to the immense native gate in pursuit of Ann Darrow; I remembered being very frightened by this. I was fearful for the little people, and could truly imagine myself in their place. How sad is it that I’ve lost that ability to suspend disbelief to that degree?

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales (1/14/06) Nonfiction (1998 **½) Written by Oliver Sacks. Sacks is a neurologist, and this book was a series of his case histories. The book was broken into three sections, describing deficits, excesses, and what he called "the simple," or the mentally retarded and savants. One of Sacks' other books, Awakenings, was made into the movie with Robin Williams and Robert Deniro. I'll admit, this was probably an odd reading choice for me. Someone told me about this book when it first came out and it stuck with me on my mental "to-read" list. The stories were, for the most part, interesting. Sacks' writing style, however, was distracting. His writing seemed to come from another era and his text and word choices and sentence styles were nearly... Elizabethan.

The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1/19/06) Netflix (1969 **½) Directed by Robert Butler, starring Kurt Russell as Dexter Riley, Cesar Romero as A.J. Arno, and Joe Flynn as Dean Higgins. Plot: Set at Medfield College, Dexter Riley has a mishap with a school computer and is transformed into a mental wizard. Along the way he gets mixed up with big-time crook A.J. Arno. Madcap, paint-flinging antics ensue. I have a soft spot in my heart for this film, and I loved it as a kid. I can't recommend it in good conscious, though. It falls into the category of "they don't make 'em like that anymore... and with good reason!" I understand it was a Disney movie aimed at eight-year olds, but even so, the story had more potential than it realized. I think it was probably an attempt to capitalize on earlier successes with The Absent-Minded Professor and Son of Flubber. There were also a variety of elements that reminded me of Back to the Future. I can see why I was such a fan of Kurt Russell after seeing him in this film and its sequels (Now You See Him, Now You Don't and The Strongest Man in the World): Russell had such a bright-eyed innocence. To be honest, he reminded me a little of myself as a kid. As an actor, he came off as unpolished, but he got the job done.

Identity Crisis (1/20/06) Graphic Novel (2003 ***½) Written by Brad Meltzer, Illustrated by Rags Morales. A friend of mine recommended reading this book, describing it as: "not a perfect graphic novel, but close." The theme of Identity Crisis was moral ambiguity, and it explored the gray areas between heroes and villains. The book began with the death of Sue Digby, wife of the Elongated Man. It addressed the basic question of why superheroes wear masks -- and the risks associated with choosing not to. The heroes who served as the focus of this book were The Justice League of America, members both past and present. All in all it was a satisfying read, keeping me engaged throughout. While Morales isn’t my favorite comic illustrator, his style served the story well.

In Cold Blood (1/20/06) Netflix (1967 ***) Directed by Richard Brooks. Starring Robert Blake and Scott Wilson. This film was, of course, based on the Truman Capote book by the same name, a book I read about twenty years ago. That book was also the subject of the Seymour Hoffman film Capote, which I am looking forward to seeing; it was, in fact, my primary reason for renting In Cold Blood. Like watching O.J. Simpson in the Naked Gun films, there was a surreal quality to seeing Robert Blake playing the man who killed the Clutter family in 1965. (I’ve eaten in the Studio City Italian restaurant outside of which he may or may not have killed his wife.) Blake turned in a convincing performance as a psychopath with a backstory that gave the audience a degree of sympathy for him, while all the time knowing he truly deserved to hang in the end. Richard Brooks’ directing style was at times affected, and some of his scene transitions were clever but called attention to themselves. As such, this would be a good movie to show in a filmmaking class. There was a classic shot in which Robert Blake stood in his cell beside a window at night during a rainstorm. From the prison lights outside, the pattern of the water was projected upon his face, making him look like he was crying, even though he wasn't. According to the cinematographer, in the documentary Visions of Light, that was a pure accident. One final note: I learned from the trailer on the DVD extras that the movie was shot on actual locations, including the house where the Clutters were murdered. I find that more than a little creepy.

The Magdalene Sisters (1/21/06) Netflix (2002 **) Directed by Peter Mullan. Until 1996, Irish girls who were mentally handicapped or of "questionable moral character" were sent to the Catholic Church’s Mary Magdalene Laundry & Asylum, where they were treated as slaves/convicts with little or no possibility of parole. This story, set in the mid-sixties, followed three of the girls as they entered a hell on earth world that promised moral salvation through penitence but offered only endless labor and abuse. With a set-up like that, is it any wonder the word that jumps to my mind is "depressing?" True, it was shocking to think about how they were treated even so recently, and so the film serves as a cautionary tale. Certainly as a society I would think we’re more advanced than that now, but you never really know what horrors people are capable of. Unfortunately, beyond that central message -- which I considered preaching to the choir -- I’m not sure what I got from The Magdalene Sisters.

Going My Way (1/24/06) Netflix (1944 ***) Directed by Leo McCarey. Starring Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald. Crosby plays Father O'Malley, who has been sent to replace aging pastor Father Fitzgibbon (Fitzgerald). O'Malley has some "progressive" ideas and his approach to solving his parishioners' problems usually involves singing. There were about a half-dozen interwoven sub-plots, including one in which a former love interest had become an operatic singer at the Met. That sub-plot didn't really have much of a pay-off, due to the fact that any natural sexual behavior had to be tip-toed around. All in all this film was fun to watch, and the music was good -- though it was unclear why the excerpt from Carmen was necessary. Still, 1940's audiences ate it up; thanks to the popularity of this film, Crosby played father O'Malley a second time the following year in The Bells of St. Mary's (1945).

Now You See Him, Now You Don't (1/25/06) Netflix (1972 **½) Directed by Robert Butler, starring Kurt Russell, Cesar Romero, Joe Flynn, and Jim Backus. This was the first sequel to The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. As was the case with that film, I can't really recommend this one strongly. On the one hand I still have fond memories of it from childhood, but in the cold light of day it wasn't exactly a masterpiece. It was harmless fun, though, and I honestly wonder if today's kids would enjoy it or be bored. In lieu of a rigorous critique of this G-rated family fare, here are a few random notes instead: (1) Some of the footage appeared to have been shot near where I work in Glendale, California, which makes sense given all the Disney buildings nearby. (2) It was mildly interesting to see Ed Begley Jr. -- who made the briefest of appearances in the first film -- back as a nerd studying the aerodynamics of bumblebees. (3) There was a sub-plot (filler material, really) involving Dean Higgins (Flynn) playing golf while invisible Kurt Russell manipulates the ball. Here's a lesson for you would-be writers out there: If you ever need 10-15 minutes of action to pad your screenplay, please use anything other than golf.

The Strongest Man in the World (1/26/06) Netflix (1975 **) Directed by Vincent McEveety, starring Kurt Russell, Cesar Romero, Joe Flynn, Phil Silvers, Dick Van Patten and Eve Arden. From the list of stars, I got the sense the casting director was working overtime to make up for the weak efforts put forth by the writers... one of whom coincidentally shared a last name with the director. This was the Disney sequel to The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and Now You See Him, Now You Don't. The premise was a reasonable one: After mental genius and invisibility, what super-power comes next? Super strength, of course. Sadly, the story didn't make enough of an effort to do anything fun with that. This was a prime example of a good premise pissed away by weak plotting. The whole script seemed lopsided, actually. Though Kurt Russell received top billing, he was absent for the majority of the film. Cesar Romero played the villainous A. J. Arno once again, but he was largely reduced to a bumbling fool rather than a believable heavy.

Hotel (1/29/06) Novel (1965 ***) Written by Arthur Hailey. The word that comes to mind in describing this book is "potboiler." Hotel was set at the St. Gregory Hotel in New Orleans and Hailey painted a degree of detail I wasn't expecting, especially about the behind-the-scenes activity in a large 1000-room hotel. There were five or six interwoven storylines, some of which were pure soap opera. There was intrigue and racial tension and vehicular manslaughter. Sometimes the book got a bit too preachy about civil rights, but considering the time in which it was written (the early 1960's), I'm willing to overlook it. I acknowledge this book was an unusual choice for me; I was on a trip visiting my grandmother and, having finished one book on the flight out, I needed a book to read on the flight home. I'm giving Hotel a medium (3-star) recommendation, because I enjoyed it, though it definitely falls in the category of "easy to read page-turners" like much of Stephen King's fiction.

The Office Series 2 (1/29/06) Netflix (2002 ***) There were times while watching the six episodes that comprised the second "series" of this BBC show when it was positively excruciating to watch Ricky Gervais as office manager David Brent. That uncomfortable embarrassment was, I suppose, the spiritual center of the series. It was admirable that Gervais was willing to play such a buffoon and... embarrassment... to himself and to all around him. Unfortunately, the second series didn't feel as fresh to me as the first. In part it was because there was a greater emphasis on that "audience discomfort" and less on the humor. The effect was compounded because there were multiple times when "reality" intruded unexpectedly and David Brent was forced to acknowledge his shortcomings. While it's funny to think of what happens when a man who has no right supervising people finds himself in that position, watching him squirm as he's dressed down by his boss for poor job performance was still painful to watch.

Hold Me! (1/31/06) Cartoons (1964 ****) Written and illustrated by Jules Feiffer. Normally I wouldn't make note of such a quick read, but there really is no one who writes like Jules Feiffer; he really is brilliant. I loved his approach, which provided an interesting counterpoint to autobiographical comics (including my own): Each cartoon took one or two different (mostly neurotic) characters and gave voice to a conversation or... opining... from those points of view. Given the time in which the material was created, it was no surprise that much of it was about the politics of the cold war and Vietnam. A quick glance on the internet revealed Hold Me! was also used as the title of a play by Feiffer. Though I haven't seen it, I can easily imagine the cartoons from this collection being performed as vignettes on stage.

February 2006

The Office Special (2/1/06) Netflix (2002 ***½) Directed by Stephen Merchant, written by Ricky Gervais. Broken into two parts, this BBC special was created to give closure to the 12-episode television series, and that is what it gave us. I hate to admit it, but the end even brought a tear to my cynical eye. Of special interest were the behind-the-scenes bonus features on the DVD. It was fascinating seeing the cast and crew as they attended the Golden Globes ceremonies in Hollywood where they unexpectedly won two awards. It was also interesting hearing the actors discuss how the series had affected their lives.

I Capture the Castle (2/1/06) Netflix (2003 **½) Directed by Tim Fywell. This was truly a Netflix "chick flick," chosen by my fiancée. It was harmless enough and there were occasional bits of witty dialogue and quirky situations. Sadly, it really boiled down to a love story involving two poor sisters who fell in love with two rich brothers. Much of the plot revolved around one or more people being in love with the wrong person at the wrong time. There was also a minor subplot involving an alcoholic writer father, played by Bill Nighy. Watching the opening credits, I found it suspicious that the film's screenwriter Heidi Thomas shared her last name with Henry Thomas (Elliot of E.T. fame), who played one of the brothers. A quick search on the internet yielded no apparent connection, however.

Spencer's Mountain (2/2/06) Netflix (1963 **½) Directed by Delmer Daves, starring Henry Fonda, Maureen O'Hara and James MacArthur. This film was based on a novel by Earl Hamner Jr. and was filmed in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a setting God made especially for Cinemascope. Spencer's Mountain had a curious relationship with the TV series The Waltons: Following the success of his novel, Hamner wrote a Thanksgiving-themed novella called The Homecoming, revisiting the Spencer clan. This novella was turned into a TV movie. At some point the powers that be decided to change the name of the family from Spencer to Walton. And thus the long-running show was born. I'd never seen this movie before and rented it because it got fairly positive reviews. However, watching it was challenging: The dialogue throughout the film was so stilted and unnatural (occasionally invoking laughter) I was constantly thrown out of the experience and reminded I was watching a movie.

Bad News Bears (2/7/06) Netflix (2005 ***) Directed by Richard Linklater, starring Billy Bob Thornton, Greg Kinnear and Marcia Gay Harden. Though I'm recommending this film, there are times in life when you watch a remake and ask yourself if it needed to exist. Having seen the original recently, I would have to say no. Billy Bob Thornton did a fine job in the role of Morris Buttermaker, a role made famous by the late Walter Matthau. It was a testament to his acting ability that Thorton managed to make the part his own. There was nothing really wrong with this version; it followed the structure of the original quite closely, changing minor details. This was an odd choice for Linklater, a director whose movies I've enjoyed over the years, especially Dazed and Confused (1993) and Waking Life (2001). Thanks to School of Rock (2003), he gained a reputation for getting decent performances out of child non-actors. As with that film, Bears centered on the ensemble of kids as much as Thornton. The kids were fine for the most part, though I think it's questionable whether the filmmakers really should have favored baseball-playing ability over acting in a couple of key roles. This was especially true of Amanda, played in the new version by Sammi Kane Kraft, who suffered by comparison with Tatum O'Neil's performance in the original.

The Aristocrats (2/9/06) Netflix (2005 ***) Directed by Paul Provenza. There was a lot of rough language in this documentary about "the world's dirtiest joke," and it is definitely not for the easily offended. I've long been interested in the comedic process, and so the premise of this film was one that interested me from the first time I heard it: There's an old joke which has historically been told by comedians for other comedians. It is pretty filthy and as such wasn't suitable for general audiences until recently. The joke goes like this: A man walks into a talent agent's office and tells him he has an act for him. It's a "family act." He then proceeds to describe the foulest, most depraved scene imaginable, a scene involving incest and bodily fluids and bestiality. That's where the improvisation comes in and the humor cascades from the shock value from the detailed descriptions. At the end, the agent asks what the act is called and the man replies "The Aristocrats." The value of the documentary was not only that we got to see 100 comedians and assorted comic minds telling blue material in different ways, but they also deconstructed the joke, explaining why it was funny and the value of approaching the joke from certain directions. This commentary provided insight in how different comics approached their material: Some were more cerebral and thoughtful, while others simply rejoiced in the opportunity to wallow in sinful excess.

Capote (2/10/06) Dreamworks Screening (2005 ***) Directed by Bennett Miller, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman. Capote detailed the period of Truman Capote's life as he wrote In Cold Blood. It was primarily a character study and was generally successful as such. I didn't know much about Truman Capote before seeing this film and I now know a bit more. Hoffman gave what I felt was an award-worthy performance; with a prone-to-caricature personality like Capote's, the challenge was to give a nuanced performance, and that's exactly what Hoffman did. Still, my recommendation must be mild, not wholehearted. While I admired what the film accomplished, I still wish there had been a stronger sense of narrative structure. I understand that's difficult to do when working with biographical material. In addition, many of the scenes played at the same gray emotional level, without much contrast between them. One final note: It was extremely beneficial to watch the film version of In Cold Blood prior to viewing Capote. It gave me the sense of seeing the same story from two different points of view. A third vantage point might come from re-reading the book itself, which I haven't read since college. However, my level of interest at this point isn't quite high enough to warrant that degree of commitment.

Shopgirl (2/14/06) Novella (2000 **) Written by Steve Martin. I started reading this book last summer, then lost interest. It was a book I kept in my car for times when I needed to pass the time while waiting. I finally finished the last forty pages while waiting for a podiatry appointment. The word that came to mind in describing this thin little book was... "dry." Nominally the story was that of a love affair between an older, wealthy man and a girl in her early twenties. The older man deliberately maintained a level of emotional distance, while the woman drifted into their relationship as a reflection of her disaffection. The emotional range of all the characters presented seemed extraordinarily narrow. Even when Mirabelle, the shopgirl, cried, there remained an atmosphere of enervation and defeat. It was only in the final few pages of the book when the central characters came close to expressing anything resembling honest emotion. Since I started the book many moons ago, the film version has been released to mixed reviews. In spite of my 2-star review of the novella, I still have a mild interest in seeing how Steve Martin's characters and situations translated to the screen.

Bone: One Volume Edition (2/15/06) Graphic Novel (2004 ***½) Written and Illustrated by Jeff Smith. 1332 pages. 1332 pages??!! Holy smokes, what a massive tome! I read Bone during my lunch hours over the space of a couple of weeks. It would be difficult to attempt a critique of the Bone saga without mentioning its antecedents Carl Barks and The Lord of the Rings. Barks was best known as the writer/illustrator of some of the best Donald Duck comic book stories in the 1950's. This was apropos because the "Bone" characters were very cartoony, similar to the Disney designs. They shared their world with humans, rat creatures and dragons, all of which varied visually in levels of abstraction and realism. The story was truly an epic, told originally in serial comic book form over the course of many years. It was a huge accomplishment, especially seeing as it was the work of one man. In all honesty, while the characters were charming and endearing, I was never completely engaged by the story itself. This was largely because it was a fantasy story (like The Lord of the Rings) and that has never been my favorite genre. Still, I recognize the quality of this impressive work I spent so many hours reading, hence my strongly positive ***½ review.

The Polar Express (2/16/06) Netflix (2004 ***) Directed by Robert Zemeckis. I'd been meaning to watch this film for some time, and finally got around to it. Being in the industry, I'd reacted to clips I'd seen with skepticism. My primary aesthetic complaint has been that the characters' faces all seemed as if they'd been injected with Botox. They were inexpressive and their emotive range was extremely limited. The near-realism of the designs and the use of motion capture for much of the action led the viewer on a path that skirted the rim of Masahiro Mori's "uncanny valley." Aside from that complaint, my enjoyment of the film varied from scene to scene: At times I truly enjoyed it but at other times I was bored. My best recollection is that when it was released, reviews were similarly mixed. Some critics disliked it intensely, while Roger Ebert went out of his way on more than one occasion to praise it as a perennial classic. In spite of my lukewarm review, I can see his point. The key to this film was it was -- from start to finish -- aimed at an audience under nine years old. In spite of myself, I was touched by the simple "power of belief" message. With that in mind, it's not hard for me to imagine children watching and enjoying The Polar Express for many years to come.

I, Robot: The Illustrated Screenplay (2/18/06) Screenplay (1994 **) Written by Harlan Ellison, based on material by Isaac Asimov. I was loaned this book/screenplay by a friend; I’d heard of its existence when the Will Smith movie came out in 2004. Ellison’s take on the classic property had been described as a "thinking man’s" science fiction screenplay. Frankly, I wanted to like it more than I did. First of all, I was a bit put off by the shooting script format, with scene numbers breaking the flow of many of the scenes. In addition to this, it was (in my opinion) overly-heavy with camera direction and contained a "voice" in the descriptive passages that was distracting. In saying this, I should state I’ve only read a handful of screenplays in the past, so I‘m no expert. It is my opinion, however, that writers should write their screenplays and leave the directing to the directors. Overall, I’m not particularly surprised that this "greatest science fiction movie never made" was never green-lit. In spite of the romantic story Ellison wrote in the introduction about his being blacklisted after telling a studio executive he had the "intellectual capacity of an artichoke," I tried to imagine it on the screen and if it were shot as written I think its audience would have experienced long stretches of boredom. Ellison used a structure borrowed from Citizen Kane in which he used the Asimov stories as flashback episodes as a journalist attempted to solve the mystery of Susan Calvin, a recurring character in the source material. While I think that approach was a better choice than doing the film as an "omnibus" (like the film version of The Twilight Zone), the structure was still artificial. In addition, much of the tension of the plot relied on peeling away layers of revelation, and in context I didn’t find any of the "surprises" especially surprising. This was not because I knew what was happening in advance, either; it’s been years since I've read the original short stories.

Wimbledon Green: The Greatest Comic Book Collector in the World (2/18/06) Graphic Novel (2005 ****) Written and illustrated by Seth. In the foreword Seth apologized for the quality of the perfunctory story and sketchbook-quality words of this little book and then went on to explain how most of the material was created over the period of six months -- a parallel effort while he was occupied full-time with other projects. Unneeded apologies aside, this was another in a series of touching work. Wimbledon Green was a larger story told in multiple, sometimes conflicting, vignettes; the approach was that of Citizen Kane. It also managed to capture the soul of the comic book collector. As one myself, I appreciated the descriptions of men who could tell who made a comic by the way it smelled and its date by the location of the staples along its spine. There were explorations of fantasies only truly understood by collectors, such as the euphoria induced by the discovery of a suitcase filled with stacks of pristine mint-condition golden age comic books or the obsession of a rich collector who went broke searching for a copy of the long-rumored but never-seen Green Ghost #1.

Oddjob: The Collected Stories (2/18/06) Graphic Novel (2002 **) Written and illustrated by Ian and Tyson Smith. I picked this collection up at a used book store. Though I spent only $10, I knew almost immediately I'd made a mistake. There was nothing especially wrong with this collection of stories, it's just that they seemed so watered down. The material was definitely G-rated and suitable for kids, something I don't normally think about. In this case I'm afraid it diminished my enjoyment.

Sister Wendy: The Complete Collection (2/19/06) Netflix (1992 ****) BBC art history series. I loved Sister Wendy Beckett and her musings on the "story of art." Watching her series was inspiring: It made me want to go to art museums and undertake the study of art as a hobby. I'm embarrassed how much I've forgotten from my art history classes taken twenty years ago. The format of the show was straightforward enough: Sister Wendy sketched in the history of art, stopping along the way to stand before individual pieces to offer a mixture of critical analysis and her own personal -- sometimes saucy -- opinions. In doing so, she evoked a sense of wonder and peace that comes from the contemplation of the world of painting.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker (2/19/06) TV (1974 ***½) I first watched The Night Stalker as a lad of ten when it was originally broadcast, and I've never forgotten the program. Watching these episodes (aired on the Sci Fi Channel) for the first time in years, the appeal was still there. Darren McGavin really went out of his way to make Carl Kolchak a memorable character. I could see that in the choices he made and in the little "bits of business" he added to each scene. It was this sense of character which was sorely missing from the 2005 version and was undoubtedly one of the reasons it was canceled after only a handful of episodes. The Night Stalker stories themselves were a bit formulaic, and there was a bit of "fill in the blank" writing at work. What shifted from show to show was how the blanks were filled in. This was especially true of the guest stars, who ranged from Jim Backus to Larry Storch. I liked that the representatives of law enforcement changed from week to week, resulting in different (but always confrontational) relationships between Kolchak and the police. With all that going for it, why was it canceled after only 20 episodes? It may have been because Carl Kolchak himself was a bit of an acquired taste and the creature effects consistently... "left something to be desired." Which is a nice way of saying they sucked.

Capturing the Friedmans (2/20/06) Netflix (2003 ***) Directed by Andrew Jarecki. This was a hard documentary to watch. It was the story of what happened to a family after the husband and one of his sons were arrested for child molestation. The documentary presented both sides of the story and hopped back and forth between them, so the audience was never sure what the truth was and had to actively decide for themselves. Arnold and Jesse Friedman maintained their innocence. Were they lying? If so, to what extent? The extent of the charges was horrifying to the point of being unbelievable. Other family members were clearly living in denial about what really happened. The power of the film was heightened by video footage shot by David, the oldest son, which chronicled both family arguments and goofball behavior. Earlier film footage, taken by the father, showed what appeared to be a happy family, laughing and dancing and fooling around. What we ultimately witnessed in Capturing the Friedmans was a family unraveling at the seams.

How To Draw Caricatures (2/21/06) Nonfiction (1984 **½) Written and illustrated by Lenn Redman. I ordered this book because I am interested in producing caricatures myself. I read the entire book from cover to cover in one sitting, and I found Redman's writing style a bit rough and unpolished. This is often the case with artists who write about their work, and so it's a forgivable sin, I suppose. As for the content of the book... well, Redman didsn't offer much in terms of theory; he covered the basics (deviation from an average face) in the first few pages. The strength of the book lay in its examples, and we're offered many good ones, mostly taken from photos of Redman's friends and associates. He showed photographs of these subjects side-by-side with his caricatures. The last third of the book was devoted to examples from other caricature artists, many taken from Redman's clip file. In my opinion, the value of this section was questionable. The analysis wasn't strong enough to make them meaningful. My gut feeling was it was done as filler, to pad his material to book-length. I wish he'd devoted those pages to more of his own examples. At the risk of over-intellectualizing a subject that doesn't need it, I would have enjoyed more of an in-depth analysis. Having said that, this was the only book I've ever read on the subject and so I don't have a real frame of reference. There are only a few books available about caricature, and for all I know this may be the best of the lot.

The Island (2/22/06) DVD (2005 **) Directed by Michael Bay. I was home sick and my fiancée had brought home a copy from work. I knew from the reviews that The Island was really two movies: The first half was a science fiction film and the second half was an action-adventure chase film. Did The Island deserve to bomb at the box office? The marketing could have been better, certainly. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't good either. It had some nearly-clever ideas, but nothing particularly original. I think it was trying to be Blade Runner, but never set the bar especially high. Sometimes the time at which a movie is released affects its success, and I think that was the case here. Watching it, The Island seemed like the wrong movie for the wrong time.

Red Eye (2/22/06) DVD (2005 **½) Directed by Wes Craven, starring Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy. As with The Island, I watched this to kill time while home with a cold. My fiancée had brought a copy home and since she wasn't interested in watching it, I took advantage of the opportunity to watch it while she wasn't around. Red Eye was a surprisingly short movie, actually. I think the end credits started at the 71 minute mark. That wasn't necessarily a bad thing in this case, since the story was fairly simple and didn't require a full 90 minutes to be told. My main complaint, and I'm not sure it's even a fair one, was this: The writing seemed dumbed down, aimed at a 19-year-old slasher-film audience. I'm sure that was a deliberate choice, but as a man in his early 40's, I was put off by it.

In Her Shoes (2/23/06) Netflix (2005 ***) Directed by Curtis Hanson, starring Cameron Diaz, Toni Collette, and Shirley MacClaine. This movie was as solidly "chick flick" as you can get, but for reasons I don't entirely understand, I often enjoy those sorts of movies. The story in a nutshell: Diaz played the screw-up younger sister to uptight Collette. After sleeping with her sister's boyfriend, Diaz left Philadelphia to stay with her grandmother (MacClaine) in Miami. Throughout the film there was an undercurrent of emotional manipulation, but it was just tolerable enough to work without sending me into a rage. Was it a great movie? No. At 130 minutes, it was about twenty minutes too long. But it did offer some strong performances and worked as a dysfunctional family comedy/drama.

The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (2/24/06) Graphic Novel (2005 **) Written and illustrated by Will Eisner. This was the last graphic novel completed by Eisner before his death at age 87. I'm a big fan of his and was saddened to learn of his passing. The Plot was published posthumously. It was a strange graphic novel in that it was really a research tract in comic book form. While I acknowledge the importance of publicizing the fraudulent nature of the greatest anti-Semitic hoax in history, the point was quickly made and on the whole I wasn't that interested in the material. There was a point in the middle of the book in which Eisner devoted page after page to a side-by-side analysis of the "Protocols" and the original source material ("The Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu") from which it was plagiarized. I admit I didn't read this section in its entirety because after the first couple of pages I got the point. This material could have worked better as an addition to the appendix.

Fawlty Towers: The Complete Series (2/24/06) DVD (1975, 1979 ****) Written by John Cleese and Connie Booth. In the opinion of many, it doesn't get any better than this. Fawlty Towers has often been cited as the best television sitcom ever. Booth and Cleese were married at the time they wrote and appeared in this series, which was set at an inn in the British resort town of Torquay. There were two 6-episode series, the first shot in 1975 and the second shot four years later. Like many, I have fond memories of watching Fawlty Towers as a teenager as it aired on PBS stations and remember especially being knocked out by the sheer concentration of verbal and physical humor. Part of the joy in watching it -- and why it still holds up -- was that each episode was structured as a farce, usually revolving around some scheme or misunderstanding by Basil Fawlty. As the half-hour episode progressed, the level of emotional intensity got increasingly higher until it exploded in climax shortly before the end credits. If you'll forgive me one side-note excursion into trivia-ville: I may be one of the few people who remember watching a short-lived American adaptation starring Maude's Bea Arthur in the Basil Fawlty role. According to the internet, the show was called Amanda's and aired on ABC from February to May 1983.

The Transporter (2/25/06) Netflix (2002 ***) Directed by Corey Yuen, starring Jason Statham and Qi Shu. I rented this because my fiancée had expressed interest in seeing the recently-released Transporter 2. I am not the biggest fan of action adventure movies, but I was entertained by this one enough to recommend it. The main criticism I had of the film -- and I don't even know that it's a fair one -- is that it seemed to have been written by a 14-year-old. Everyone and everything in the world of The Transporter apparently operated based on a comic book logic set at a stunted level of maturity. In other words, though the characters were played in the movie by adult actors, I got the distinct impression they were merely avatars for teenage boys playing a video game.

Since You Went Away (2/26/06) Netflix (1944 ***½) Directed by John Cromwell, starring Claudette Colbert, Joseph Cotten, Monty Woolley, Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple. This film depicted the world left behind when a man goes off to war. From the first frame it was clear the film was WWII propaganda through and through, but it was handled in such a way as to be palatable. Since You Went Away showed how lives were touched by the war and how those on the home front did their part. Agnes Moorehead played a woman who represented the type of person who saw the war as an "inconvenience" and complained about rationing instead of helping out in the war effort. It's a rare treat for me to find classic films I've never seen before that are truly good, and so I try to seek them out. This was a long film, nearly three hours in length. It could have slipped into melodrama but it avoided that trap. It featured excellent production values, including some especially effective lighting setups and shot compositions. My only real criticism of the writing was that the foreshadowing was painted with too heavy a hand; it didn't take much wit to realize early on that any characters referred to as "lucky" were likely to meet an unfortunate end.

March 2006

Finian's Rainbow (3/1/06) Netflix (1968 ***½) Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Fred Astaire, Petula Clark and Tommy Steele. Finian's Rainbow is a sentimental favorite of mine. My mom had a copy of the soundtrack I was growing up and I listened to it over and over. The movie featured some wonderful songs by Yip Harburg and Burton Lane, including some of my favorites, like "Old Devil Moon" and "Look to the Rainbow." Let's face it, I'm a sentimental sap for any movie about a crazy dreamer. In a rare move for me, I listened to the director's commentary while watching the film a second time. This provided some wonderful insight by Coppola, who was only twenty-nine and fresh out of film school when the film was made. In particular, I enjoyed his articulate discussion of what he would have done differently, and how as a young director he thought his job was "to stage the musical numbers" and generally focus on the mechanical tasks. As an experienced director, he now knows his mission should have been to "bring the characters to life." He also said he would have cut much of the dialogue in the interest of shortening the film from it's 2 ½ - hour running length.

Ultimate Avengers: The Movie (3/2/06) Netflix (2006 ***) Directed by Curt Geda, Steven E. Gordon and Bob Richardson. I don't know why, but for some crazy reason I thought this direct-to-video was computer animated. It wasn't. It's been quite some time since I've watched a cartoon with TV-quality animation values, but I was surprisingly pulled into the action sequences, particularly toward the end, when the Hulk went on a rampage. Though I enjoyed it mildly, I probably won't make a point of watching the sequel. After the film, I watched one of the special features, which included interviews with some of the artists and writers who worked on the comic book over the years. I loved this "behind the scenes" material on the comic book production process, and in some ways I found those interviews more engaging than the movie itself.

Mexican Hayride (3/4/06) DVD (1948 **) Directed by Charles Barton. The most interesting thing about this film was that it was based on a popular play with music by none other than Cole Porter. None of his songs were used, however. Bud Abbott often played con men, but in this case his character was particularly evil, executing a phony silver mine stock swindle with the intention of sticking Lou Costello with the blame. Mexican stereotypes abounded, leaving me to wonder if the writers had ever actually traveled south of the border. One of the funniest bits in the film didn't really make sense: Lou's character paid for his trip to Mexico by participating in a dance marathon, and as a result, every time anyone played a Samba he began dancing.

Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (3/4/06) DVD (1949 ***) Directed by Charles Barton. This was a fun little murder mystery set at a hotel in California, where Lou became the prime suspect in a series of killings. It was a formula similar to their earlier film, Who Done It? There were creepy and suspicious characters a-plenty, including Boris Karloff himself, who played an evil turban-wearing hypnotist. On the whole, it was a fun romp but a little gruesome: at one point Karloff tried to get Lou to commit suicide while under hypnosis and many of the gags in the film involved the discovery and/or relocation of dead bodies. There were plot holes you could steer a ship through, too: I thought the revelation of the "true killer" at the end wasn't consistent with the rest of the film, but in a movie like this, who really cares?

Abbott and Costello In The Foreign Legion (3/5/06) DVD (1950 **) Directed by Charles Lamont. According to the production notes, This was the first film the team made after a year-long absence due to by Lou Costello's illness, and there was a perceptible change compared to their previous films. There was still a lot of physical humor and more than a few pratfalls, but much of the manic energy was diminished. It was oddly distracting that the names of the characters in the film were "Bud" and "Lou." One fun trivia note: Vacant-eyed Tor Johnson of Plan 9 From Outer Space fame appeared in a small role... as a wrestler!

Abbott and Costello Meet The Invisible Man (3/9/06) DVD (1951 **½) Directed by Charles Lamont. Boy, they "met" a lot of interesting people, didn't they? In this film,"the boys" played mixed up private detectives trying to clear the sullied name of an invisible boxer. The focus of the humor was on invisibility gags, not on comedy routines as in past films. Once again, Bud and Lou played characters named "Bud" and "Lou," which wasn't quite as distracting as it was in Abbott and Costello In The Foreign Legion.

Sweet Smell of Success (3/9/06) Netflix (1957 ***) Directed by Alexander Mackendrick, who also directed The Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955). Burt Lancaster played a powerful newspaper columnist and Tony Curtis played a... well, scumbag in this noir psychological drama set in Manhattan. The plot was complicated, with its center being Curtis who was trying to eke out a sleazy living as a publicist by doing favors for Lancaster and others. Martin Milner (of Adam-12 fame) played a jazz guitarist in love with Lancaster's sister. I especially enjoyed the scenes filmed in and around Times Square. It was also fun listening to the acid-tongued dialogue delivered by characters who all despised -- yet depended upon -- each other.

Transporter 2 (3/11/06) Netflix (2005 ***) Directed by Louis Leterrier, starring Jason Statham. Driver Frank Martin is in Miami covering for a chauffer friend when his young charge is kidnapped as part of a drug plot. There was action a-plenty, of course, and some of it bordered on the ridiculous. I enjoyed it for the most part, and at 87 minutes, it wasn't long enough to be boring. How's that for a mild recommendation?

Marvel 1602 (3/12/06) Graphic Novel (2004 ***) Written by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Andy Kubert. Though Kubert's illustrations didn't do much for me, it's always a pleasure to read Gaiman's writing, and 1602 was no exception. The premise: What if Marvel's superheroes had lived four centuries early? It fit in well with Gaiman's excursions into the Elizabethan period in Sandman. My one complaint: As with many graphic novels, this was originally published in serial form, and its story was originally plotted to take place over the course of six issues, then was re-architected (undoubtedly to increase profits) for eight. The result was a kind of uneven pacing, and the end of each "chapter" tended to come rather abruptly.

A Night in Casablanca (3/15/06) Netflix (1946 **) Directed by Archie Mayo, starring the Marx brothers. Having recently re-watched some of the Abbott and Costello movies, it was interesting for me to watch this Marx Brothers film. On the whole I enjoyed the Abbott and Costello films more. This was not one of the Marx brothers' best known, but the premise (a parody of Casablanca) intrigued me. While it was set in Casablanca and featured many of the elements of the namesake film, it may as well have been set in Canyon Country north of L.A. The 1946 release date suggests a certain context for the film. I thought the scenes early on in which the movie's heavy, a German, beat defenseless Harpo weren't amusing at all. Keeping in mind the Jewish heritage of the comedy team, there was an ever-present tension. When Groucho humiliated the former Nazis and then said, "master race, huh?" there was an undeniable, uncomfortable, edge to the line. Certainly the sentiment was justifiable, even commendable, but it detracted from the humor, what there was of it. Frankly, by the end of the film I just wanted it to... well, end, and all along the way I was less than enthralled.

Top Hat (3/16/06) Netflix (1935 **½) Directed by Mark Sandrich. It's been years since I last watched a Fred Astaire / Ginger Rogers movie. After seeing Finian's Rainbow recently, I looked forward to seeing a much younger Fred Astaire. Top Hat was, for the most part, a decent movie, and it featured the classic Irving Berlin song "Cheek to Cheek", but for my tastes the plot interfered too much with the musical numbers. As with a lot of popular depression-era films, the story was pure escapist screwball, predicated largely on misunderstandings and mistaken identities. While I understand that and appreciate the historical context, Top Hat never really spoke to me in the same way that a better-written film of the era, like The Philadelphia Story, still does.

The Weather Man (3/19/06) Netflix (2005 ***½) Directed by Gore Verbinski, written by Steve Conrad. This movie really isn't for everybody, and there are probably many who would be underimpressed by such a downbeat story. Nicolas Cage played Chicago TV weather personality David Spritz, a man struggling with the realization that his life was far from the one he envisioned for himself. Michael Caine delivered a fantastic, measured performance in a supporting role as Cage's father, a Pulitzer-prize-winning writer dying of cancer. There was a lot of really smart stuff in this film; it was a film whose words and images continued to haunt me weeks after seeing it.

Escape To Witch Mountain (3/21/06) Netflix (1975 **) Directed by John Hough. I know, I know. This was a very strange choice of movie to be watched by a 41-year-old man. As with some of my other recent Mid-70's Disney picks, I'm going to claim middle-age nostalgia as my defense. I'm sorry to report this movie didn't hold up so well. The problem was twofold: (1) the writing was at times abysmal, with sub-par dialogue that sounded stilted even compared to old episodes of Scooby Doo. (2) The two child leads -- Kim Richardson and Ike Eisenmann -- weren't very good actors. For example, in the first or second shot after the title sequence, young Ike appeared to look off-screen at a crew member. Poor kid. In the interest of balance, however, the film had a few high points as well: The scenes shot along the California coastline brought back a few pleasant memories, and Donald Pleasance and Ray Milland delivered good performances as the film's heavies. Still, there was just not enough in the movie to make it worth recommending. This may be as good a time as any to get something off my chest: As a youth, I had a huge crush on Kim Richardson, and I made an extra effort to see everything she was in, including the short-lived 1979 TV show Hello, Larry. In my defense, this wasn't inappropriate age-wise. According to the Internet Movie Database, she was born less than a month before me. (She's also apparently Paris Hilton's aunt!) So what was the attraction? I don't know, but watching the film again after all these years, it definitely wasn't because of her acting ability; I think it had more to do with her long blonde hair. That and her psychic powers.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker Chronicles (3/21/06) Fiction (2005 ***½) This was a collection of twenty-six short stories based on the 1970's TV show, of which I have been a fan since they were originally aired. What's interesting about this set of stories was that they were all written with the same constraint: All were set in the present day and had Carl Kolchak working for The Hollywood Dispatch. With twenty-six stories, it was as though the book represented a TV season that might have been, yet never was. All the stories were approximately the same length, so it's fairly easy to see how they might be reworked and fashioned into TV episodes. I enjoyed almost every one of the stories -- which were consistently well-written -- and am therefore recommending the volume strongly. It certainly helps, however, to be a fan of the original show. It saddens me to admit I rarely read short stories, and I don't know why that is; whenever I do I find them a nice treat. Speaking of treats, in what had to be a fan's wet dream, one of the stories included a meeting between Kolchak and Barnabas Collins from Dark Shadows! This pairing wasn't random; the connection was Dan Curtis, who created Dark Shadows and went on to produce the first ABC Night Stalker telefilm and produce/direct the second.

Just Like Heaven (2/22/06) DVD (2005 **½) Directed by Mark Waters, starring Reese Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo. The premise: A depressed man (Ruffalo) rents a month-to-month San Francisco apartment and meets what appears to be a ghost (Witherspoon). Hijinx and romance ensue. This was pretty light fare, and there is nothing exactly wrong with that. I enjoyed it well enough, and as I watched and there were a few lines that made me chuckle, but nothing really stuck to my psyche afterwards. So, who should see this movie? It has all the elements of a good, innocuous, first date movie.

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (3/23/06) Netflix (1969 **) Directed by Sydney Pollack, starring Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin. When I described this movie to my fiancée, she asked me why on earth I wanted to watch it. Yes, it was depressing and bleak and the unsatisfying ending was the ultimate culmination of that effect. I suppose the disillusionment theme was a reflection of the Vietnam era in which the movie was made. The setting was a dance marathon during the depression. Apparently audiences paid money to watch couples struggle on the dance floor hour upon hour. It's hard to imagine what was so entertaining about that, but perhaps I'm underestimating the human desire to see other people's misery. Gig Young played a sadistic (puppet) master of ceremonies for this endurance event that lasted more than forty-five days. The grand prize? $1,500 in silver dollars. I had a real issue with the characterizations throughout. Jane Fonda played a snarky bitch and Sarrazin played a yokel and neither of them were really changed by the end of the picture. If you like watching human nature at its ugliest and the repeated horn blasts signaling ten-minute breaks every two hours, then this is the film for you.

Y: The Last Man Volume 3: One Small Step (3/23/06) Graphic Novel (2004 ***) Written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Pia Guerra. After all the males on earth except Yorick and his pet monkey Ampersand have been wiped out, it's revealed there are two male astronauts in orbit. There is a political tug-of-war of sorts to see who claims those other two men. While I'm recommending it, I don't feel particularly strongly about this series. What it had going for it: The dialogue was better-written than most comic books and it was reasonably entertaining. Unfortunately, there was nothing that especially resonated with me. My reason for reading it? I got it for a good price at a used book store. If I find a copy of volume 4 under the same circumstances, I may continue reading the series.

The Files of Ms. Tree Vol. One (3/24/06) Graphic Novel (1984 **½) Written by Max Allan Collins, Illustrated by Terry Beatty. It seems like many of my book reviews begin with a purchase in a used book store, and this was no exception. $3.50 was a deal too good for me to turn down. I’ve been familiar with native Iowan Max Allan Collins for some time, having lived in Iowa myself for seventeen years. We’ve never met, though he almost worked on a film project with a good friend of mine, so I guess we’re one degree of separation removed. The first two stories in the Ms. Tree saga were some of his earlier writings. At times they were clunky, but the improvement over the course of the stories was remarkable . The same was true of Beatty’s drawings. In his introduction to the second story arc, Beatty acknowledged a certain sense of embarrassment over his early work. It might be interesting to read this book and Collins' later work Road to Perdition back to back and compare his writing development over the years. Ms. Tree still worked, however, as a classic hard-boiled detective story with a feminine twist.

Comin’ Round the Mountain (3/25/06) DVD (1951 **) Directed by Charles Lamont. Abbott and Costello visit the hills of Kentucky and become part of a hillbilly feud in this lesser comedy. The central narrative conflict, such that it was, revolved around Lou’s marriage to a 14-year-old tomboy named Matt. Hmmm. As their career wound down, it was nice to note that the production values in their films were still fairly high and "the boys" were still doing their best. Unfortunately, they didn’t have much material to work with. I watched this movie on a Saturday afternoon while eating lunch following my bi-monthly Toastmasters meeting. That’s probably just about the perfect circumstances under which to watch this innocuous time-killing flick.

Dirty Found Magazine Presents the Dirty Found Powerpoint Show (3/25/06) Steve Allen Theater (2006 ***) Jason Bitner and Arthur Jones are the creators and producers of Found Magazine. People send in “interesting” photographs and writings they’ve discovered in the trash or on a city street. This material is then collected and presented in magazine and book form. As Bitner and Jones explained in their introduction, some of the material they’re sent is R and X-rated and not suitable for publication in their regular magazine. They’ve decided to periodically publish this material as Dirty Found, the second issue of which was distributed to the audience in attendance. Some of the material was very raunchy and occasionally gross, but consistently entertaining. I wonder how they got the idea to present the material live to an audience? It’s not your standard theater fare; I’ve certainly never paid $10 a ticket to see a Powerpoint presentation before. Maybe they were just doing it because they could. Hell, I can understand as well as anyone the desire to indulge in a little P.T. Barnum showmanship. Even though the program got off to a rocky A/V start (their laptop went into hibernation mode and it took five or ten minutes to restart), they kept the audience entertained by reading ahead from the pieces of their presentation and passing out free cans of Miller High Life. One word about the Steve Allen Theater: It’s located in the Center for Inquiry-West, a building devoted to the pursuit of skepticism. It made for an odd venue choice, but was somehow appropriate to material that required its audience to keep an open mind.

Walk the Line (3/25/06) Netflix (2005 ***) Directed by James Mangold, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. Witherspoon won the best actress Oscar for her role as June Carter in this Johnny Cash biopic. As with all biographical-based movies, this one suffered occasionally from "compression of convenience," in which life events were obviously restructured and recombined for dramatic effect. I liked (but not loved) the film and the music was good. Much has been made of Phoenix and Witherspoon doing their own singing. I actually found that a little distracting and sometimes wished they’d used the original recordings. I understand why that would have been a restriction, however.

Chicken Little (3/29/06) Netflix (2005 ***) Directed by Mark Dindal. As a professional working in the computer animation industry, I'm embarrassed to admit it's taken me so long to see Disney's Chicken Little. I really don't have a good excuse. I guess I just wasn't interested enough to make the effort to see it in a proper theater. I was pleasantly surprised by the film on the whole. The story was far more interesting than I'd expected. I had a general sense of the story and knew there was the "sky is falling scene at the beginning" and a baseball game and some sort of invasion by aliens. I expected a rehash of the plot from the Jimmy Neutron movie and was happy when things progressed in an interesting fashion from beginning to end. My complaints? I thought the whole "you were never there for me" subplot with Chicken Little's father (voiced by Gary Marshall) was too soft and mushy for me to care about it. The other thing that bothered me was the character design. With the exception of the title character and a few others, the designs seemed uninspired. The animation itself was wonderful, though there were some moments when there seemed too much frantic, frenetic activity on the screen and I wish there'd been more variation.

The Lover (3/30/06) Netflix (1992 **½) Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. Jane March played a French 15-year-old and Tony Leung Ka Fai played her 32-year-old Chinese lover in this erotic drama set in 1929 French Colonial Vietnam. If you find that premise appealing, then this is the movie for you. If not, well... I personally could have done without the scenes of the girl's family screaming at each other, but I have to admit the sex was pretty hot. There were a couple of times when it got so graphic I swear I saw body parts I wasn't supposed to see in an R-rated movie! Ultimately, I found the movie to be a downer; though the dialogue was mostly in English, it was a French film with a French ending... if you know what I mean.

April

The Goonies (4/1/06) Netflix (1985 ***½) Directed by Richard Donner, Story by Steven Spielberg, Written by Chris Columbus. I hadn't watched The Goonies since sometime in the 1980's. With Spielberg and pre- Home Alone Columbus involved in its creation, it was very solidly an Indiana Jones - inspired adventure for kids. This was released only two years after E.T., and Spielberg was leveraging his Hollywood powers the best he could. There was a strange phenomenon surrounding this movie I noticed when it was released on DVD last year. Many of my co-workers, who were kids in 1985 when Goonies was released theatrically, were CRAZY for this movie! It obviously occupied a special place in their hearts. Myself, I was a Junior in college at the time and wasn't nearly so excited when I saw it in the theater; It just seemed too deliberately manipulative. Now, twenty years later, I enjoyed the hell out of it. One special note: On the DVD there was a commentary option. Once selected, it included a fantastic audio (with occasional video) commentary by the original Goonies kids and Richard Donner. If you have the time, it's well worth watching. Also included was a "making of" featurette. From it and the commentary comments, you got the sense there was a real love-hate relationship between Donner and the kids in the cast.

Defending Your Life (4/3/06) Netflix (1991 ****) Written and Directed by Albert Brooks. Brooks and Meryl Streep starred in this answer to the question: What if the afterlife bore a strong resemblance to jury duty? Every so often somebody makes a little metaphysical heaven-related comedy and Defending Your Life was one of the best of the bunch. It may even be my favorite. I loved the approach Brooks took with his defender, played by Rip Torn, who was obviously doing the best he could with what he had to work with. He knew it, Daniel Miller (Brooks) knew it, everybody knew it. As with most Albert Brooks comedies, there was an important idea at its core: Maybe we go through our entire lives with one real purpose, to face -- and conquer -- our fears, so we can move on. I know Brooks has a lot in common with Woody Allen, especially in that he's an acquired taste. Unlike Allen, who has made a new film every year for the past three decades, Brooks has only made a handful of films in his career. It's a shame he hasn't made more.

Elizabethtown (4/6/06) Netflix (2005 ***) Written and Directed by Cameron Crowe, starring Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst. The movie began with Orlando Bloom's character learning about a billion-dollar blunder he's responsible for at a shoe company. ("I didn't say 'million,' I said 'billion.' That's a lot of millions!") While in the process of committing suicide, he received a call from his sister telling him their father has died. As the oldest child, it was his responsibility to go to Elizabethtown, Kentucky and bring his father home. There was a lot I liked about this film. I am a fan of Cameron Crowe's from way back and always look forward to his work. Case in point: Almost Famous is one of those movies I wish I'd made. He has a couple things going for him I really admire: He's a smart writer, and knows it. Just when the audience thinks he's going to zig, he zags. He also knows just how to hit the emotionally-resonant chords. In the case of Elizabethtown, there were a lot of those chords, but they didn't all fit together and make logical sense. Characters didn't behave in ways that fit the situation. Instead, they did things that would have the biggest emotional impact on the audience. That kept pulling me out of the movie. I feel somewhat obligated to say something about music. Cameron Crowe's films always make great use of music. In this case it was laid on a bit thickly, however. The road trip at the end of the film was punctuated with bits and pieces of music and after awhile it all just blended together. It would have been more powerful had music not been used in similar fashion throughout the film. I know my review has focused on a lot of the negatives, yet I'm still giving it a recommendation. It is a good film, but it doesn't live up to the greatness of Almost Famous or Jerry Maguire.

Bizarro Comics (4/8/06) Graphic Novel (2001 ***) Written and illustrated by various. What would it be like if DC let their beloved pantheon of characters fall into the hands of the hottest independent comix writers and artists? That's the question posed in this collection of short stories. There was a (largely unnecessary) framing story as well, featuring Mr. Mxyzptlk and Bizarro Superman. On the whole I enjoyed the little stories, some of which played as parody while others (the more successful ones in my opinion) gave us a glimpse of what the familiar superheroes would be like if they existed in the alternative comix universe. If anything, I wish the stories had pushed boundaries still further. I felt a sense of G-rated constraint throughout. Well-known artists and writers included: Andi Watson, Bob Fingerman, Jeff Smith, Chris Duffy, and others. Buyer beware: the best-known artists like Matt Groening and Gilbert Hernandez offered the minimum necessary material to warrant using their names to sell this volume. My favorite story (one referenced in most reviews of the book) was produced by Kyle Baker and Liz Glass and involved Supergirl and Mary Marvel meeting for coffee.

Thank You For Smoking (4/9/06) Glendale Mann 10 (2005 ***½) Written and directed by Jason Reitman. Aaron Eckhart played Nick Naylor, the "sultan of spin" for Big Tobacco. The plot would be challenging to describe, but suffice to say Nick had his ups and downs. There was a charming cynicism throughout; all that is wrong with America and the business world was turned upside down. Eckhart's character was a fantastic anti-hero. Over the course of the film, he became subversively sympathetic. When asked by a reporter (played by Katie Holmes) why he did what he did, his answer was: "to pay the mortgage." Later, he asked his son, "How would it be any different if I were a lawyer paid to defend a murderer?"

Essential Fantastic Four Vol 2 (4/10/06) Comics (****) Written by Stan Lee, illustrated by Jack Kirby. This volume (which I picked up for $6 at a used book store) contained black and white versions of Fantastic Four #21-40, Annual #2, and a Human Torch / Spider-Man story from Strange Tales. All total, it was about five hundred pages of comic book and though I own many of the original comics, it was a nice way to read the collection. The first thing I noticed was how dense Lee's writing was in the early 1960's. Words practically filled every panel and each story took longer than to read than I was used to. All these tales were produced using the "marvel style" of writing: Stan Lee would give Kirby an outline of what was to happen, Kirby would illustrate the story, then Lee would craft his words to the already-drawn panels. As I read these stories for the first time in decades, I caught a glimpse of why it was so popular, sending Marvel Comics sales skyrocketing. Their appeal lay in the contrast between their gritty tales and DC's far more homogenized and sanitized stories from the same era. There was an innocence there, something that's truly been lost in the meantime. Don't get me wrong, I like the comics being produced today, but there was a pure escapist joy in The Fantastic Four in the early to mid 1960's that may be imitated but never duplicated. For me, one of the litmus tests of any "classic" is whether it still holds up. The answer here is a resounding yes! Forty years later, there remained a freshness to the stories and the interactions of the four main characters. Nuff said!

Broken Flowers (4/10/06) Netflix (2005 **½) Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, starring Bill Murray. Murray played Don Johnston, an aging Don Juan who receives a letter telling him he has a 19-year old son he didn't know about. The problem is the letter wasn't signed and because of his habitual "sowing of wild oats" he doesn't know who the mother is. He's able to narrow it down to a list of five women, one of which is dead. And so his journey began. This was a challenging movie to review. The pace was deliberately slow and remained so throughout. The emotional range of Murray's character was extremely limited, so much so that it must have been a difficult film for him to make. (SPOILER) Adding additional baggage to the viewing experience, Broken Flowers did not have a normal resolution. In the end, Johnston was in much the same place as when he started, only a little richer, albeit more confused, for having made the journey.

Fax from Sarajevo (4/14/06) Graphic Novel (1996 ***) Written and illustrated by Joe Kubert. This book detailed the story of Ervin Rustemagic, who in 1992 began the struggle to get his family out of Sarajevo and away from the Serb military. His primary method of keeping in touch with his friends in the outside world was to send hundreds of faxes. The description of this very human story was heart-wrenching at times. The imagery and events seemed to have been taken from World War II Poland. It was astonishing to believe this sort of thing could and did happen so recently, and it made me wonder what we would do if it happened here, now. How would we all survive if our lives were turned upside down and we lost everything? Throughout the book the text of actual faxes was reprinted. One passage particularly struck home in which Ervin wrote (paraphrasing): "In times like these, time passes but you're not living; you're only aging faster than normal." A note or two on Kubert's writing and illustration: Growing up, I was never a big fan of Joe Kubert. His drawings always felt so "sketchy" to me compared with the cleaner lines of other comic artists. As an adult I truly appreciate Kubert's style and his mastery as a visual storyteller. As for his writing, there was an ever-present tone akin to the hushed voice a father might use to tell a disturbing story to a young child. Unfortunately, the effect of that artificial voice was to distance me from the story at times when I should have been more emotionally immersed.

Godspell (4/15/06) DVD (1973 ****) Directed by David Greene, starring Victor Garber and David Haskell. Godspell is one of my favorite movies, and one of the few movies I watch every two years or so. It was, effectively, the Gospel according to St. Matthew as told by hippies in an eerily vacant New York City. That description, while accurate, doesn’t do it justice. I’ve said it many times: Godspell represented everything that was good about the early 1970’s. Yes, Virginia, there truly was a time when people felt they could make the world a better place if they just had enough tempera paint. Watching it last night I was literally moved to tears many times throughout the movie. The main reason it holds such a special power over my emotions and a place in my heart is nostalgia: I first saw it at age nine it when it was originally released. That was a very happy time for me and watching Godspell always releases a flood of joyous feelings. I can’t recall if I saw Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar first. In my memory (which may not be entirely accurate) they were released within months of each other. It can be argued that Superstar boasted the superior soundtrack, but there was no shortage of great songs in Godspell: "Day by Day," "In the Willows" and many more. Beyond all my personal sentimental reasons for liking it so much, I think it still holds up remarkably well today. Greene’s directing style worked perfectly in concert with the material and all the emotional beats were underscored beautifully. It was, however, a little disturbing watching the footage shot around (and atop) the world trade center towers, which were still under construction at the time the movie was filmed. One final thought: I regret I’ve never seen a stage production version of Godspell. That is something I am going to have to rectify someday.

Get a Life (4/16/06) Graphic Novel (2006 ***½) Written and Illustrated by Philippe Dupuy and Charles Berberian. I recently spied this paperback at a my favorite used book store. Glancing inside at the art, it looked like something I’d enjoy and the price was right. So I bought it. A couple weeks later when I started reading it I noticed the printing quality was a little pixilated. That’s annoying, I thought. Well, when I looked at the front cover, it read: "Advance reader’s copy -- NOT FOR SALE" and the date of publication inside was listed as June, 2006. Oops. So I guess this is what they call an "early review," huh? I wasn’t familiar with Dupuy and Berberian, and apparently with good reason: They’re from the other side of the Atlantic. According to the liner notes, the adventures of their character "Monsieur Jean" have been printed in France for twenty years. As I read through them, I thoroughly enjoyed the stories, which ranged in length from ½-page to 15 pages. They were all about the trials and tribulations and laughs and (especially) loves of Jean, a young writer living in Paris. His "adventures" were quite ordinary, really: dealing with his snooping landlady; the prospect of losing his sweet apartment; the irritations of his flaky best friend and falling in love with a woman whose jealous ex-boyfriend trashes his apartment, spray-painting "NOT YOURS!" on the walls. Surprisingly (or perhaps not), I could relate to the character quite well. What does that say about me?

Return From Witch Mountain (4/17/06) Netflix (1978 **½) Directed by John Hough. Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann are back as Tia and Tony. It's been three years since we last saw them and they're in the greater Los Angeles area on a kind of vacation. Within minutes of their arrival on the 50-yard line of the Rose Bowl, Tony gets kidnapped by villains played by Christopher Lee and Bette Davis. Lee's character has created a mind control device, which he uses to turn Tony into, effectively, a telekinetic evil killer robot. This sequel was actually marginally better than its predecessor. It was still clearly a Disney film written in a hurry, shot on a limited budget and aimed at young kids. I'm pretty sure I went to see the film when it was released, though at age 13 I would have been slightly older than its target audience.

Bringing Up Baby (4/17/06) Netflix (1938 ***½) Directed by Howard Hawks. Cary Grant played a nerdy paleontologist trying to find his bone and Katherine Hepburn played an accident-prone woman with a leopard in this classic screwball comedy. I saw it for the first time, I believe, in 1986 in a film class. Though early in their respective careers, Grant and Hepburn shined brilliantly, demonstrating the stuff stars are made of. As with any movie in this genre, there was a lot of screaming and noise and flustered misunderstandings. My only (minor) criticism: There were too many times when the dialogue felt "written for the stage."

The Thin Man (4/21/06) Netflix (1934 ****) Directed by W.S. Van Dyke, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. Based on Dashiell Hammett's novel (which I read this past October), this was the film that launched one of the great movie series of all time. Powell played the hard-boiled but less-than-slightly-soused detective, Nick Charles and Loy played his adoring wife, Nora. Though not exactly the model for a perfect marriage, the banter between the two was always a treat. As for the plot, who really cares? It was characters that drove this franchise! Characters, I tells ya!!

The Worst Thing I've Ever Done (4/22/06) Graphic Novel (1996 ***) Written and illustrated by Ted Rall. For a year, Ted Rall asked everyone he met the question: "What was the worst thing you've ever done?" He illustrated their answers and compiled them into this collection of short tales, many only a page long. These "true confessions" ranged from infidelity to murder. Some of the tales were gut-wrenching to read, but I couldn't have stopped even if I tried. My main complaint was with the thin nature of the collection. There really should have been more stories. It's as though Rall lost interest in his own project somewhere along the way.

To Sir, With Love (4/23/06) Novel (1959 ***½) Written by E.R. Braithwaite. I picked this book up in, of all places, a Salvation Army store. The copy I read was an old, battered library book, with the index card and holder still inside the front cover. I loved the movie when I was younger and will be re-watching and reviewing (is that redundant?) it shortly. I never realized the movie was (a) based on a book or (b) based on real events. The book was actually more about racism in 1950's England than about a teacher who made a difference in his students' lives. Though it took a few pages to get into the story, once I did I was hooked and read the whole thing in two days.

Real Life (4/25/06) Netflix (1978 **) Written and directed by Albert Brooks. This film fell solidly into the "I really wanted to like it more" category. The concept was a parody of The American Family, an early-70's PBS documentary that followed a family as they went about their daily lives. I've never seen that documentary; I wonder if it's available on Netflix? Brooks' take on this source material was perhaps a bit ahead of its time. In today's world we're seemingly inundated with reality programming and this film is possibly more topical now than it was nearly thirty years ago. Why exactly didn't the film work better? For one thing, it was clear it was shot on a budget, with a lot of decisions made for cost-cutting reasons. More importantly, one of the main story points was how the presence of the camera crew caused the family to become stressed out and depressed. In my book, spending significant screen time showing depressed, ill-at-ease characters will almost always lead you into audience-losing territory.

Over the Hedge (4/27/06) Hollywood Arclight (2006 ***½) Directed by Tim Johnson and Karey Kirkpatrick. I had seen a screening of a rough version of Hedge back in January, and I was delighted by how well it all came together in the final film. I worked on Hedge for only about six months (compared to my two years on Madagascar). Overall I liked it and there were a lot of gags that worked pretty well. My criticisms: (1) The human Gladys character looked God-awful throughout; As a character TD, I was especially embarrassed by the design decisions made regarding her. (2) I think there were a lot of missed opportunities for further characterization with the woodland creatures. All the characters seemed underdeveloped in the interest in focusing on the story. In my humble opinion, it should have been possible to do both. One character did work quite well, though: It's no secret Hammy the squirrel (voiced by Steve Carell) stole the show. Minor criticisms aside, the whole thing was a fun, good-looking romp. Did I like it better than Madagascar? I'm afraid that's just going to have to be my little secret.

To Sir, With Love (4/28/06) Netflix (1967 ***) Directed by James Clavell, starring Sidney Poitier as Mark Thackeray, a black engineer forced by circumstance to take a teaching appointment in London's East End. This movie has occupied a (say it with me) "special place in my heart" for a long time. I will always associate it with my mother and her early days as a teacher during some of her rougher assignments with Omaha Public Schools. I have often wondered how many young men and women went into the teaching profession because of this movie. Sadly, it didn't hold up as well as I'd remembered. My principal issues: Even though the title song was one of the main reasons for the film's success, the use of music was embarrassing at times. None of the actors who played the school kids went on to become big stars, with good reason: Most of them gave weak performances. In general, there was a sloppiness to the production I hadn't remembered, and it didn't seem intentional. I recently read the book on which the film was based, and so I was able to make comparisons with that as well. It was a reflection of the times that in the largely autobiographical book (written in 1959), the central character had a relationship with a white woman. The movie wasn't willing to take it that far and only implied a mutual attraction and respect.

The Sentinel (4/29/06) Glendale Mann 10 (2006 ***) Directed by Clark Johnson, starring Michael Douglas, Kiefer Sutherland and Eva Longoria. My fiancée loves this kind of high-stakes government conspiracy action adventure thriller diller, and so we went to see The Sentinel. I was entertained throughout. It wasn't a great movie though, nor did it push the envelope of the ways a movie like this can be presented; The Bourne Conspiracy and its sequel come to mind in that respect. For a story like this to work, a sense of realism was vital, and so I was more than a little bothered by the unbelievability of some of its story elements. I also thought Longoria's presence bordered on stunt casting; she didn't really add much to the story. As for Michael Douglas, I will say for a 62-year-old man (I looked it up), he turned in a solid physical performance.

May

Mission Impossible III (5/2/06) Hollywood Arclight (2006 ***) Directed by J. J. Abrams, starring Tom Cruise and Philip Seymour Hoffman. It was a real treat to go to an advance screening. Besides being FREE, we got to see a few celebrities in the audience, including Christian Bale. The movie started out surprisingly intense and was more or less entertaining throughout. My complaints? I know I'll sound like an old man here, but there was way too much camera shake; one scene in an airplane may as well have been filmed in our spare bedroom! Also, after all the recent publicity, it was quite distracting that Michelle Monaghan, who played the love interest, looked so much like Katie Holmes. Tom Cruise's very presence ultimately served as the biggest distraction. Every moment he was on the screen, all I saw was Tom Cruise acting, not the character he was playing. On the plus side, the "impossible mission" set pieces were fun and Philip Seymour Hoffman was nothing short of fantastic as the cold-hearted bad-ass bad-guy; he projected a chilling air of menace and was perfect for the role.

Mrs. Henderson Presents (5/3/06) Netflix (2005 **½) Directed by Stephen Frears, starring Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins. Dench played a bored widow in 1937 London who decides to buy a theater. She hires a stage manager (Hoskins) who is shocked when she reveals her plan to feature -- for the first time in England -- nude tableaus as part of their musical revues. Then WWII came along and her theater became an institution "for the boys." The story was sweet, albeit old-fashioned. Though the story was based on real events and people, the motivations felt contrived and never rang true for me. The nudity was handled tastefully enough, though I suspect part of the reason the movie got made in the first place was the risqué nature of the premise.

Brokeback Mountain (5/5/06) Netflix (2005 ***½) Directed by Ang Lee, starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. Unless you’ve been living under a mountain, you know Brokeback made history as the first mainstream movie about cowboys with homosexual themes. The central conflict lay in the lives the main characters were forced to live -- or lived out of cowardice -- because they were born gay at the wrong part of the wrong century. I felt for them, I really did. Watching the film on the small screen made me wish my fiancée and I had gone to see it in the theater when we had the chance. The cinematography was fantastic and it would have been wonderful to have been enveloped in those stunning panoramas. I’ve been a fan of Ang Lee since The Ice Storm, and it’s hard to imagine that in between Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and this film he directed the infamously disappointing Hulk.

The Maltese Falcon (5/6/06) Hollywood Forever Cemetery (1941 ****) Directed by John Huston, starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor. I watched and reviewed Maltese Falcon fairly recently, actually (12/29/05). The most interesting thing about this viewing was where it took place: Hollywood Forever Cemetery, located on Santa Monica Boulevard at Gower. There’s a group called "Cinespia" that holds Saturday night summertime screenings which are projected al fresco on a large wall. The Maltese Falcon was the first film in this season’s roster. It was fun sitting under the stars, eating cheese and crackers and drinking champagne, watching one of the few truly great films. The people-watching was sensational and the scene reminded me (in a good way) of the drive-in theaters of my youth. Shortly before the movie began, we were informed by the organizers that both John Huston and Peter Lorre were interred in the near vicinity. I was only slightly disappointed the experience wasn’t more… spooky. There was a chill in the air, yes, but it was entirely due to the fact it was early in the year. I’m no fan of the cold and wasn’t sure whether I’d last through the whole thing, but fortunately we packed blankets and big beach towels and made it through all right. I look forward to a return visit to the cemetery, perhaps even during daylight hours.

South Park: The Complete Sixth Season (5/8/06) DVD (2002 ***½) Created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. My fiancée brought home this DVD collection from work a few months ago, and I’ve been watching an occasional episode now and then. South Park is one of those shows that’s been on for a long time and there have been periods when I’ve made the effort to check it out, but I’ve never been a loyal viewer. I may have to change that in the future. I thoroughly enjoyed watching Season Six in its entirety. Boundaries were definitely pushed, sometimes to the extent that even I got a little nervous. However, I’m glad I live in a world where this kind of material can be aired. Though the South Park animation style is deliberately crude, there was definitely a minimalist artistry to it… at times. Other times, I got a definite impression the creators didn’t really care, that they were exploring an idea in an experimental fashion and the result was more or less disposable.

Lost in Alaska (5/8/06) DVD (1952 **) Directed by Jean Yarbrough, starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Tom Ewell (The Seven Year Itch) made what must have been one of his first screen appearances as suicidal miner, "Nugget" Joe McDermott. It was up to "the boys" to keep him from killing himself. How? They took him up to the Yukon for a reunion with the dance hall girl he was infatuated with, but he made out a will and… Hey! Are you still actually reading this? C’mon! It was strictly sub-par Abbott and Costello fare at best. Move along, now! There’s nothing to see here!

Skipping Towards Gomorrah: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Pursuit of Happiness in America (5/8/06) Nonfiction (2002 ***) Written by Dan Savage. For those of you unfamiliar with Dan Savage, he’s a gay writer living in Seattle who produces a popular sex advice column called "Savage Love." My fiancée had a copy of this, his third book, and suggested I read it. The premise of Skipping Towards Gomorrah was to provide an occasionally tongue-in-cheek liberal counterpoint to Robert H. Bork’s Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline. In this book Savage set out to experience all seven of the deadly sins and report back from the field. Each sin was given its own chapter, though his choices were meant to be emblematic, not comprehensive. They were also strangely restrained, such as experiencing greed in the form of learning to play blackjack on a Dubuque, Iowa riverboat. I enjoyed the book, but must confess he was preaching to the choir. My political viewpoint as a social liberal is virtually identical to Savage’s own, which may have lessened its impact. I was neither shocked nor rallied by what he had to say. Those looking for belly-laughs had better look elsewhere; Savage’s writing style was not overtly humorous. At least I didn't think it was. I also felt his writing tended to ramble, as if he were restating his points over and over again in an effort to fill his pages.

Il Postino (The Postman) (5/11/06) Netflix (1994 ***½) Directed by Michael Radford, starring Massimo Troisi and Philippe Noiret. I think I watched Il Postino a long time ago, but I'm not 100% positive. Set in post-WWII Italy, the story was about a simple postman (Troisi) who formed a friendship with world famous poet Pablo Neruda (Noiret). It was sweet and slow-moving (in a good way) and romantic and just generally filled my heart with joy. The Italian seaside was beautiful; watching the film was very much like taking a little vacation. In addition to the two main characters, Neruda's poetry was also a spiritual focus of the film; hearing the lilting metaphors made me want to buy a collection of his poems.

Astro City: Local Heroes (5/14/06) Graphic Novel (2005 ***½) Written by Kurt Busiek, illustrated by Brent Anderson. All the stories in this collection were written from the point of view of ordinary folks living in a city of super-heroics. This was familiar territory for Busiek, who wrote Marvels, which told a similar tale. I'm not the first reviewer to note that Astro City has had a consistent, high-quality run over the years. There was also a consistency to the voice in which Busiek wrote. Each story was told in first person, with some variation between stories, but not much. As a reader, the even cadence of the language was comforting and transported me to a city I'd very much like to visit.

Over the Hedge (5/15/06) Universal Citywalk (2006 ***½) Directed by Tim Johnson and Karey Kirkpatrick. I just watched and reviewed this recently, so I won't bother with any of my normal critiques. Instead, I'll describe the experience itself: The movie hasn't opened yet; this was the friends and family screening at the Universal Cinema Theater at the Citywalk. It was fun seeing it a second time, and it was nice to see it with a lot of kids in the audience. Their reaction was pretty positive overall, I thought. Seeing it on the big screen again, I found it engaging throughout; the characters seemed to grow on me, actually. Hopefully that will translate to nice box office numbers a week from now. It's really going to have its work cut out for it, opening against one of the most anticipated films of the summer, The Da Vinci Code.

Tank Girl Vol 1 (5/15/06) Graphic Novel (*½) Written by Alan Martin, illustrated by Jaime Hewlett. Quite simply, I made a mistake buying this. In hindsight, I was clearly not the demographic for Tank Girl. So why did I buy it? I vaguely recall it was recommended on a list I read somewhere. I honestly don't recall the specifics of how it found itself on my Amazon wish-list. Perhaps I was intrigued because it was something new (to me, anyway) and was illustrated by Hewlett of Gorillaz fame. My main complaint was with Martin's writing: The stories were an incomprehensible mess, lacking at times any semblance of a rudimentary story arc (beginning, middle, end). On top of that, the (Australian) slang-filled dialogue was irritating, ceasing only occasionally for mindless violence.

Blackboard Jungle (5/16/06) Netflix (1955 ***½) Directed by Richard Brooks, starring Glenn Ford, Anne Francis, Vic Morrow, and Sidney Poitier. Ford played a teacher whose first assignment was in a High School chock-full of violent juvenile delinquents. Having just watched To Sir, With Love (1967) recently, with the common link being Sidney Poitier, there is a temptation to make a comparison, and I will. Though the later film was more of a sentimental favorite, the direction in Blackboard Jungle was superior and far tighter. There was a decidedly noir handling of the material throughout the film which was clearly present in the scene in which Richard Dadier (Ford) and another teacher came out of a bar and got attacked and beaten in a dark alley. I imagine not everyone will share my high opinion of the film; the dialogue was definitely over-the-top at times (enough to be unintentionally humorous) and there was a high level of melodrama. Here's a bit of fun trivia: Jamie Farr (as Jameel Farah) made his big screen debut playing Santini, one of the young hoods.

After the Thin Man (5/17/06) Netflix (1936 ***½) Directed by W.S. Van Dyke, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. Nick and Nora Charles return to San Francisco on New Year's Eve, days after their Christmas adventure in New York and stumble into a triple (or is it quadruple?) murder mystery centering on Nora's cousin Selma's two-timing husband. This sequel was every bit as fun as the original, and many of the elements of the first film were re-worked effectively. Powell and Loy sparkled on the screen and it was clear why this series had such a long run. A very young James Stewart played a small role as a man who'd been pining for Selma for years. All in all, great fun!

The Da Vinci Code (5/20/06) Burbank AMC Town Center 6 (2006 ***) Directed by Ron Howard, starring Tom Hanks and Audrey Tatou. There has been so much fuss about this movie, I almost am sick of it. Along with most of the Western world, I read The Da Vinci Code. In my case, I read it after reading all of Dan Brown's other novels. In part due to all the hoopla about the book, I had been disappointed by it and didn't feel it was as strong a novel as Angels and Demons. In reviewing the movie, it's near-impossible to separate the phenomenon of the book from the experience, but I'll try. As a film -- directed by Ron Howard -- The Da Vinci Code mostly held my interest all the way through, but there were times when my patience was tested. Simply put, there was an awful lot of talking -- far more than action. And what were they talking about? If it wasn't codes and ciphers, it was about an alternate unpublished version of the New Testament. I can see how some people might take offense to some of the story elements regarding Jesus and Mary Magdalene. In all honesty, I'm not sure those elements were handled in the most delicate manner, either. After all the excitement has eased and everyone realizes the Catholic Church has survived yet another attack by a piece of popular fiction -- hopefully we can all calm down once again.

Hoodwinked (5/23/06) Netflix (2005 **½) Directed by Corey Edwards. This was one of those movies that was more entertaining than it had a right to be. The quality of the graphics was quite crude, but that was clearly a matter of budget. What I liked about the film was the attitude expressed in its screenplay. What distinguished Hoodwinked from standard kiddy-fare was this: It was clear the Edwards brothers really cared about this project. Even though they were working within production limitations, they still did the best they could with what they had. While the film was rough around the edges, that was actually part of its charm. The budget was quite low by animation standards, but they made enough money at the box office to justify one or more sequels. Good for them.

Zero Hour: Crisis in Time (5/23/06) Graphic Novel (1994 **) Written and penciled by Dan Jurgens, inks by Jerry Ordway. This was a follow-up to the 1985 series Crisis on Infinite Earths in which the DC universe was... er... re-shuffled. I personally found Zero Hour hard to follow and annoying. It wasn't clear why some events had to happen, like the temporary reappearance of a non-crippled Batgirl or the deaths of three original members of the Justice Society. It was also unclear why Hal Jordan, the Silver Age Green Lantern, had to be the bad guy. Overall, it was a confused mishmash and largely unnecessary. The original Crisis was an attempt to build a stronger continuity among all the DC comics. It was a huge event and quite a challenge at the time, given the nearly fifty years of stories involved. Since then, it's extended to seventy years! I would hope we've learned since 1985 that continuity isn't really that important; readers seem to embrace variant timelines and alternate realities quite readily.

Last Holiday (5/24/06) Netflix (2006 **) Directed by Wayne Wang. It's hard to believe Wang, who directed Smoke and Blue in the Face, was responsible for this film. But then he also directed Maid in Manhattan, which I never quite got around to seeing. Queen Latifah played Georgia Byrd, a woman working in a department store who learns she's dying, with only a few weeks to live. Whether she is or isn't dying is a question that hangs in the air through most of the film. As tempted as I am, I won't reveal the answer here. In keeping with the film's cooking motif, Last Holiday was a blend of verbal comedy, a little slapstick, a heavier than average sprinkling of morality, and heaping doses of "seize the day" sentimentality. Sometimes that mixture can taste pretty good, but in this case it didn't work for me.

Another Thin Man (5/27/06) Netflix (1939 ***½) Directed by W.S. Van Dyke, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. Nick and Nora Charles are parents in this, the third installment of the popular Thin Man series. Maybe this film didn't sparkle quite as much as the first two, but it was still mighty good. Having 1-year-old Nick Jr. in tow didn't slow the crime-busting couple down too much. One of the highlights of the series in general was how well the laughs were integrated with intricate murder mysteries.

X-Men 3: The Last Stand (5/28/06) Glendale Mann 4 (2006 ***) Directed by Brett Ratner. I had heard fairly negative things about X-Men 3, and so my expectations were reasonably low. I was pleasantly entertained, though my fiancée was less so. There were a few surprises in store for me: (SPOILERS) Some major characters die in the film, something I wasn't expecting. As always, it was nice to see the scenes at the school, and Kelsey Grammer was a nice addition as Beast. While I thought the "mutant cure" storyline worked well enough, the "Dark Phoenix" plot wasn't realized to its full potential. Famke Janssen played the resurrected Jean Grey as a zombie, which limited how interesting she was on the screen. This overall sense that the movie wasn't as strong as it could have been is possibly due to Brett Ratner's directing skills suffering in comparison to those of Bryan Singer, the director of the first two films in the franchise.

Song of the Thin Man (5/28/06) Netflix (1947 ***) Directed by Edward Buzzell, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. This was the last film of the series, and there was definitely a sense that the quality had gone downhill. It might make for an interesting analysis someday to compare the first and last films to try to identify precisely what went amiss. Even having said that, I did mildly enjoy Song of the Thin Man. Nick and Nora Charles (and Asta, of course) remained great characters. It was weird seeing a very young Dean Stockwell as Nick Jr, though.

Scene of the Crime: A Writer's Guide to Crime-Scene Investigations (Howdunit Series) (5/29/06) Nonfiction (1992 **½) Written by Anne Wingate, PhD. The subtitle of the book was very descriptive; this is one of those Writer's Digest books intended to give aspiring mystery writers (like me) some concrete grounding in the actual science of police detection. As such, it more or less worked, though I felt I got a regrettably superficial overview, and I would have preferred more in-depth material. Though I learned less than I might have hoped, the book was reasonably well-written and entertaining. Ms. Wingate's stories about her days on the force in Albany, Georgia were certainly engaging, and they caused me to wonder occasionally if she weren't using the excuse of writing a technical guide to tell a lot of her favorite stories from her career.

June

A Prairie Home Companion: Live At the Hollywood Bowl (6/2/06) Hollywood Bowl (2006 ***½) Performances by Garrison Keillor, Meryl Streep, Virginia Madsen, John C. Reilly, and others. This was my first experience seeing a show at the Hollywood Bowl, and it was pretty fantastic. The only part that... er, sucked was getting on the shuttle bus back to the L.A. zoo afterwards. As for the show itself, I thoroughly enjoyed it, even though I've never been a regular listener of the radio program. I'm not sure why that is; I probably could have been a real fan. The gentle sensibility mixed with an ever-present hint of nostalgia for days gone by has a hell of an appeal for me. Maybe the shows are available (or will be someday) in digital form so I can listen to them on my iPod. It was kind of a kick seeing Meryl Streep on stage – I very much look forward to seeing her and all the others in the upcoming Robert Altman film.

Superman: Secret Identity (6/3/06) Graphic Novel (2005 ****) Written by Kurt Busiek, illustrated by Stuart Immonen. The premise of this graphic novel -- originally published in four parts -- was this: What if a kid named Clark Kent who lives in "our" world, the world in which Superman is a comic-book character, suddenly discovered he had super powers? It may seem an odd -- even weak -- concept, but according to the foreword it was one that had been percolating in Kurt Busiek's mind since the late 1980's. In the interim, Busiek had specialized in stories (notably in his Astro City series) in which heroes had been portrayed in a highly naturalistic fashion. Thanks to his skill as a writer, he was able to take the "real world" Superman premise and realize it fully in Secret Identity. As for the art, Immonen's photo-based illustrations were nearly as realistic as those rendered by Alex Ross in Marvels (also written by Busiek) and Kingdom Come, but were less overtly theatrical. That approach was just right as a complement to the written material.

Revising Fiction: A Handbook for Writers (6/5/06) Nonfiction (1988 ****) Written by David Madden. The structure of Revising Fiction was as follows: Madden asked 185 revision-related questions such as "Have you failed to sustain the narrative logic of the story?" or "Are any minor characters overdeveloped?" He's organized all these questions into a number of categories such as Point of View, Style, Characters, Narrative, etc. I bought this book (at a used book store, naturally) because I'm in the process of revising a novel, and this book fit the bill perfectly. The act of writing has been compared to juggling; there are a hell of a lot of balls in the air at any given time. This book made it clear just how many balls there truly are! Madden provided a wealth of examples from novels and short stories that have been published (and revised) multiple times. I highly recommend Revising Fiction, though it is extremely dense, which may turn some readers off. For me, it was a lucky find and a valuable resource I plan on using throughout my own revision process.

The Short Films of David Lynch (6/6/06) Netflix (2002 **) Six short films written and directed by David Lynch in this collection (one of which is shot on video) were produced at various stages in Lynch's career, from the early seventies to the early nineties. David Lynch has always been a pretty weird guy, but there's evidence a-plenty of his genius in these films. Watching them I found it interesting that an artist with such esoteric and inaccessible high-art tendencies was ever able to make the transition to mainstream filmmaking. While there were a few moments I enjoyed, I can't say I liked the individual films all that much, and as such I would recommend the DVD only to Lynch's fans.

99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises In Style (6/6/06) Nonfiction (2005 ***) Written and illustrated by Matt Madden. This was a comic-book version of the 1947 Exercises In Style by Raymond Queneau (which I've ordered and will be reviewing in the next month or so). In Queneau's book, a short 2-page prose story was told using 100 different styles. In 99 Ways, Madden adapted that premise to the domain of comic-book / graphic novel storytelling by altering fundamental visual elements. The story he chose was this: A man gets up from his desk and makes his way to the refrigerator. He is interrupted by his girlfriend, who asked him the time. When he finally gets to the fridge, he's forgotten what he wanted. Given that simple framework, Madden told the story from different angles (e.g.: from the point of view of the refrigerator) or in different visual genres (romance, fantasy, manga, war story). Some of the highlights included variations based on well-known artists' styles like Winsor McCay and Jack Kirby. While I generally enjoyed the book I can't recommend it wholeheartedly. It was an extremely fast read; I read the entire book in less than an hour, which made me wonder if it was worth the $10.57 I paid. Also, while some pieces are well-executed, Madden's drawing skills were limited and the crudity of his drawings detracted from the work as a whole. While the concept of the book was a solid one, the execution left something to be desired.

Shadow of the Thin Man (6/8/06) Netflix (1941 ***) Directed by (Major) W.S. Van Dyke, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. This was the first Thin Man movie in the series in which Dashiell Hammett did not provide the story. The movie was still strong, but not quite as tight as the first three. Donna Reed was barely recognizable in her second film role, playing a secretary. I personally found Sam Levene's over-the-top acting as Police Lt. Abrams consistently annoying. As for the plot itself, who really cares? It began with the discovery of a dead jockey and ended with the standard "gathering of the suspects." One of the highlights in-between involved Nick and Nora attending a wrestling match: As Nora immersed herself in the action in the ring, she took out her enthusiasm on her husband. Would a Thin Man series work today? I hate to say it, but I doubt it; part of the charm of the series was the world in which it took place, a world where drinking and driving wasn't that big a deal and everybody carried a gun in his (or her) pocket.

The Philadelphia Story (6/10/06) Hollywood Forever Cemetery (1940 ****) Directed by George Cukor, starring Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart. There's not much I can write in terms of a review, really; this is simply a great movie. I can't truthfully count myself among the fans of screwball comedy, but when it worked, it worked. The key lay in a symbiotic relationship between brilliant, effervescent writing and pitch-perfect snappy delivery. As sparkling as the dialogue was, it didn't hurt to have such a great trio headlining the film. The story behind the story was that Katharine Hepburn's career was going nowhere fast, but then a friend purchased the rights to this play (in which she'd already starred in the stage version) and after The Philadelphia Story hit the big screen Hepburn was a star forever more. This was the second time my fiancée and I have attended one of the Cinespia cemetery screenings. The crowd was a bit bigger this time; fortunately we arrived early and were able to stake out a decent spot on the lawn. Also, it was a relief it didn't get nearly as chilly as that bitterly cold night we saw The Maltese Falcon a month or so back. Halfway through the screening, we saw a flash of light from behind us; turning around we got a special treat: A five-minute fireworks show a few blocks away, undoubtedly related to gay pride weekend.

A Prairie Home Companion (6/11/06) Burbank AMC 16 (2006 ***1/4) Directed by Robert Altman, starring Garrison Keillor, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, and an entire ensemble. Critics seemed to be polarized about this movie. While I can understand the point of view of those who found the film dull, I had a wonderful time. It was nice seeing the film a week after seeing the live Prairie Home Companion show at the Hollywood Bowl. It set a bit more context for me. There was some commonality of material, but not much. I'm ashamed to admit I haven't been much of a fan of Altman's work over the years. Overlapping dialogue aside, I've had trouble with its inaccessibility. This was, thankfully, one of his more accessible films. Afterwards, I found myself thinking about the choices made in the screenplay. Virginia Madsen (from Sideways) starred as "A Dangerous Woman" who was an angel of death of sorts. Her presence, and that of Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), along with more realistically-drawn characters yielded an uneven effect.

The Thin Man Goes Home (6/11/06) Netflix (1945 ***) Directed by Richard Thorpe, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. Nick Charles returns to his hometown and immediately stumbles into a series of murders in this, the fifth movie in the six-film series. The premise of "small town boy / big city big shot makes good" might have provided some energy for a series that was slowly running out of steam, but it never quite worked. Even though the focus of these films wasn't on the detective story itself, I still found the murder / espionage plot especially confusing. There were also a couple of inconvenient coincidences I had a hard time swallowing, like Nora buying Nick a windmill painting painted by murder victim #1 and the focus of attention of a number of suspicious characters. Still, even a weak Thin Man film is better than most movies.

Showcase Presents: Superman Family, Vol. 1 (6/13/06) Graphic Novel (1950's-60's ***½) Written and illustrated by various. This was another one of those value-priced volumes where the contents of a number of comics have been reprinted in black and white. At 576 pages, it was a massive tome which took me a few weeks to go through. Though there were a few token Lois Lane stories, the bulk of the material was originally published in comic-book form as Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen numbers 1-22. It was a treat reading those old stories, which bordered at times on the surreal. In most of the DC comics in the mid-fifties, each comic consisted of three 8-page stories. For Jimmy Olsen, his stories followed a consistent pattern: Jimmy found himself in some bizarre situation (wearing a dress or fighting a giant gorilla), and then he'd use his special signal watch to call Superman to bail him out. The fun was how the writers were able to pack surprising scope into an 8-page story. Far more eloquent writers than I have discussed how the elements of the Superman stories from that time period were a reflection of that post-WWII, baby-boom, Eisenhower world. Superman, Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane and all the others seemed to delight in tricking each other as a consequence of odd, ill-defined motives. Sometimes the pranks were quite cruel, as in one story in which Superman convinced his "pal" Jimmy Olsen that he (Olsen) was dying. It defied logic, and yet by the end of each story everybody was friends again and the status quo was maintained. Was there something in the water back then? Perhaps. I recently watched an early-1950's episodes of I Love Lucy, in which Ricky convinced Lucy she was dying and hilarity, as they say, ensued.

Six Feet Under: Season Four (6/15/06) Netflix (2004 ***) Series created by Alan Ball. One of the great things about summer is the regular TV season is over and I allow myself to watch TV shows on DVD. I was never exactly bored watching the fourth season of Six Feet Under, which I watched over the course of a few weeks. However, there were times throughout when I became more aware of the soap opera story elements than ever before. I also became consciously aware that the five or so character-based storylines remained mostly separate. I would have appreciated more creative interweaving. One key example of this "disconnectedness" that comes to mind was the storyline in which Rico cheated on his wife Vanessa and dealt with the consequences; it was very isolated and not particularly interesting. About halfway through the 13-episode season there was a story in which David picked up a hitchhiker and was forced at gunpoint to drive all over L.A. It ended with David doused in gasoline and a gun shoved in his mouth. That episode was especially powerful because all the other storylines were dropped and the viewer was forced to remain with David throughout his ordeal; an interesting technique and an effective one. One of the small treats that makes the series unique and keeps viewers returning week after week is the death scene that opens each episode, and they were fun... for the most part. As a long-time collector of comics I was a little put off by one opener in particular in which a stereotypical overweight comic nerd was crushed to death by his massive collection. It just seemed like a cheap shot. However, criticisms aside, Will I continue to watch the series? Of course I will. Season Five is already in my Netflix queue.

Abbott and Costello Go To Mars (6/18/06) DVD (1953 ***) Directed by Charles Lamont, starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. This was an interesting film in the series. At the time it was made, science fiction was on the rise, and so it was a natural choice to send the duo to Mars. Of course, as anyone who's ever seen the film knows, the title was a bit of a misnomer; they never actually got to Mars. Instead, they ended up on Venus... by way of New Orleans! According to the production notes on the DVD, the budget had to be increased to allow for the sci-fi-related effects, props, and sets. They weren't exactly top notch, but were effective for the time. One of the odd choices story-wise was that unlike most of their films, Bud & Lou's characters (Lester and Orville) didn't know each other prior to their adventure. That didn't make much of a difference in their interactions, however. Here's a little trivia, courtesy of Imdb.com: Two minor players in this film went on to bigger and better things: Anita Ekberg played one of the Venusian guards and Harry Shearer played one of the young kids at the orphanage in the beginning.

Tank Girl (6/21/06) Netflix (1995 **½) Directed by Rachel Talalay, starring Lori Petty. Earlier this year I read the first volume of the comic book on which this movie is based. I wasn't crazy about it, honestly. I'm not exactly sure why I decided to rent Tank Girl; I suppose it's because I'd heard about it a number of times over the years from various sources. It's a strange movie, one that falls rather conveniently into that category of "cult favorites." Though it's hard to tell if that was the primary goal of its filmmakers, it certainly has some things in common with other "acquired tastes" like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The plot wasn't much to speak of, but the film did have a handful of worthwhile moments, my favorite being the jarring big scale production version of "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)," set in the middle of a futuristic brothel. Lori Petty did a fine job playing the borderline sociopathic, kangaroo-loving imp Rebecca (AKA Tank Girl), and Naomi Watts appeared in a supporting role as the introverted "Jet Girl."

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Teenagers From Outer Space (6/22/06) Netflix (1959/1992 ***) Original film directed by Tom Graeff. "Torture!!" Joel Hodgson and the ‘bots talk their way through another poorly written, cheaply made 1950’s movie. It’s been years since I last watched an episode of MST3K. It probably comes as no surprise to those who know me, but I used to be a big fan. MST3K and Twin Peaks were two of the best things about the early 1990’s. For kicks I thought I’d rent one of the many volumes available on DVD. Did it hold up? I don’t know if I can answer that objectively. I laughed aloud a few times, that’s for sure. Maybe I’ll rent more volumes in the future. As one of the hearing-impaired, I do wish someone had spent the money to subtitle the videos. I know it would be a real challenge since it would require two layers of subtitling, one for the original movie and one for the commentary. As for the film itself, it’s still my belief you can learn as much about filmmaking (and acting) by watching bad movies as you can from watching good ones. As such, Teenagers from Outer Space would make an excellent educational tool.

Cars (6/23/06) Burbank AMC 16 (2006 ***) Directed by John Lassetter. I have the utmost respect for John Lassetter personally and Pixar in general. I think three out of four stars may be the lowest rating I’ve ever given a Pixar Film. There were so many wonderful technical accomplishments in Cars that I hate to do it, but I must. There were two main problems with the film: (1) The premise (a world inhabited by autos) was nearly impossible to elevate to the same crowd-pleasing level as Finding Nemo or The Incredibles. To their credit, Lassetter and his team at Pixar came as close as anyone possibly could have to making that inherently-limited framework work. (2) The movie’s screenplay -- nominally a combination of drama and comedy -- was never funny. It had humorous moments, but no big laughs, and the pacing was too slow; it felt dragged out. I’m not the only one who has observed the plot similarity between Cars and Doc Hollywood, and the association with the Michael J. Fox film wasn’t helped by Paul Newman’s character being named "Doc" Hudson. Also, there were times I felt I was listening to a live-action movie. Lassetter’s love of automobiles and rural America was clearly in evidence. The "Route 66" environments were wonderful and lovingly rendered, and I couldn’t help but wish they had served as the background for a set of human characters instead of… well, cars.

Cartoon Cool: How to Draw New Retro-Style Characters (6/25/06) Nonfiction (2005 **) Written and illustrated by Christopher Hart. It appears Chris Hart has found a niche (specialized cartooning) and has been working hard the last decade or so to crank out books in an effort to fill it. Cartoon Cool was not a bad book, but it was far too lightweight for my tastes. Honestly, it would have been a better book for me to have read when I was thirteen. Even then, I probably would have criticized the book for lacking depth. It was a fast read, and I read it cover to cover in about an hour and a half. Within the book, I found the section devoted to Retro-stylized character poses to be far more interesting and informative than the section on character design, which was far too generic and limited.

Bullets Over Broadway (6/25/06) Netflix (1994 ***) Directed by Woody Allen. This was a fun movie set during prohibition about what happens when the theater meets the mob. Come to think of it, the title captured that quite nicely, didn't it? The dialogue was at times delightful. The emotional core of the film pertained to a young playwright/director (John Cusak) who slowly came to realize a hit-man (Chazz Palminteri) had greater natural writing ability in his pinky than he had in his whole body. It wasn't a perfect Woody Allen film or even one of his best, and the ending, while logical, felt false, but it was still entertaining.

A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (6/25/06) Nonfiction (1988 ***) Written by Stephen Hawking. When I was fourteen I stumbled upon a nonfiction book written by Isaac Asimov. It was a collection of articles about the physics of astronomy. From that book I learned for the first time about Newton's formulas of gravitation and it was really my introduction to physics. A Brief History of Time is probably the most famous book on astrophysics written for the layperson. I know a lot of people have bought and read it, but as I was reading it myself for the first time I wondered how much the average reader truly comprehended. It was written in a fairly accessible language, though there are times when the subject matter became tangled and convoluted enough to challenge comprehension. Hawking also occasionally injected humor, with mixed results.. It was the kind of "geek classroom humor" that wasn't really funny, yet the class was still expected to laugh. On a related note, Hawking described the physical effects of throwing an astronaut into a black hole so many times I began to wonder if he secretly disliked some people at NASA.

The Clearing (6/26/06) Netflix (2004 **½) Directed by Pieter Jan Brugge. Robert Redford and Helen Mirren play a husband and wife whose life is disrupted when an armed gunman (Willem Dafoe) kidnaps the husband and takes him into the woods. Though the dramatic focus was on the kidnapping and subsequent ransom, the emotional focus of the film was on the couple's marriage. I got that, but I never really believed in any of the characters, and they never felt fully realized. With a running time of 95 minutes including credits, it was a fairly short film, yet I still feel more could have been done with the characters in that time. I certainly have no complaints about any of the main actors, though their performances were universally subdued.

Annie Hall (6/27/06) DVD (1977 ****) Directed by Woody Allen, starring Allen and Diane Keaton. The first Woody Allen film I ever saw was Love and Death. It was the summer of 1981 and I was a teenager at the time -- barely old enough to drive. Love and Death (1975) and Interiors (1978) made for an odd double-feature as part of a film series at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. This was during the early days of home video and so I rented and watched Annie Hall (on Betamax, no less) shortly thereafter. In spite of the fact that the film was aimed at an audience far older than 16, I loved it. In fact, it's probably the film that cemented me as a Woody Allen film. Seeing it now, for the first time in ten years, it's still as good as the day it was made. I have more of an appreciation for what it has to say now too; Woody Allen was my age now when he made the film. It truly is a great film. I've occasionally wondered how much of the success of the screenplay should be attributed to Allen's co-writer Marshall Brickman. There were a lot of fantastic, sharply funny lines. If you compare it with a more recent Woody Allen movie like Curse of the Jade Scorpion, where more jokes flopped than succeeded, Annie Hall was just a gem. My fiancée, who watched it with me and was seeing it for the first time, said she was glad she saw this film after When Harry Met Sally. She was slightly irritated by all the elements stolen by Rob Reiner and Nora Ephron for their film. I prefer to be slightly kinder. When Harry Met Sally was a far more accessible film (made at a time when Woody Allen wasn't exactly beloved by the general public), and it worked on its own, regardless of the spiritual kinship it shared with Annie Hall.

Superman Returns (6/30/06) Glendale Mann 4 (2006 **½) Directed by Bryan Singer. Yeah, I was disappointed. I had expected much more from the director who‘d given us X-Men and X-Men II, two of the best modern superhero movies. I don’t think my expectations were too high going into the film, either. Though I’d tried to avoid reading too many reviews, the criticisms I’d read all proved to be true: The sections of story that deserved exploration (like what happened to Superman in space) were glossed over. Other parts (the special effects related to Luthor’s evil scheme) were dragged out interminably. The results of casting decisions were mixed: I can see why he was cast, but Brandon Routh as Clark Kent / Superman was never quite believable to me. Kate Bosworth might have been a good Lois Lane had her character been given more emotional range. As well-cast as Kevin Spacey was as Lex Luthor, the script never gave him a real chance to explore the "fun" side of the character in a way Gene Hackman did. Part of my disappointment had to do with the years and years of waiting for this project. I remember reading for over a decade about the Nicolas Cage Superman and the Kevin Smith Superman and the Superman Versus Batman project. All of those films (especially the Kevin Smith version) probably would have been more interesting. Bryan Singer’s version seemed too much like a love letter to Christopher Reeve and the first two Richard Donner Superman films and it didn’t take the character anywhere new. The bottom line is this: If I had made "my" Superman movie (and there‘s no indication that‘s ever going to happen), this was definitely not the one I would have made.

July 2006

Showcase Presents: Teen Titans Vol 1 (7/1/06) Comics (2006 ***½) Written and illustrated by various. This was another inch-thick (524 pages!) collection of black and white reprints. The book included the first few appearances of the original Teen Titans (Robin, Kid Flash, Aqualad, Wonder Girl) as well as the first 18 issues of their own book. Most of the stories were written by Bob Haney. I read a blog article recently in which the reviewer (whose name I‘ve forgotten) described Haney has having written "the most awkward teenager dialogue in comics history." That‘s certainly true, but the stories still had a light-hearted approach to them and it was fun to read about kids who are also superheroes.

The Teen Titans will always have a unique place in my heart because it was a copy of their comic (belonging to my uncle) that got me interested in comic books in the first place. They were the first "free" sample of what turned out to be a lifelong (and occasionally expensive) addiction. In fact, my first goal when I got serious about collecting comics was to acquire a complete run of their series. I think I accomplished this by age fifteen or so, and I still have all those issues in comic boxes in my storage unit.

The artist most associated with the original run of the Titans was Nick Cardy, who illustrated roughly half the stories in this collection. As I read this volume over the space of a couple of weeks, I was occasionally astonished by Cardy’s illustrative skills, his off-kilter layouts and flair for dramatic compositions. In fact, a lot of the wow-factor pyrotechnics associated with comics legend Neal Adams were present in Cardy’s panels and pages. I don’t know if there was a direct influence between the two artists or if so which direction it flowed. If I could ask for three wishes, I think one of them might be to be able to draw like Nick Cardy.

As much as I enjoyed the early stories, my favorite Titans tales were actually the ones that followed the ones in this volume. I hope this reprint series is successful enough to warrant a second volume. If anyone from DC comics is reading this, please… please print the rest! If you don’t, I’ll be forced to dig my own copies out of storage and read them an issue at a time.

The Devil Wears Prada (7/1/06) Glendale Mann 4 (2006 **½) Directed by David Frankel, starring Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway, with a stand-out supporting performance by Stanley Tucci. Hathaway played the assistant to a dragon lady (Streep), one of the most influential women in the fashion world. This is a challenging movie for me to review. My fiancée was a fan of the original book and very interested in seeing the film, and so we went. The reason it’s difficult for me to review is that throughout the movie I felt as though I were on the outside looking in. For one reason or another I never got around to reading Vogue and I don’t have any particular affinity for women’s fashion. It was obvious early on that having such a background would greatly enhance one’s appreciation for the world portrayed in the film. It wouldn’t be very respectful of me to dismiss The Devil Wears Prada as a "chick flick," though that’s not entirely inaccurate. It is, however, fair to recognize the primary audience for the film was women. Though I often have enjoyed other movies in that category I still felt more excluded by virtue of my sex than usual. Having said that, there was a lot to like about the movie -- Streep’s performance was interesting and nuanced -- and I was never bored.

The Best American Movie Writing 2001 (7/3/06) Nonfiction (2001 ***) Edited by John Landis, with series editor Jason Shinder. This book collected a variety of articles written in 1999 and 2000, originally published in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Moviemaker, and elsewhere. They've been separated into arbitrary categories (actors, writers, directors, genre, etc.) and represent, as the title implies, a selection of some of the best writing on the topic of film. Though I appreciated the effort it must have taken to read and narrow down a large number of articles to a chosen few, John Landis’ introduction and chapter previews didn’t add much. My reaction to the writing was mixed. Some of it I enjoyed and some even touched me, like Robert Polito’s "Barbara Payton: A Memoir," the story of an aging screen star who had turned to prostitution to pay for her drug habit. Other pieces, on the other hand, were awfully long and dry, like Maria DiBattista’s quasi-feminist analysis of His Girl Friday. My purpose in buying the book was to widen my own horizons when writing on the subject of film. Reading through the selections, I was drawn far more to pieces in which the writer offered a personal connection than those that took a more academic approach.

The Best of the Spirit (7/3/06) Comics (2005 ***1/4) Written and illustrated by Will Eisner. Will Eisner passed away in January 2005 at the age of 87. He continued working right up to the time of his death. It would be a terrible understatement to say he had a big influence on the development of the American comic book. The Best of the Spirit offered a sampling of his short 7-page Spirit stories, which were originally produced, not as comic books, but as newspaper comic inserts. The Spirit and his stories are well known… by comic book fans, writers and artists. Eisner’s most famous creation never attained the level of recognition by the general public as Superman, Batman, and the rest. Will Eisner was for the most part ahead of his time. He figured out "graphic storytelling" in the 1940’s, long before anyone else really gave it a lot of thought. At least that’s the general consensus. How true that is, I’m not sure, really. It seems to me there were a number of artists and writers from that time period who knew what they were doing but just weren’t able to articulate it as well as Eisner. Eisner is the father of the modern graphic novel, which is ironic considering he got his start producing comic stories in such short form. Reading through the stories in this collection, some of the tales were of a scope that their 7-page presentation was almost haiku-like. In my opinion, many of the stories suffered from that brevity and condensation, and there were several times when the stories became confusing. In my early years I’d read most of the stories in this collection in black and white reprint form, and this was the first time I’d read these stories in color. To be honest, I preferred the black and white -- the color seemed arbitrary and a distraction. As creatively successful as some of his later "serious" work was, and as much as I can appreciate his desire to separate himself from the fictional character he was most associated with, I wish Eisner had left behind a full-length graphic novel based on The Spirit. It might have given the character the room to breathe he deserved.

Primer (7/5/06) Netflix (2004 ***) Written by, directed by, and starring Shane Carruth. The premise of this independently-produced film: Two men accidentally build a time machine in their garage. When they decide to build a version large enough to hold a man, they topple the dominoes of causality. Primer was a short film (77 minutes) and I absolutely loved the first half of it. The ramp-up to the far-fetched invention of the time-machine was compelling. There was a point in the story, however, when things began to slide down a bumpy hill and it became a jumble. I didn't really understand what was going on for the last twenty minutes of the movie. Now the thing is, I respect and even admire that choice. As confusing as it was, it was still well-done throughout. It's been argued the creator of any film owes something to his or her audience, but does that include comprehension? Perhaps clarity is just another dimension in the cinematic experience. In my view, Primer was a success as an experimental project, and it helped to view it as such. I enjoyed the look of the film and appreciated what the filmmakers were able to do with limited resources. Would I recommend this film? I would... depending on the person and circumstances.

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (7/6/06) Netflix (2004 ***) Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber, starring Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller. One of my fiancées Netflix picks, this was the second time I'd watched Dodgeball. When I went to look up my earlier critique, I couldn't find it; for whatever reason I must have forgotten to write a review at the time, which is unusual for me. I enjoyed the movie for the most part, but it wasn't exactly a must-see. It was funny enough in spite of the fact the story (such that there is) felt manipulated at the expense of the characters being true to themselves. Watching Vince Vaughn's performance, I was frequently reminded of a young Bill Murray in Stripes or Meatballs. I kept expecting Vaughn to lead his fellow team members in a chant of "it just doesn't matter." I think it was Mark Twain who said: "There's something intrinsically funny about someone getting hit in the face or crotch with a red rubber ball." If you agree with that statement, you'll probably enjoy Dodgeball.

Under the Tuscan Sun (7/7/06) Netflix (2003 **½) Directed by Audrey Wells. As a man, I was not the target audience and there’s not much for me to say about this film. At the risk of being sexist, I can appreciate why its themes would appeal to women. Diane Lane was an excellent choice as the main character, a divorcee who discovers her soul and the secret to happiness in a villa in Tuscany. There was nothing wrong with the film, per se, and it might make a good video rental. My primary complaint was it never scraped below the surface and I wish there had been more depth to the characters and situations.

Powers Vol 9: Psychotic (7/8/06) Graphic Novel (2005 ***) Written by Brian Bendis, illustrated by Michael Avon Oeming. Alan Moore’s Top Ten series and Powers offer two different takes on the same premise: What would happen if you combined a police procedural with superheroes? My reaction to this collection of stories originally published in comic form was mild disappointment. I’ve read all the previous stories in this series, but for whatever reason I found this one less interesting than earlier volumes. It seemed as though all the ground being covered was so familiar as to induce a feeling of déjà vu. Though it offered a mildly interesting resolution, the primary multiple-homicide plot was never fully engaging.

Twin Peaks: Season 1 (7/9/06) DVD (1990 ***½) Series created by David Lynch and Mark Frost. When Twin Peaks originally aired I was an immediate fan. I taped each episode and watched it twice, searching for clues as to "who killed Laura Palmer?" Considering the virtual explosion of television show DVDs, I found it very odd that: (1) the original 2-hour pilot wasn’t available "officially" in the U.S. and (2) the second season wasn’t currently available on DVD. Watching the seven episodes that comprised the first season for the first time in a decade (somewhere I still have my old VHS copies) was like stepping into a time machine. While I still love the show, I’m not blind to the fact that the soap opera elements haven’t aged particularly well. Still, there was so much to like about the original series: The deliberately-stylized characters were all so much damned fun! I found myself wondering whatever happened to all those actors. I know there’s probably little point in it or likelihood of the project getting off the ground, but I would love to see David Lynch revisit the town of Twin Peaks.

Six Feet Under: Season 5 (7/9/06) Netflix (2005 ***½) Series created by Alan Ball. This was the fifth and final season of Six Feet Under. (Spoiler alert) It wouldn’t feel natural to review this season without mentioning its narrative focus and source of closure, the death of Nate Fischer, the series’ nominally central character. Nate’s death came at the end of the ninth episode of the 12-episode season in a show entitled "Ecotone." Ecotone is defined as an area of overlap between two communities. In the episode it referred to the sudden (in a "holy shit!" kind of way) attack of a hiker by a cougar while hiking on a suburban trail. While I don’t know precisely what the writers meant the title to signify, I can hazard a guess: Throughout the episode Nate was in transition between life and death, and for awhile he existed in an area of overlap between those two worlds. I enjoyed the last few episodes of the season very much and found them quite effective. In a lesser show, the necessity to "tie up all loose ends" could be painful to watch, but the various ways in which closure was danced around and occasionally attained were written with a sense of elegance befitting the show. The final five minutes of the last episode permitted a unique glimpse into the future, as the viewer was allowed to witness the final moments of each of the main characters. Looking at the series as a whole, it was strongest when focused on what made it unique: Demystifying death and sincerely examining the ways in which dying is a part of life. It was at its weakest when it degenerated into unconnected (and sometimes conventional) soap opera storylines. Finally, there was an irony in the fact that I watched the final episode of Six Feet Under immediately after watching the last episode of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks: Season 1. While I have no idea the extent to which Alan Ball or his writers were personally influenced by the 1990 series, there was an inescapable similarity: Both were, on the surface, prime-time soap operas with a multiplicity of character-driven storylines, and each series set out from the get-go to shock and challenge their viewers, albeit in very different ways.

Elf (7/12/06) Netflix (2003 ***½) Directed by Jon Favreau. I last watched Elf on 11/9/03, nearly three years ago, but it certainly doesn't seem like it's been that long. This is probably the best movie Will Ferrell has ever made and the role he was born to play. He played the childlike adopted elf Buddy with pure energy and perfect comedic timing. If I compiled a list of the ten best Christmas-themed movies of all time, Elf would be on it. There was a lightness and exuberance throughout the film that made even a cynical heart like mine want to sing Christmas carols. The only thing keeping me from giving it a four-star rating is I feel it missed an opportunity for hitting some deeper emotional notes. I can see how making its emotional chords more poignant might have run counter to its light-hearted comedic tone. However, even acknowledging that, I still imagine an alternate universe version of Elf in which it was possible to achieve both without diminishing either.

Exercises in Style (7/13/06) Nonfiction (1981 edition *½) Written by Raymond Queneau, translated by Barbara Wright. Exercises in Style was originally published in French by Quenaeu, a linguist and mathematician. Barbara Wright's English translation was first published in 1958. This is an odd little volume and is the direct literary precursor to Matt Madden's 99 Ways to Tell a Story, which I read and reviewed a month ago. The premise of Exercises in Style was that a rather banal non-story involving an altercation on a bus followed by a later discussion about a coat button was told 99 different ways. I expected the re-tellings to focus on the conventions of various literary genres and narrative points of view, etc. (telling it as a mystery or a western, or first, second, third person etc.), but unfortunately the majority of the variations were linguistic in nature: Anagrams, unusual spelling variations and word-truncation comprised many of the versions. The result was a collection of mostly unreadable word-play. While I admire the effort it must have taken to translate such a book, reading linguistic material one step removed from its original source added an additional level of distraction. While I had hoped reading the book would provide insight into the multitude of stylistic options available for describing scenes, only about 20% of the material was suitable for that purpose.

Pretty as a Picture: The Art of David Lynch (7/13/06) Netflix (1997 **½) Directed by Toby Keeler. This documentary explored the mind of David Lynch as expressed through his films and painting. It was made around the time of Lost Highway, a film in which Lynch's sensibilities took him well beyond the edge of what was accessible for an audience. I recommend this documentary to anyone already a fan of Lynch, but anyone else would likely be bored. The documentary tended to jump around a lot, but I didn't mind that too much. Listening to Lynch and others speak articulately about his creative methods gave me even more respect for the man as an artist. It's been five years since Mulholland Drive and I very much wish he were producing more films. But the wait is nearly over: Inland Empire, starring Laura Dern, should be coming out sometime this year.

The School of Rock (7/14/06) Netflix (2003 ***) Directed by Richard Linklater. Jack Black starred as a musician kicked out of his own band. To pay his share of the rent, he steals the identity of his roommate, a substitute teacher. Instead of teaching the normal curriculum, he teaches rock theory, and within a few weeks transforms his classroom into a hard-rocking band. It was interesting watching this a few days after watching and reviewing Elf. In both films, the comedic lead (Will Ferrell and Jack Black respectively) leaped into their roles with reckless abandon. Though their styles differed, the result was the same: Moments of high-energy hilarity. I sincerely respect Richard Linklater and the choices he’s made in his career, including the fact he’s established a pattern of alternating between serious, limited-audience films like Waking Life and Fast Food Nation and more commercial ventures like Bad New Bears and School of Rock.

A Scanner Darkly (7/16/06) Glendale Mann 10 (2006 ***) Directed by Richard Linklater. This was a challenging movie for me to review, because I'm of two minds on it. I never got around to reading the Philip K. Dick book on which the film was based, so I can't compare the the film with its source material. It was a movie like Linklater's Slackers, Waking Life and Before Sunset, which is to say there was far more talking than action. That will undoubtedly turn some people off, as will the rotoscoping. As an artist, I was impressed with the visual process, which marked a significant improvement over the technique used on Waking Life. At times it was beautiful, adding a level of intensity to the performances. From what I've read, because of the time-consuming task of processing the entire film, there was some difficulty in completing the project on schedule and its release was delayed as a result. I don't expect it will make much money -- there were only about 15 people in the theater when I saw it -- but it was still successful in my mind as an example of what can be done with film.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: I Accuse My Parents (7/19/06) Netflix (1944/1993 **½) Original directed by Sam Newfield. According to imdb.com, Mr. Newfield (who died a month after I was born) was likely the most prolific director of American film ever, having directed more than 300 films. Clearly the sensational nature of this film was the reason it was selected for the MST3K treatment by Joel Hodgson and company. However, I was actually surprised by the relatively high quality of the direction. Most of the B-films shown on the "Satellite of Love" were directed by individuals with marginal skills at best. The screenplay (and undoubtedly the budget) of I Accuse My Parents didn't leave much to work with, but Sam Newfield still apparently did his best with the material available. As for the MST3K dimension of the experience, it was one of the weaker episodes I've seen. Still, a weak episode of MST3K is usually better than most popular TV comedies.

Amadeus Live (7/20/06) Hollywood Bowl (2006 ***) This was the second concert I've seen at the Bowl, and there will be many more to come over the course of the summer. This production of Amadeus featured Neil Patrick Harris as Mozart and Michael York as Antonio Salieri. The performances were good, as was the music. Being hearing impaired, the music wasn't as loud as I would have liked, though I had little trouble hearing the voices of the actors. I've always liked the story of Amadeus. There is something about the character of Salieri -- a man whose curse was to recognize both the genius of Mozart and the limits of his own talents – that I especially enjoyed and identified with. The worst nightmare of any artist is to come face to face with their own mediocrity. On a personal note, this was the second time I've seen this story presented on stage: In the early 1990's my friend Scott Koepke played the title role in a Community Theater production in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Coupling: Season 1 (7/23/06) Netflix (2000 ***) I'd head about this British sitcom a year or so ago when one of the major networks aired an American version which immediately belly-flopped. The best way to describe the show -- which featured three men and three women -- is that it was like Friends... if they all talked nonstop about sex. Most of the plots were sexual in nature. In an example from the sixth and last episode of the season, we learn that Patrick keeps a walk-in cupboard full of videos of women he's slept with. Susan, one of his many ex's, becomes enraged when she thinks Patrick has shown the home-made porn to her current boyfriend, Steve... and all the others as well.

Superman / Batman Vol 1: Public Enemies (7/24/06) Graphic Novel (2004 **½) Written by Jeph Loeb, illustrated by Ed McGuinness. From the beginning of this book, Loeb established a technique of parallel narration by Superman and Batman. His point was to provide a comparison/contrast of the two heroes. Unfortunately, it wasn't especially clever and was so distracting it interfered with the story. The primary physical conflict was this: A meteor the size of New Zealand is on a collision course with earth, and since the meteor is a fragment of Superman's home planet Krypton (and is in fact made of Kryptonite), U.S. President Lex Luthor blames Superman and declares him and anyone who assists him a fugitive. Frankly, as story spines go, this wasn't one of the most inspired. So what made the book mildly worthwhile? The visuals and eye-candy. The most interesting bits in the book were appearances by a wide spectrum of DC comics characters, both heroes and villains, and the way in which those characters were drawn by Ed McGuinness.

Big Star: The Short Life, Painful Death, and Unexpected Resurrection of the Kings of Power Pop (7/24/06) Nonfiction (2005 ***) Written by Rob Jovanovic. This was an unusual choice for me; I rarely read books or magazines about the music world. However, since buying an iPod a few months back I've found myself listening to the first three Big Star albums a LOT. When I stumbled upon this book listing at Amazon.com, I figured what the hell, and so I ordered a copy. The first word that comes to mind in critiquing Jovanovic's writing style is "competent." He did a solid journalistic job of researching the history and material and selecting quotes from the hundred or so interviews he did. This was no small task, considering he was researching events thirty years in the past. I appreciated that this project was a labor of love coming from a fan of Big Star and their music. Sadly, I would guess there's not much of an audience for the book. Most people aren't aware of the band or their incredible music, and the mystery of why they never got the audience they deserved is... Well, that's really the central question of the book, isn't it? As much as I respected the job Jovanovic did, what was missing for me was a sense of storytelling variety. While I don't suggest he should have sensationalized the material, the tone throughout the book never really changed, even when he described Chris Bell's death and its emotional aftermath. It was also a real shame that Alex Chilton, arguably the central figure of the story, refused to be involved with the book's production, and the work suffered as a result. Having said all that, I don't regret buying and reading this book one iota. If you are a Big Star fan like me and want to learn more about the story behind the legend, this book is probably the only chance you're ever likely to get.

Monster House (3D) (7/26/06) Glendale Mann 10 (2006 ***½) Directed by Gil Kenan. My fiancée and I went to see this film on a Wednesday night; it was playing on two screens as we got to the ticket booth we learned the 7pm show (the one we were going to) was playing in digital 3-D for only $2 more. What an unexpected treat! Monster House wasn't a perfect movie, and I had some mixed feelings, but my overall experience was strongly positive. Because I saw it in 3-D (which was excellent, by the way), I can't discount the contribution that may have had to the sensation of being on a roller coaster that was frequently thrilling and only occasionally confusing. The movie opened with a shot of a single orange leaf. In a self-conscious homage to Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis was one of the executive producers), we follow the leaf as it leads us down a residential neighborhood and directly into the story. The main characters were all twelve or so, and the tone of the whole thing reminded me of contemporary juvenile fiction. There were some genuinely scary moments, and there will undoubtedly be a lot of seven-year-olds with bad dreams. Much has been made of the use of motion capture for the character motion, but I felt it was generally used effectively, though there were a few times when the actions captured seemed to deliberately call attention to themselves. The character designs weren't 100% successful, but I liked the fact they weren't over-designed and at times they demonstrated surprising appeal. I was especially impressed by how tight the direction was. According to imdb.com, this was the first film Gil Kenan has directed, and I was impressed by how fluidly he told the story and how well the camera related to the characters.

The Iron Giant (7/27/06) Netflix (1999 ****) Directed by Brad Bird. When this movie was first released I saw the trailer and TV commercials and decided it wasn't worth seeing. By the time I learned otherwise, it was no longer in the theaters. The mishandling of The Iron Giant by Warner Brothers' marketing remains a cautionary tale to everyone in the animation industry: It is quite possible to put your heart and soul into a project and produce an amazing movie and still have it belly-flop at the box office. There was so much to love about this movie. The story was as rock-solid as you can get. I love that it was a period piece set in the 1950's that evoked not only a sense of a more innocent America, but also a sense of the Sputnik-induced paranoia of the times. The animation was top-notch throughout, ranging from exciting battles and explosions to surprisingly gentle scenes between a boy and his 100-foot robot friend. Though produced at Warner Brothers, it would fit right in alongside the very best Disney films of all time.

Blue Velvet (7/28/06) DVD (1986 ****) Directed by David Lynch. Blue Velvet is a film that has a personal significance to me: When I first saw it during its original release, it made me realize how powerfully manipulative film can be, and I found that fundamentally inspiring. Most critics consider it David Lynch’s Magnum Opus, and I agree with that assessment. Simply put, it’s one of the great films of my generation. Sadly, its content wasn’t for everyone and it remains a hard film to watch at times. Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth was a profoundly disturbed man and there was imagery (long since burned into my brain) that extended beyond comfortable boundaries and became deeply disturbing. Never before or since has the conflict between good and evil -- a theme that would be central to the world of Twin Peaks -- been explored with a masterful touch both dramatic and comic. There was a 1950’s naiveté to the proceedings; watching it now after all these years -- can it possibly be twenty years later? -- it represents a bridge between my life now and a world thirty years before the film was made.

The Tick: The Entire Series (7/30/06) DVD (2001 ***½) "I am the wild blue yonder!" This was a brilliant but short-lived TV series on Fox, and it makes me smile every time I watch it. I'm not the first to say it, but Patrick Warburton was born to play The Tick. His over-the-top naive character was splendidly complimented by David Burke as Arthur, and together they made a wonderful duo. It's really too bad this show was canceled after only nine episodes. I wonder how it might have evolved. The writing was really top notch, and it was fun to explore the domain of the superhero from a real-world frame of reference. On the DVD's audio commentary, Barry Sonnenfeld (director of the pilot and executive producer of the series) talked about the choices made in creating a live-action world based on Ben Edlund's comic creation. I feel he did a brilliant job and the property was compatible with other Sonnenfeld projects like Men in Black and The Adams Family.

Glen or Glenda (7/30/06) DVD (1953 **½) Directed by Edward D. Wood Jr. It's tempting to give this movie a single star, because it really is a bad movie in most senses of the word. But I'm not going to, and here's why: My rating scale is based on my personal enjoyment, and I actually got a fair amount of entertainment out of my viewing experience. Glen or Glenda falls into that rare category of films so bad they actually become good. There was a luminous passion with which Ed Wood wrote, directed and starred (as Daniel Davis) in this picture. The film's structure drifted in and out of coherence; only a slightly twisted mind would envelop an exploitative treatise on transvestitism with such an elaborate narrative structure. There were at least two framing stories: In the first, a police detective consulted with a psychiatrist following the suicide of a transvestite. In the second (brilliantly reenacted in Tim Burton's Ed Wood), Bela Lugosi played "The Scientist," who may or may not have been God. His monologue ("Pull the string! Pull the string!") made little sense. There was also a bondage dream/nightmare sequence near the 2/3-point in the film that reminded me of an Irving Klaw photo session with Bettie Page. The sequence didn't really relate to the core theme or story of the film, and yet somehow I didn't mind....

August 2006

Ed Wood (8/4/06) Netflix (1994 ***½) Directed by Tim Burton. Watching Glen or Glenda recently was a perfect lead-in to Ed Wood, a movie I’d been meaning to watch again for some time. It is, without a doubt, my favorite Tim Burton film. Johnny Depp demonstrated an ability to play over-the-top long before Pirates of the Caribbean. Martin Landau’s Oscar-winning performance as Bela Lugosi was spectacular. One of the things I loved about this film was that at its core it was about doing whatever you’re doing with passion, regardless of the limitations of your talent. I also loved the portrayal of the relationship between Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi, which was quite touching: When the two met, Lugosi (once Hollywood’s biggest star) was a washed-up has-been with a morphine habit and Ed Wood was a man with big filmmaking dreams and an Angora fetish. Somehow they were both far better for their friendship.

 

 

Little Black Book (8/5/06) Netflix (2004 **½) Directed by Nick Hurran, starring Brittany Murphy. First off, this was not one of my Netflix picks. I just want you to know that. Second, it wasn't as bad as I'd feared. I'm not sure I've ever seen a Brittany Murphy movie, though my fiancée assured me she was in Clueless, which I watched sometime in the 1990's. At any rate, she seemed vaguely familiar, in part because there were points in this film when she appeared to channel a young Meg Ryan. The story: Brittany's character Stacy works as an assistant producer on a Jerry Springer style show hosted by a character played by Kathy Bates. When Stacy's boyfriend goes out of town, leaving his Palm personal assistant computer behind, Holly Hunter pushes Stacy to snoop. One thing leads to another, and she discovers more than she'd bargained for. All in all it wasn't half-bad, and the behind-the-scenes broadcast writing was occasionally smarter than I would have expected from such a lightweight film. It was, however, still nowhere near the level of Aaron Sorkin's writing on the TV series Sports Night.

Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 1 (8/8/06) Comics (2005 ***½) Written by Stan Lee, illustrated by Jack Kirby. Volume 1 reprints issues 1-20 plus Fantastic Four Annual #1, a total of 544 pages! Reading this collection was nothing less than a front-row seat for the birth of the "Marvel Age" of comics. It was fascinating to watch Lee and Kirby as they slowly but surely hit their stride, and by the end of this collection they were pretty much playing their A-game. Legend has it the birth of The Fantastic Four was inspired by the financial success of The Justice League of America over at DC Comics. Lee was asked to provide a similar “team” book and he readily complied. What made him a genius was he took the superhero team concept several steps further by having the Fantastic Four squabble and bicker like the archetypal family they were. He also kept reader interest up by introducing great villains like Dr. Doom and the Submariner (resurrected from the 1940's) and by offering his readers a number of cross-overs between his other books like The Hulk. The deliberate nature of the cross-overs suggests the business-minded side of Stan was concerned not with the success of a single title but with a dozen. And seriously, as guest appearances goes, it doesn't get much better than a slugfest between The Thing and The Hulk. I fervently hope that if there is a second Fantastic Four movie it offers us that cinematic match-up! Watching Jack Kirby develop as an artist during the early days of the book was fascinating a well. It's a little hard for me to understand, actually; After all, the man had been drawing comics for twenty years before The Fantastic Four, and yet his visual style only really matured and became consistently dynamic and rock-solid during this period. Was it because he drew as many different books as was humanly possible, or was it something more? Maybe there was something in the water, or perhaps he was just inspired by explosive success of what they were doing. Either way, it was a mighty exciting time in the history of comics, that's for damned sure.

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (8/9/06) Glendale Mann 10 (2006 ***) Directed by SNL-alum Adam McKay, who co-wrote the film with Will Ferrell. Not long ago I reviewed Elf, which, after watching Talladega Nights, I still feel is Ferrell's best film. That is not to say there's anything wrong with this one. Is there any premise more ripe for comic treatment than Nascar racing? Probably not. It's a sport that speaks to a large segment of the American ("These colors don't run") population. In spite of coming from the Mighty Midwest, I'm not part of that demographic, however. Sacha Baron Cohen (who, it seems, will always be referred to parenthetically as Ali G) played Jean Girard, a gay French driver who dared to come to America to challenge the best, Ricky Bobby. Cohen played the character with what is possibly the worst French accent in the history of American Cinema, but that was probably the point. The plot revolved around a riches to rags to riches story as Ricky Bobby loses his nerve following a spectacular crash and must recover his dignity. As with any movie of this sort, the plot existed only to provide a comfortable frame of reference for the audience. The gags along the way were amusing, and I laughed out loud a handful of times.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Girl in Gold Boots (8/10/06) Netflix (1969/1998 **) Original film directed by Ted V. Mikels. Unlike Glen or Glenda, which I reviewed recently, this film did not fall into the "so bad it’s good" category. The only redeeming two redeeming qualities were: (a) several scenes of scantily-clad go-go dancers and (b) a fun glimpse of the seedy side of Hollywood circa 1969. As an episode of MST3K, it came later in the series, after Joel Hodgson had been replaced by Mike Nelson. Quite honestly, it was one of the weakest episodes I’ve seen.

Life or Something Like It (8/10/06) Netflix (2002 **) Directed by Stephen Herek. Angelina Jolie plays a Seattle TV news reporter told by a homeless prophet (Tony Shalhoub) that she has less than a week to live. I remember when the film was originally released thinking the premise was an interesting one. Unfortunately that premise was neither explored nor developed into anything as engaging as it might have been.

Zelig (8/11/06) DVD (1983 ***½) Written and directed by Woody Allen. I have a soft spot in my heart for this film. It came at a time when Allen was writing and directing some of the best films of his career, a period that happily coincided with the years I spent in college. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, Zelig was a fake documentary like This is Spinal Tap or Take the Money and Run, and it worked extremely well. The seamless integration of Allen and then-girlfriend Mia Farrow with historical 1920’s and 1930’s newsreel footage was quite a technical achievement in the early 1980‘s. Though it was nominally a comedy, with a number of deliberately funny lines, it’s tone remains quite sweet and poignant.

Amelie (Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amelie Poulain) (8/13/06) DVD (2001 ***½) Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. This was a wonderful, visually rich film. Audrey Tatou was so adorable it was excruciating at times. Nearly every shot was a treasure, and by the time you finish watching it you feel as though your eyes have had a feast. Having said that, the story wasn't nearly as strong as the visuals, and even when I first watched it I felt some of the material was derivative. I sensed the writers had a handful of clever ideas written on separate scraps of paper and the film was an expression of those disparate notes. Unfortunately, they never really came together as a unified whole. Still, Amelie is a beautiful film and after watching it you can't help but feel better about life.

Showcase Presents: The House of Mystery Vol. 1 (8/18/06) Comics (2006 ***) 552 Pages. Yes, another thick collection of DC comics back-issues in cheaply-printed black and white form. The stories themselves covered twenty issues that were printed in 1968 and 1969. Not that I need one, exactly, but my personal justification for buying the collection was that it worked not only as a fun read but also as a comic art reference book.

The stories (of which there were dozens) were illustrated by a variety of artists, some good and some not-so-good. I have a feeling the series was used by DC to test out new artists and to give established artists an opportunity to augment their regular income. As a kid, my favorite artist was Neal Adams, and Bernie Wrightson was a close runner-up. Adams created most of the covers in the collection and he and Wrightson illustrated a a handful of the stories. It wasn't until I was older that I came to appreciate the drawing versatility of Alex Toth, who had a number of stories in the book as well.

As for the stories themselves? Well, none were so well-written as to stand out. They could be seen -- and rightfully so -- as watered down versions of the far more graphic and edgy E.C. horror tales of the 1950's. The "horror" never really extended beyond a G-rated point. Nearly all the stories were introduced by a narrator character named Cain, the caretaker of The House of Mystery. In the intervening years since the stories were originally published, it's been established in Neil Gaiman's award-winning Sandman stories that the house (as well as The House of Secrets, cared for by Cain's brother Abel) exists in "The Dreaming," the kingdom of Morpheus, the "Lord of Dreams." In essence, it does not exist in the waking reality. As I read this collection, I was surprised to see several instances in which Cain or the house itself actually played a role in the tales presented. For example, there were a couple of stories centering around boarders who rented rooms in the house. It's been a while since reading the comic and hadn't remembered any of this kind of direct intrusion by the narrative frame. My best guess is it was a device used occasionally for awhile and later phased out.

Amo, Amas, Amat, and More: How to Use Latin to Your Own Advantage and to the Astonishment of Others (8/19/06) Nonfiction (1985 ***½) Written by Eugene Ehrlich. This book was a collection of better-known Latin phrases. In addition to pronunciation and translations, Ehrlich went one step beyond, frequently providing context for the phrases. Most would probably find it a a strange book to buy and read, so why exactly did I? While I regret not taking Latin in high school or college, that's not the reason. When I saw Amo, Amas, Amat and More on a shelf in a used book store, I opened it up and flipped through, reading some of the phrases. I was intrigued by the relative complexity and nuance of some of the concepts expressed. Several times in the past I've read books of famous quotations, and I've loved reading examples of wisdom in concise form. It's a common fallacy made by generations throughout the ages to believe there's any originality our own ideas. This is, it seems, especially true in the collective ego of the modern age. For me this book represented distilled proof that the ancient Romans and Greeks encountered the exact same issues and complications in matters of love or work or politics that we deal with today. My second reason for getting this book had to do with my own writing. Having finished reading the book I'm hoping to take a second pass through in order to jot down the most useful phrases with the notion of incorporating them into some future writing projects.

Lost Highway (8/22/06) Netflix (1996 **½) Directed by David Lynch. The only other time I ever saw Lost Highway was when it was first released, and I remember being very disappointed by it. I was living in New York City and I watched it on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. My primary impression of the movie was it was dark and murky and didn't make a lot of sense. Watching it again, ten years later, it didn't seem quite as dark. There were many things I liked about the film and many things I didn't. Robert Blake's freakish appearance and his exchange with Bill Pullman ("Haven't we met before?") was still a delight. As jarring and problematic as it was, I conceptually like the idea of having a main character who transforms physically halfway through the film and then back again. To uncover the story's form, the viewer had to work for it. Much was unspoken, and there was a real sense of a shadowy world that existed parallel to ours. What I didn't like was that the pace was so slow for most of the film. It would have been nice if more had actually happened. As pleasant as it was to watch a sultry young Patricia Arquette in various stages of dress and undress, her character was flat (even if she wasn't) and by the end of the film I grew tired of the sound of her low monotone voice. She sounded at times like a drugged robot. On a technical note, considering how much of the dialogue was mumbled or low, I absolutely hated that the DVD had no subtitles. Considering a similar issue on Mulholland Drive (no chapter breaks!), I can't help but wonder if these choices were deliberate and made by David Lynch himself.

MI-5: Vol 2 (8/30/06) Netflix (2003 ***½) This 5-disc, 10-episode set collected the second season of the British show MI-5 (AKA Spooks). Using fast cutting, hand-held cameras and simultaneous depiction via split-screen, the show shared much visually with Fox's 24. Each episode was a full 60-minutes long, and covered a surprising amount of territory story-wise, much more than the standard US 1-hour drama. As such, the episodes almost like "mini" movies. The characters and situations were consistently engaging. Throughout the season, a variety of anti-terrorism scenarios were played out. The writing was consistently excellent, though there were occasional lapses in story logic. As an American, it was interesting to observe the British attitudes toward the CIA, NSA, and other branches of America's spy apparatus. The conflict between the shadow agencies of the two countries played a role in several of the episodes in the collection.

September

Little Miss Sunshine (9/1/06) Glendale Mann 10 (2006 ***½) Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, starring Steve Carell, Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin and Abigail Breslin as Olive. From the second I saw the trailer months ago, I had really been looking forward to this film. I knew going in it would fall safely into the same category that includes some of my favorite films of all time: Harold and Maude, They Might Be Giants and The Royal Tannenbaums. That is to say it was a small, character-centered movie with a great cast. It was the kind of film that -- in my fantasies -- I might want to create someday. Though I’m giving it a high recommendation, it consistently stopped short of greatness; a handful of times there were either unacceptable coincidences or the characters did things in service of the plot but out of step with the reality of their situation. Also, some of the secondary characters were little more than stereotypes. The thing I enjoyed most of all was that all the main characters (with the exception of the mom played by Toni Collette) were strong and had well-defined points of view.

Fables: Legends in Exile (9/2/06) Graphic Novel (2002 ***) Written by Bill Willingham, illustrated by Lan Medina, Steve Leialoha and Craig Hamilton. The premise of the Fables series is that all the fairy tale characters and creatures have been exiled from their homelands and forced to live in and amongst the (mundane) human race. The Big Bad Wolf of Three Little Pigs fame wore a glamour that disguised his beastly form, allowing him to act as a constable of sorts. The story arc of the five issues that made up the first book involved the apparent murder of Rose Red. Some of the suspects included her sister, Snow White, Jack (you remember him from the beanstalk, right?), Price Charming and Bluebeard the pirate. While the whole concept and execution was good, the resolution of this particular story felt a bit flat for my tastes.

Smothered (9/2/06) Netflix (2002 ***) Directed by Maureen Muldaur. The focus of this documentary, which originally aired on Bravo, was the conflict between the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1966-69) and standards and practices at CBS. Unfortunately, as a reviewer I find myself in an unfortunate position: I would have enjoyed the documentary far more if its focus had been fundamentally different. It would have been nice to have expanded the scope, with more attention paid to the show’s development and personalities and less to the controversy. Unfortunately, it’s that historic struggle with censorship which is the main reason the Smothers’ TV show is remembered to this day.

Sports Night (9/2/06) Netflix (1998 ***½) This 6-disc set contained the entire series (1065 minutes). Sports Night was created by Aaron Sorkin, the genius behind The West Wing and the upcoming Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. I never watched Sports Night when it was originally on, and it’s not hard to figure out why: I’m not a sports fan and there are only a few sit-coms I watch even today, much less back in 1998-2000. This was an awfully good show, and it’s one of those times when you wonder if it wasn’t just too good for television. The most common complaint you read about Sorkin’s writing is his characters often sound as though they’re speaking with the same voice. This was definitely an issue early on in the series, when it was hard to tell what differences separated writers/on-air personalities Dan and Casey (played by Josh Charles and Peter Strause respectively) and many of the other characters. As with The West Wing, most of the characters that populated Sorkin’s Sports Night universe were freakishly intelligent, their heads filled with strange and random information. As I started to watch the series I found I had to re-adjust my perception of what Sports Night was. It was a half hour show, which would normally lead one to believe it to be a situation comedy. And yet even from the beginning (such as the episode in which Natalie was assaulted in a locker room) there was frequently more drama than comedy. I can easily imagine people tuning in to the show when it was originally broadcast, expecting a light-hearted sit-com about sportscasters and jocks, only to wonder what the hell they were watching. It was also interesting to see so many of the seminal elements and characters that later showed up in The West Wing, elements that will undoubtedly resurface once more in Studio 60.

The Big Picture: AFI’s Greatest Movie Musicals (9/3/06) Performance (2006 ****) John Mauceri conducted the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in a special musical/video countdown of the 25 greatest musicals of all time. Clips were shown on a number of giant screens while the orchestra augmented the soundtrack. I must admit a bit of disappointment in seeing one of my personal favorites, Finian’s Rainbow, was left off the top 100 list entirely. There were frequent pauses in which Mauceri provided hints as to the movies coming up on the countdown; this added a touch of suspense. What was number 1? Singin’ in the Rain, of course. Coming in second was West Side Story, and third was The Wizard of Oz. As an experience, the only thing that might have made it better would have been higher-priced seats. The performance was completely sold out, and no wonder. This was the 14th year they’ve done this (last year they celebrated the top 25 film scores) and I for one intend to return next year. One side-effect of the program: It made me want to re-watch many of these great musicals; I can't even remember the last time I watched The Sound of Music.

The Palm Beach Story (9/4/06) Netflix (1942 **½) Directed by Preston Sturges, starring Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, Rudy Vallee and Mary Astor. The last time I watched this film was as part of a film class in 1984 or '85. I never really got into this movie. The beginning -- which featured Colbert in her underwear tied up in a closet -- was one of the most bizarre moments in film history, bordering on a non-sequitur. I kept wondering when it would pay off, which it didn't until the very end, though the scene was never fully explained to my satisfaction.

Slaughterhouse Five (9/4/06) Novel (1969 **½) Written by Kurt Vonnegut. It's almost a cliché that many people (especially teenage boys) go through a period in which they "discover" Kurt Vonnegut. I never went through such a period myself. In fact, when I picked up a yellowed, battered and beaten paperback copy in a used book store over the long Labor Day weekend, my fiancée’s reaction was: "What are you, fourteen?" The only other Vonnegut book I ever remember reading was Galapagos, and I wasn't particularly impressed with that either. The focal point of Slaughterhouse Five was the 1945 bombing by the allies of Dresden, Germany, a night in which over 135,000 people (mostly innocent civilians) were killed. This rivaled the death counts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. Vonnegut was actually on the ground during the bombing and so this book told his story as well as its fictional hero, Billy Pilgrim. Pilgrim suffered from an unusual condition that caused him to get "unstuck" in time. Because of this, his story was told in fragmented jumps from childhood to Dresden to his post-war life and even to his death. Millions of his fans worldwide will probably hate me for this, but I found Vonnegut's writing style to be too loose for my taste. I can see why his work has appealed to teens, though: The language he used was simple enough, containing a hint of depth as to make it interesting. The problem for me was I didn't see any signs of true depth, and I often found the fragmented story to be arbitrarily and distractingly random, without any sense of a hidden structure to its madness. For me there was no sense that Vonnegut had particularly arranged the bits and pieces in the interest of building to a unique emotional and resonant payoff. It just read as stream of consciousness for its own sake, and that wasn't enough for me. Perhaps at the time it was written (1969) the fragmented approach was far more original than it appears now. Having lived through the non-linear narrative film trends of the 1990's (Pulp Fiction, Memento, etc.), perhaps it doesn't have quite the same punch now that it once had.

The Jackal (9/6/06) Netflix (1997 ***) Directed by Michael Caton-Jones, starring Bruce Willis, Richard Gere, and Sidney Poitier. This was sort of a remake of the 1973 film, The Day of the Jackal, but it only really took the professional hit man Jackal character as the basis and everything else was created from scratch. Early on in the film I was certain it was a dog and I was going to give it two stars (**) at best, but then a funny thing happened: Somewhere along the way I started getting interested in the characters in spite of Gere's ridiculous Irish accent and a few suspicious plot holes. Jack Black made an appearance early in his career as an unscrupulous subcontractor who wound being used for target practice.

Trekkies (9/8/06) Netflix (1997 ***) Directed by Richard Nygard. This was a documentary about the subculture that has evolved around Star Trek. It was hosted (and executive produced) by Denise Crosby, a fan favorite who played two different roles on Star Trek: The Next Generation. As documentaries go, it was interesting but not compelling. The focus was primarily on the culture, and there were a number of interviews with the actors from the series, including the late Deforest Kelley and James Doohan. I have a good friend who recently attended the 40th anniversary Star Trek convention in Las Vegas. He explained that the primary purpose of the convention was to squeeze as much money out of the fans as possible. Because this documentary was made almost ten years ago, that aspect of the phenomenon was barely touched upon. Instead, the focus was on the "weird" things people do to celebrate their fanaticism. In Trekkies, a somewhat limited spectrum of fans was shown: Those who let Star Trek become too much a part of their lives and those who did not. Watching the film, I occasionally felt a bit of a "there but for the grace of God go I" twinge. After all, back in High School I was the first person in line to see Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan on opening day. It's a wonder I didn't end up wearing a Star Trek uniform to jury duty myself.

William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (9/10/06) Netflix (1996 ***) Directed by Baz Luhrmann. This was a modern (some would say too modern) update of the immortal play that retained the original dialogue. It starred pre-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. Luhrmann went on to direct Moulin Rouge (2001). Throughout Romeo + Juliet, there was a tension between the Shakespearean dialogue and the visuals. It's open to debate as to whether this was the main reason for making this film. I'm sure that since its production the video has been shown countless times in tenth grade English classes. I must admit I'm not much of a scholar of the Bard, and so the experience in viewing and listening to his words was fairly novel. Ultimately, what worked best for me were Shakespeare's original words. At times the acting and directing underscored them but at other times they served mostly as a distraction. It might have been just a little too clever for its own good, but all in all I would still recommend it.

The Writer's Digest Handbook of Short Story Writing, Volume II (9/10/06) Nonfiction (1988 ***) Edited by Jean M. Fredette. Over the years I've read a number of Writer's Digest books of this sort. They have all taken material that appeared originally as articles in WD magazine, collecting it into book form. Though the title's emphasis was on the crafting of the short story, I would estimate that half the chapters (articles) were not specifically about that form, but were addressed toward fiction as a whole. Again, as with other books of this sort, the articles varied in terms of quality and relevance, though generally they were well-written. On a cynical note, for whatever reason I noticed this time around that there was an unabashedly self-promotional dimension to many of the articles. Here's a fictitious but representative example: "As you explore your own use of description, compare the following three examples. The first was written by Hemingway, the second by Steinbeck, and the third is a passage from my new book, Wither Then the Willowing Winds."

United 93 (9/11/06) Netflix (2006 ***½) Written and Directed by Paul Greengrass. Not entirely coincidentally, my fiancée and I watched this film on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. United 93 did as good a job of presenting what happened that Tuesday morning as could have been done. The word "restraint" came to mind. Throughout the film -- which was as compelling as the events themselves -- there was a sense of being respectful to the memories of all the people who lost their lives that day. I appreciated that. The film offered no answers, nor did it take political sides.

Light Keeps Me Company (9/12/06) Netflix (2000 ***) Directed by Carl-Gustav Nykvist. The subject of this documentary was the director's father, Sven Nykvist, the great Swedish cinematographer who worked with many directors over his career, including Woody Allen. He was best known for his collaboration with fellow countryman Ingmar Bergman. My primary purpose in renting this film was to learn more about how a master approaches the art of lighting and shooting films. There was some of that in this documentary, but most of the material was about Nykvist's life. The core message was that his easy-going manner made him universally beloved by all who worked with him. However, his devotion to his work and art resulted in him largely failing as a husband and father, culminating in the suicide of his eldest, essentially neglected, son.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (9/16/06) Universal Citywalk (2006 ***) Directed by Gore Verbinski, starring Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. Let me make this as clear as possible: At no point during Pirates 2 did I actually know what was going on. You could blame that on my poor hearing or on a confusing mishmash of a plot. I would give this movie two and a half stars, but some of the visuals (especially the fully-CG Davy Jones) were worth seeing in the theater and I'm not sorry I paid full admission price.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (9/16/06) Netflix (1970 **½) Directed by Russ Meyer. "This is my happening and it freaks me out!" In the world of Russ Meyer, there were no flat-chested women. In my view, that's not necessarily a bad place to spend a couple of hours. The major claim to fame for this film was that its screenplay was written by none other than film critic Roger Ebert, and that was my primary reason in renting it. The storytelling and dialogue were especially revealing. It was clear that young Ebert, who was in his late 20's when the film was released, was really trying to do good work. Unfortunately, his dialogue was peppered with occasionally clever but more frequently awkward turns of phrase. As I prepared myself to watch Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, I anticipated a horror show of bad direction, the sort one might expect from a soft-core porno flick. I was surprised the production values were as good as they were. The real failing of the film was the story, which was all over the place.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Monster A Go-Go (9/17/06) Netflix (1965/1992 ***½) Original film directed by Bill Rebane. Joel Robinson and the other inhabitants of the satellite of love delivered some of their best material in this presentation of a truly awful, awful movie. This for me is what MST3K was all about; I laughed out loud at least a dozen times.

Dark Shadows: The Salem Branch (9/17/06) Novel (2006 ***½) Written by Lara Parker, who played the role of Angelique on the original Dark Shadows. Ms. Parker wrote an earlier novel based on the series, entitled Angelique's Descent, in which she explored the origins of her character. When I read that a number of years ago, I was happily surprised by how good her writing was. I know that's unfair, but her writing was far better than one might expect, and it transcended any accusations of "literary stunt-casting." The Salem Branch picked up where the TV series left off: Dr. Julia Hoffman has cured Barnabas of his vampirism and in gratitude he has proposed marriage. The novel ping-ponged between the present day (1970) and the Salem witch trials of the 1600's. A series of gruesome murders informed Barnabas that another vampire had come to Collinwood; Barnabas had to fight, but this time without his superhuman gifts. Overall, I had a great time revisiting the world of Dark Shadows, and Lara Parker was a wonderful tour guide.

Hollywoodland (9/20/06) Glendale Mann 10 (2006 **½) Directed by Allen Coulter, starring Adrien Brody, Ben Affleck and Diane Lane. One of the greatest unsolved mysteries in Hollywood remains whether or not George Reeves killed himself. The film alternated between the past (George Reeves' career in Hollywood) and the present (Adrien Brody as Louis Simo, a private investigator hired by Reeves' mother). The challenge of that structure was that it was never clear whose story is being told. There were many good performances in the film, including some superb acting by Bob Hoskins, but most of the characters were sadly underdeveloped.

Old School (9/23/06) Netflix (2003 ***) Directed by Todd Phillips, starring Luke Wilson, Vince Vaughn, and Will Ferrell. Old School isn't the kind of movie intended to make you think. Instead, it's a film in the tradition of Meatballs, Animal House and Caddyshack where the good guys were more than a little irreverent and subversive. Old School included some great, pitch-perfect comic performances by Vaughn and Ferrell. It may be argued they were playing the same characters they always play, but in a movie like this, who really cares? I certainly didn't.

Laws of Attraction (9/23/06) Netflix (2004 *½) Directed by Peter Howitt, starring Pierce Brosnan and Julianne Moore. Normally in these capsule reviews of mine I don't call out the screenwriter, but in this case I'll make an exception. Laws of Attraction was written by Aline Brosh McKenna and Robert Harling. McKenna also wrote the screenplay for The Devil Wears Prada. Why the special shout-out? The writing was pretty stinky. The situations were all lifted from bad romantic fiction and at no point did any of the characters feel alive. It was obvious from the opening titles that the film had aimed for a kind of Doris Day / Rock Hudson sensibility, but it never once hit its target. There were lines of dialogue so clunky they actually made me groan and shake my head. While I like both Pierce Brosnan and Julianne Moore and consider them to be charismatic, solid actors, they had nothing to work with and there was virtually no on-screen chemistry between them.

V For Vendetta (9/26/06) Netflix (2006 **½) Directed by James McTeigue, written by Andy and Larry Wachowski, the brothers behind the Matrix films. This movie was based on a graphic novel by Alan Moore, which was written in the mid-eighties during the Thatcher/Reagan years. I read that graphic novel a couple of years ago but wasn't particularly impressed by it. In fact, I ended up selling it at a garage sale to a co-worker for $2. From the first five minutes of the film I found its politics heavy-handed. However, the message was eerily appropriate for today's political climate. Though V For Vendetta was nominally a political intrigue, it dragged a lot, especially in the second act. At one point late in the film Natalie Portman discovered a roll of paper that led to a sub-story that totally derailed the narrative flow. There were about four scenes in which John Hurt (as the evil chancellor) appeared on a huge video screen to bark orders at his underlings. These scenes must have been easy and cheap to shoot, but I found them incredibly annoying and repetitive. One final thought: Halfway through the film I realized all the story elements seemed familiar, and then it hit me: V For Vendetta was a near-perfect amalgam of Batman, Beauty and the Beast, and The Phantom of the Opera.

The Band Wagon (9/27/06) Netflix (1953 ***) Directed by Vincente Minnelli, starring Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse. The Band Wagon was featured recently at the Greatest American Musicals AFI concert I went to at the Hollywood Bowl. It was ranked number 17, just below Funny Girl and just above Yankee Doodle Dandy. I thought I hadn't seen this movie since sometime in the early 1990's, but as I watched I realized I'd seen it much more recently. Thank God for my movie journal, which informed me I saw it last on 11/16/02, at the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto. At the time I gave it four stars, so why am I only giving it three this time? I hate to admit it, but maybe it was because I watched it this time around on DVD instead of on the beautiful big screen of the Stanford. Watching it this time, I kept feeling all the elements didn't quite work as well as they might have: Everything seemed phony; the film took too long to get off the ground; Fred Astaire seemed to be phoning it it; Cyd Charisse was a great dancer but sorely lacked Ginger Rogers' charisma. Finally, I thought The Band Wagon came off as being too obviously derivative of Singin' In the Rain, which had come out the year before. Okay, enough already with the critical analysis. I'm done. Now, if I can just get that damned "That's Entertainment" song out of my head...

Comedian (9/28/06) DWA Screening (2002 ***) Directed by Christian Charles. This was a strange documentary to review. Its primary focus was Jerry Seinfeld's fresh start as a comedian after returning to the comedy circuit following the end of his successful TV show. For reasons not adequately explained, Seinfeld decided to retire his entire repertoire of stand-up material and start from scratch. This documentary followed him as he built and fleshed out his new act. Seinfeld came across as sympathetic, though I wondered how material was selected, given that the documentary was directed by a personal friend of his. As a subplot of sorts, Comedian also showed an important period in the live of another, lesser comic, named Orny Adams, including the beginning of his relationship with Seinfeld's agent George Shapiro and his debut appearance on the Letterman show. Adams appeared considerably less sympathetic, mostly because every time he opened his mouth he sounded like a real jerk. Was the lesson that only nice guys like Seinfeld deserve of comedy success? I don't know. The film did a reasonably good job of painting the bleak world, insecurities and behind-the-scenes machinations that make up the life of the working comic.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (9/29/06) Graphic Novel (2006 ***½) Written and illustrated by Alison Bechdel, creator of the syndicated comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. This was a beautiful, well-written book about Bechdel’s family. The two main characters were Bechdel herself and her father, who was killed by a truck when Bechdel was in her early twenties. The book jumped around in time and was organized thematically rather than chronologically. As you might guess from the name of her strip, Bechdel is a lesbian and in this book she explored her own sexual coming-of-age, capturing nicely the myriad emotions she felt in the process. She came out to her parents in the form of a long typed letter shortly before her father died. The reaction she got wasn’t what she’d expected; her mother told her it ran in the family – her father had been having homosexual relationships of his own on the side for years. As Bechdel looked back, the pieces fell into place and she wondered how she could have ignored the signs. This was one of those graphic novels that truly demonstrated the power of the medium; Bechdel’s illustrations worked elegantly in concert with the material and with the words she chose. Some readers may find the story and subject matter depressing or distasteful, but it captured a picture of a very real, very imperfect family. In her acknowledgments, she thanked her mother and siblings, saying, "Thank you for not trying to stop me from writing this book." Clearly it took a great deal of courage to create a work like this.

October

Sabrina (10/1/06) TMC (1954 ****) Directed by Billy Wilder, starring Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn and William Holden. Hepburn sparkled as a chauffeur’s daughter who returns from culinary school in Paris to the Long Island estate that has been her home since childhood. She's blossomed while away and immediately ensnares the younger of two brothers, played by Holden. When the older brother (Bogart) intervenes, he falls in love with her and she with him in spite of themselves. Remade forty years later with Harrison Ford and Greg Kinnear, the original version sang a high note from beginning to end. This was the kind of movie that demonstrated the power of the silver screen, the kind that deserves to be a classic. It's an example of American filmmaking at its apex and shows why Wilder was such a genius: There was an apparently effortless mastery of craft in evidence by everyone involved.

Jesus Camp (10/1/06) Pasadena Laemmie's Playhouse 7 (2006 ***½) Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. This documentary focused on children raised as evangelical Christians. The centerpiece was a "Kids on Fire" summer camp run by Pastor Becky Fischer. Fischer's highly effective approach was to "get 'em while they're young." As the film progressed, we got to know many of the kids, including a twelve-year old boy named Levi who was already making a name for himself as a preacher. This documentary was interesting in how even-handedly it played to both sides. In fact, the audience with which I saw it was evenly divided between believers and non-believers. At various points in the film, some laughed while others said "amen." I thought Jesus Camp was an excellent, thought-provoking documentary: It took me into a world I didn't know existed and left me in the end with an insight into that world. Much of the film's activity took place in the Midwest, where I was born. Many of the homes and rural environments were so familiar to me as to induce a sense of nostalgia. Living on the west coast, as I have for the past seven years, I often hear derisive comments made about the "flyover states." Watching Jesus Camp, I realized I have a tremendous amount in common with the people in the film, and yet at the same time I don't.

Scoop (10/2/06) DWA Screening (2006 **½) Written and directed by Woody Allen, starring Scarlett Johansson, Woody Allen and Hugh Jackman. Ian McShane played a great investigative journalist who stumbles on the scoop of a lifetime while being ferried down the River Styx, then returns to our mortal plane to tell young college reporter (Johansson) that the son of a British lord is the "tarot card killer." This certainly wasn't the strongest Woody Allen film in recent years, but it was pleasant enough and I got to see it for free, so what the hell. As with many of Allen's weaker movies, this one felt like it wasn't altogether there, as though script could have used a few more months of work. Compounding the problem was Allen's choice of Johansson, who he also used in Match Point. She was certainly pretty enough (last week she was voted "sexiest woman alive" by Esquire Magazine) but she lacked the acting skills necessary to pull off the part: Every single second she was on the screen I was aware she was acting.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Manos: The Hands of Fate (10/3/06) Netflix (1993/1966 ***1/4) The original film was written and directed by Hal Warren who, like Ed Wood before him, also played one of the lead roles. According to the Internet Movie Database, Warren was a fertilizer salesman in El Paso who made Manos on a bet. Manos was, hands down (pun intended), one of the worst films of all time, and watching it was an exercise in torture. As far as the MST3K dimension of the viewing experience, it was a slightly above average episode. I laughed the most not during the main feature but during the short subject, a gem from the archives at Chevrolet called Hired (Part 2).

My Super Ex-Girlfriend (10/8/06) Portofino Inn, Redondo Beach (2006 **) Directed by Ivan Reitman, starring Luke Wilson and Uma Thurman. My wife and I watched this the day after we were married, decompressing from the excitement and stress of the wedding, while eating a delivered pizza. Unfortunately, the movie wasn’t as good as the pizza. I was disappointed; the premise of My Super Ex-Girlfriend had such promise, but it didn’t fulfill its potential. Let's hope the same will never be said for our marriage!

The Birds (10/10/06) Transatlantic flight between LAX and London Heathrow (1963 ***) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The Birds really laid the groundwork for Jaws and all the movies of its type that came after it. I could see why it made such an impact at the time it was originally released. I remember as a very young child watching this movie on TV and being absolutely terrified by the sequence where the birds gathered outside the school and attacked the children as they ran down the street. In my opinion, Tippi Hedren’s character came across in the beginning as a total stalking nut-job and someone to be avoided, though I suppose some in the world of 1963 might have seen her more as a “free spirit.” It was fun seeing a young Suzanne Pleshette, though I thought her final fate was terribly unfair. Ultimately, The Birds was a good movie and worth watching but it’s not a "must-see" like Psycho or Rear Window.

A Wrinkle in Time (10/17/06) Novel (1962 **) Written by Madeleine L'Engle. I bought this book and its companion, A Wind in the Door, at a church sale. I was under the impression that A Wrinkle in Time was some kind of important science fiction work. I was a bit disappointed, honestly. I'd expected more from it. Maybe part of my problem was that the book got into some strange fantasy territory and that has never been my favorite genre. My other major problem was that the resolution of the main plot -- which involved retrieving the main character Meg's baby brother Charles from a soul-sucking entity known only as IT -- came quite abruptly, only a few pages from the end. It was as though the book got bored with itself and decided to wrap things up as quickly as possible.

How to Write Killer Fiction: The Funhouse of Mystery and the Roller Coaster of Suspense (10/19/06) Nonfiction (2003 ***½) Written by Carolyn Wheat. I've read a lot of books about writing over the years, and this was one of the best I've ever come across. Carolyn Wheat did a marvelous job focusing on her subject and providing just the right amount of detail. I especially liked and appreciated her discussion of the differences and similarities between writing mysteries and suspense. She went into good (but not excessive) depth in the subgenres that make up each main category. Her examples were well-considered and very helpful. Overall I enjoyed her no-nonsense approach to the topic of writing.

The Time Traveler's Wife (10/22/06) Novel (2003 ****) Written by Audrey Niffenegger. This was one of the best books I've read this year, and it was a highly impressive first novel for Ms. Niffenegger. Its premise: Due to a chromosomal anomaly, a man finds himself slipping through time with no conscious control. In spite of this dangerous genetic birth defect, he meets and marries a woman destined to be his soul mate.

The magic of this book was that is succeeded brilliantly both as science fiction and as a love story. Thanks to time travel rules she established early on (which were never exploited in a cheap manner) Niffenegger was able to accomplish some miraculous effects in the reader: I found myself transported to familiar emotional territory (much of the novel was about longing, loss, and waiting for your lover to return) via fresh and unexpected paths. For example, the first time Henry (age 28) met Clare (age 20), she had known him most of her life, thanks to his future self‘s frequent visits to the meadow behind her parent's Michigan estate. Likewise, the first time Clare (age 6) met Henry (age 36), Henry was already married to the adult Clare and knew all about her life and her life to come. Niffenegger told her story using random snatches and scenes offered as dated sections written from either Clare's or Henry's point of view. Each section was labeled in such a way that confusion (which would have distracted from the reading experience) was never an issue. Roughly half the passages were set in the present, but there were many occasions when Henry encountered older or younger versions of himself or Clare, sometimes in the past and occasionally in the future.

Sadly, time traveling is very dangerous business: When Henry slipped through time he arrived naked and in a random location, putting him in an extremely vulnerable position and subject to harsh weather and the potentially hostile reactions of those around when he appeared. As the novel progressed, a disturbing vision of the future developed as Henry and Clare pieced together information about when, where, and how Henry would die. As with the rest of the novel, the resolution of this was handled in a fashion that was both tasteful and satisfying in spite of the foreknowledge: The reader was given all the pieces of the puzzle but didn’t know how they fit until they came together.

The Lake House (10/28/06) Transatlantic flight between London Heathrow and LAX (2006 **) Directed by Alejandro Agresti, screenplay by David Auburn, starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock. Thanks to a magic mailbox, a woman falls in love with a man who lived two years in the past. Nominally this film was in the time travel / love story genre that included Somewhere in Time (which also featured Christopher Plummer). My biggest problem with The Lake House was the screenplay. I probably would have found the writing of this film far less infuriating/annoying/grating had I not recently read Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, one of the best books I’ve read within recent memory. Reeves & Bullock were re-teamed for the first time since Speed. Though I appreciate why some might find the love story between Keanu Reeves satisfying emotionally, inconsistent story logic and huge gaps in character intelligence stretched my personal suspension of disbelief beyond the point I could bear it.

The Break-Up (10/28/06) Transatlantic flight between London Heathrow and LAX (2006 **½) Directed by Peyton Reed, screenplay by Jeremy Garelick & Jay Lavender, starring Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston. For some reason I kept flashing back to The War of the Roses (1989) or the more recent Bruce Willis / Michelle Pfeiffer / Rob Reiner film The Story of Us (1999). Actually, I’m not entirely sure the married couple in that second film actually broke up, but my recollection is they should have. Quite honestly, break-ups aren’t fun to be a part of and I’ve never found them particularly fun to watch. I have no idea why Hollywood has not figured that simple fact out yet. Maybe movies about couples in conflict are aimed at a specific audience of people who are currently in or have recently ended troubled relationships. Having said all that, I thought the film captured the dynamics of this all-to-common situation fairly well. Both Vaughn and Aniston’s characters were likable but flawed in their own ways and through the process of their break-up they each learned something. Unfortunately, as often happens in real life, they learned their lessons too late. The quality of the writing wasn’t exactly consistent, but there were a couple of scenes that sparkled for me. In particular there was a scene between Vaughn and his bartender friend played in a cameo by director Jon Favreau ("No, really, I don’t want anything to happen to him, all right?") that was delightful.

Psycho (10/28/06) Transatlantic flight between London Heathrow and LAX (1960 ***½) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Short of suffering a brain injury, it’s impossible to watch Psycho with fresh eyes after you’ve seen it for the first time. It‘s also a bit of a challenge to write a review of one of the most significant films of all time. (Warning: spoilers follow) It has been roughly twenty years since I last watched the original Psycho. It’s probably universal that there are only a handful of scenes from the film that really permeate your psyche. Part of the magic of the film was that its story began with following a woman (Janet Leigh) who, in a moment of bad judgment, steals $40,000. The virgin audience (who has never seen the film before) has certain expectations based on the film’s investment in this character. When Marion Crane (Leigh) meets Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), they talk and she eats a sandwich… and the point of view shifts, becoming Norman’s movie. When the woman the audience has come to believe is the main character is brutally murdered in the shower… well, they must have experienced a tremendous jolt. The remainder of the film played out in a fairly straightforward and linear fashion. The shocking revelation in the fruit cellar of the true relationship between Norman and his mother was a classic, though it was also straight out of the E.C. comics of the late 1950‘s. In what had to be one of the strangest directorial choices in film history, after Bates was apprehended there was a scene in which Simon Oakland (as psychologist Dr. Fred Richmond) delivered a lengthy piece of exposition that went on for several minutes, explaining the mechanics of Norman Bates’ psychological behavior. He assures us that just because Norman wore a cheap wig and dressed as his mother, it didn't make him a transvestite. At times the dialogue in this scene sounded exactly like Edward D. Wood, Jr.‘s dialogue in Glen Or Glenda.

November

Flushed Away (11/2/06) ASIFA screening, Mann's Chinese Theater, Hollywood (2006 ***½) Directed by David Bowers and Sam Fell. I had seen a near-final (I thought) version a few months ago and maybe I was just having a bad day, but at the time I had some serious issues with various story points and characterizations. I'm not really sure what's changed, but I enjoyed Flushed Away a hell of a lot more in its final-final form. It could be because I saw it with a "real audience" and in a "real theater." Flushed Away was produced by Dreamworks Animation, the studio for which I work. It's also a film on which I didn't work on at all. Given my reservations earlier on, I was surprised it received such positive reviews. Seeing the final result I can definitely see why, and my hat is off to all those responsible. It's amazing how important those last-minute tweaks were in making this particular film work. There was a lesson in that process somewhere.

The Prestige (11/4/06) Glendale Mann 4 (2006 ***¼) Directed by Christopher Nolan, starring Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale. The rivalry between two magicians escalates to the point of life and death. It’s interesting that presenting a story with a fractured chronological narrative has become so commonplace. Nolan, of course, made his mark directing Memento, so it’s familiar territory for him. There was a deliberate coyness in that the structure of the magic trick (with "the prestige" being the third and final part) echoed the structure of the story that unfolded, and vice versa. This was one of those films where much of the fun for the audience lay in trying to figure out what was actually happening. I knew going into the film that there was a "twist" ending, though I deliberately avoided hearing or reading anything about it. Even though I had some trouble hearing much of the dialogue, I was still able to piece together enough clues to figure out how the pieces all fit together before the big reveal.

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (11/5/06) Netflix (2006 *) Written and directed by Albert Brooks. I want to like you, Mr. Albert Brooks. I really do. But you don’t make it easy. Defending Your Life was such a wonderful film. In spite of generally poor reviews, I had high hopes for this movie. But it was all in vain. From start to finish, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World was a terrible, terrible misfire. Worst of all, it wasn’t funny, and it was only barely relevant. What exactly were you trying to do, Mr. Brooks? Can’t you please explain that to me? I’m so, so terribly sad. Go away now. I can’t look at you any longer.

Animation Show of Shows (11/6/06) DWA Screening (2006 ***½) Curated and directed by Ron Diamond. This was actually a special presentation. Mr. Diamond goes to a number of animation festivals each year, selecting films he feels are "the best of the best" and then makes the rounds to all the animation studios, showing them. This year's collection included the following shorts. I've indicated parenthetically the more commercial, studio-produced films: Quien Engana No Gana, Danish Poet, A Gentleman's Duel (Blur Studios), My Love, Shipwrecked, No Time for Nuts (Blue Sky), Tragic Story with Happy Ending, and Lifted (Pixar). I enjoyed all the shorts. My Love, created by Alexander Petrov was by far the most beautiful. Petrov won the Oscar a few years back for The Old Man and the Sea, which was also produced using his trademark (and gorgeous) oil paint on glass technique. I think the one that tugged at my heartstrings the most, though, was Danish Poet, which told the complicated (and occasionally hilarious) story behind the meeting of the director's parents.

Happy Feet (11/6/06) ASIFA Screening (2006 *) Directed by George Miller. I don't want to say I hated this movie, but I absolutely didn't get into it. I knew approximately twenty minutes into the screening that I was in for a long, boring ride. The visuals (the lighting supervisor was a guy I worked with on Shrek) were fine, but the story seemed to meander. At least three different times I found myself wondering where the hell the movie was going. It kept changing and occasionally didn't make any sense. I knew Robin Williams did some of the voices, but after awhile all the voices started to sound like him.

Art School Confidential (11/8/06) Netflix (2006 *½) Directed by Terry Zwigoff, from a screenplay by Daniel Clowes. I am a big fan of Clowes' comic book work, and I was beside myself with anticipation when I first learned of this re-pairing of the two minds behind Ghost World. I never quite got around to seeing the film in the theater, primarily because of the negative reviews it received. Watching it on video, I'm glad I saved my money. I was very disappointed. I don't think there was any dimension of this film on which it succeeded for me. The characters were flat and the situations were contrived. The only thing that came close to being enjoyable was John Malkovich's character, a drawing instructor whose true talent lay in infecting his students with his own mediocrity.

You Can't Take it With You (11/9/06) Netflix (1938 ***) Directed by Frank Capra. There's nothing like a Frank Capra movie for making you feel better about life. That was basically by design. This movie in particular had a pretty heavy-handed "it doesn't matter how poor you are -- those rich S.O.B.'s ain't any happier!" subtext. That message was clearly aimed square between the eyes of the depression-era populace, but it nearly overwhelmed the story. It was still a fun movie, though, and I always enjoy watching Jimmy Stewart. Having said that, this film may have been a little longer than it needed to be. There were a few dragging scenes around the hour and a half mark that could have been cut or trimmed significantly. On a personal note, back when I was in high school, You Can't Take it With You was produced as a stage play, featuring several of my friends.

The Departed (11/10/06) Glendale Mann 10 (2006 ***½) Directed by Martin Scorsese. This was one terrific movie! Man, that guy Scorsese sure knows what he's doing. At two and a half hours, it was long, but it never felt long. I've never been Leonardo DiCaprio's biggest fan, but I have to give him credit for delivering a truly great performance. It will be interesting to see if, come Oscar time, Scorsese, the film itself, DeCaprio, or Nicholson will be nominated. My guess is they have a hell of a good shot at it. One amusing personal note: After the movie was over, my wife continued to curse in a Boston accent for approximately three hours.

The Trouble With Harry (11/12/06) Netflix (1955 ***) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. This was only one of two comedies Hitchcock ever directed, the other being Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941). It featured a young Shirley MacLaine in her first film role. It also marked the screen debut of a very young Jerry Mathers, who went on to TV success and renown as Beaver Cleaver. The Trouble With Harry is far from my favorite Hitchcock film, but it was pleasant enough. It was nominally a black comedy, but aside from the fact that all the action centered around a dead body, it wasn't particularly dark. I suppose it laid the groundwork for the Weekend At Bernie's movies. Many of the exterior scenes for the film were shot in Vermont, and some of that scenery was as gorgeous as any you'd find in a John Ford Western. So why didn't I enjoy it more? Much of the blame goes to the source material. As a movie based on a book, it felt as though I were watching a play. Specifically, the characters often didn't behave realistically; they appeared to be stylized to a degree it was distracting.

Mirrormask (11/13/06) Netflix (2006 **) Directed by Dave McKean, written by Neal Gaiman. I'm a big fan of Gaiman's Sandman comics from the late 1980's and early 1990's. They were a real high water mark in the history of comics. The covers for the original comics were all painted by McKean. Mirrormask, which featured both live action and animation, was visually inventive but ultimately I found the sequences all seemed the same after awhile. Watching it, I felt with each sequence that there was a single graphic "hook," and that was it. I would have liked more of a wider visual range.

That Touch of Mink (11/18/06) Netflix (1962 *½) Directed by Delbert Mann, starring Doris Day and Cary Grant. This was one creepy movie. The plot revolved around whether "good girl" (and virginal) Doris Day was going to "give up the goods" to handsome millionaire Cary Grant. There was a seedy undercurrent to the whole film that made me feel dirty. I got the impression both stars knew how unseemly the subject matter was. Grant in particular seemed to be phoning in his performance.

The Notorious Bettie Page (11/18/06) Netflix (2006 **) Directed by Mary Harron, starring Gretchen Mol. Confessing that I have, on occasion, enjoyed the charms of the arguable pin-up queen of the universe would not be much of a confession at all. It would put me in the same category as approximately half the male population with internet access. Many years ago I read a biography about Bettie Page, and it was sad for me to learn that as Page's modeling career ended she became born again and later suffered from mental illness and was eventually arrested for assault. It was interesting that the uglier aspects of Bettie's sad life were left out of this film. My biggest issue with The Notorious Bettie Page was that it played both sides of the moral questions: Did the "lascivious" photographs for which Bettie Page posed really do harm? In other words, was pornography bad? This film refused to take a point of view.

What a Way to Go! (11/19/06) Netflix (1964 **½) Directed by J. Lee Thompson, starring Shirley MacLaine. Like That Touch of Mink, which I watched the day before, this film was definitely a product of the times in which it was made. The storyline was that every man Shirley MacLaine fell in love with was doomed to incredible success and a grisly accidental death. It was one of those "stunt casting" films and featured the following as her successive husbands or husband wanna-be's: Dick Van Dyke, Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum, Gene Kelly, Dean Martin, and Bob Cummings. The highlight of the film was the (according to the trailer) half-million dollars worth of Edith Head fashions that Ms. MacLaine got to wear.

49 Up (11/21/06) Netflix (2005 ****) Directed by Michael Apted. This was the seventh and latest installment in the 7 Up series. Of the fourteen original children, twelve were still participating. For many viewers, including myself, the power of watching this progression has less to do with the aging of the subjects as it does with how one compares their own lives. It's all too easy to lose sight of the long view -- the continuum -- of one's life, though at age 42 I sometimes catch fleeting glimpses of that. There is a sad beauty to the fact that we all are marching inevitably toward death, and that morbidity was present just below the surface in 49 Up. As Roger Ebert pointed out in one of the DVD's bonus features, all of the subjects seemed fairly happy this time around. It was comforting to note they have each individually come to some degree of acceptance in their lives. Sadly, assuming the series continues, eventually there will come an installment when one or more of them (or Michael Apted himself) has passed on.

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea (11/23/06) Graphic Novel (2005 **½) Written and illustrated by Guy Delisle. This was an autobiographical account of Delisle’s experiences while working as an animation supervisor in North Korea. He described an environment as close to Orwellian as any that has ever existed. North Korea has become an important player on the world stage, and we owe it to ourselves to learn as much about them as we possibly can. For some, this graphic novel may be a good first step.

The Glass Bottom Boat (11/23/06) Netflix (1966 **) Directed by Frank Tashlin. Doris Day starred with Rod Taylor in a cold war comedy of errors in which Day was mistaken for a spy. It co-starred Dom DeLuise, Dick Martin, and Charles Nelson Riley. That pretty much tells you everything you need to know about the film. As with virtually every other Doris Day film, I have memories of seeing this film originally either on television or as the second or third feature at a drive-in movie show.

Swimming With Sharks (11/24/06) Netflix (1994 **½) Written and directed by George Huang, starring Kevin Spacey and Frank Whaley. Huang was an assistant for a studio executive at Columbia when he left to write and direct this film. I didn’t realize it was over ten years old. I think I actually got this film confused with another film starring Spacey, The Big Kahuna (1999), which I have not seen. Swimming With Sharks was considered a black comedy, and I suppose there was some degree of humor in the situations. However, it was also unrelentingly loud and frequently very violent. There were also a number of times when I became very aware of the writing.

Casino Royale (11/25/06) Glendale Mann 10 (2006 ***) Directed by Martin Campbell, starring Daniel Craig as James Bond. The first set piece of Casino Royale (coming after a cool card-themed animated title sequence) was as exciting as I think I’ve ever seen. The setting was a construction site in Uganda, and cinema's latest Bond chased after a spy/terrorist, performing stunts that would make Jackie Chan proud. Unfortunately, the rest of the film didn’t quite live up to that level of thrilling adventure. At two and a half hours, it was probably a half-hour longer than it needed to be. Much of the second half of the second act was consumed with card-playing, which could only be so thrilling. In the third act, the storyline got even more confusing, and I have to admit at one point I was totally lost.

The American President (11/26/06) Netflix (1994 ***½) Directed by Rob Reiner, written by Aaron Sorkin. Reiner and Sorkin also teamed up on A Few Good Men, a fact I hadn't realized until I read some of the DVD extras. As a fan of The West Wing, it was interesting to me to watch The American President as a prototype for that beloved (for me, anyhow) show. The premise of the movie was an intriguing one: What if the widowed president of the United States had a girlfriend? With such a premise, the story had to work as a romance as well, though it was never quite successful as a romantic comedy. To be fair, even on Sports Night, Sorkin has never handled comedy especially well; he could write witty banter, but that's not the same thing as writing funny lines. As much as I admire him and his body of work, this comedic-deficit has also been strongly in evidence in the currently-running Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip.

Stardust Memories (11/28/06) Netflix (1980 ***) Written and directed by Woody Allen. Allen made Stardust Memories -- a tribute of sorts to Fellini's 8 ½ (1963) -- after Annie Hall (1978) and Manhattan (1979) and before A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982). It was a small film, compared to those that surrounded it chronologically. It's not among his most beloved films, and I can understand that. The subject matter (a popular filmmaker who no longer wants to make comedies and is hounded by his fans) was autobiographical to the point of being self-indulgent, though to be fair, that was sort of the point of the film.

An Inconvenient Truth (11/30/06) Netflix (1996 ***½) Directed by Davis Guggenheim. I have got to hand it to Guggenheim, who was able to take a slide presentation Al Gore has been giving for decades and turn it into a compelling documentary. The subject matter was as gripping as it was grim. The film was basically about how the end of our world is bearing down on us like a freight train. How long have we been snoozing, anyway? Is it too late to change? Powerful questions. As interesting and well-produced as I found this film, I can still see how some might have less of a problem with the message than with the messenger. I respect Al Gore, but I also know enough about human nature to see why he turns some people off: A lot of people don't like listening to the smartest kid in class tell them how dumb they've been. On top of that, there were also a few times in the course of An Inconvenient Truth when the main topic was pushed aside temporarily for tenuously-related stories from Gore's personal life: His sister who died from lung cancer (the irony being that Gore's father was a tobacco grower) and the life-changing epiphany that came to Gore when his son almost died after being hit by a car. I understood why these tangents were included as devices to humanize Gore for the mass audience. Unfortunately, they also came across as a little self-serving.

December

The Adventures of Robin Hood (12/2/06) Netflix (1938 ***1/4) Directed by Michael Curtiz and William Keighley, starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains. This is one of those iconic movies that virtually defies modern criticism. If you were to make a book called They Just Don't Make Movies Like That Anymore, you could dedicate a chapter to this film. There was a strange Technicolor-induced purity to it all. I wonder what the backstory was behind its development and execution? Did they set out to create such a popular, pure adventure film? It seems so incredibly simplistic in its execution, as though it were aimed at children. Was that deliberate?

Made for Each Other (12/3/06) Netflix (1939 **½) Directed by John Cromwell, starring James Stewart and Carole Lombard. Stewart and Lombard played a newly-married couple who must struggle through all the common obstacles young couples do. I know I've seen this movie before, though it didn't make any kind of impression on me. Watching Stewart act in this movie, I imagined it might be amusing to be able to do an impression of "angry Jimmy Stewart." He definitely had a couple of acting maneuvers and this thing he did with his voice when he would say something like: "Now wait just a gol-darned minute, Judge Doolittle!" As many movie fans know, Carole Lombard died just a few years after the movie was made, on January 16, 1942 in a plane crash at Table Rock Mountain, Nevada.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (12/4/06) DWA screening (2006 ***) Directed by Larry Charles, starring Sacha Baron Cohen. By the time I got around to actually seeing Borat, which I did at a free Dreamworks company screening, I'd already read or heard about most of its "outrageous" scenes. I was also familiar with some of the controversy surrounding the film: Apparently some sequences were staged and a few of the on-screen participants were lied to in order to get them to appear. With that in mind, it wasn't surprising that a large contributing factor to my desire to see Borat had to do with the film as a cultural phenomenon, rather than just as a funny movie. I wish I could have seen it with the fresh eyes of someone twenty years younger than I am, but I still thought it was pretty good. In particular, I appreciated how effortlessly Cohen was able to mix social commentary with comedy. Ultimately, though, it didn't truly speak to me, probably because I'm 42, not 22.

Sex Madness (12/6/06) Netflix (1938 **) Directed by Dwain Esper. I don’t have a lot to say about this film, which taught its viewers about the evils of syphilis, which can, apparently, drive you mad. I’m giving it two stars because it was amusing in a definite MST3K / Ed Wood zone. To be honest, I found the DVD bonus extras -- two delightful hygiene films apparently produced for the navy -- more engaging than the main feature.

Summer of '42 (12/14/06) Netflix (1971 **) Directed by Robert Mulligan, written by Herman Raucher. It's virtually impossible to review Summer of '42 without using the words "coming of age." In fact, if you looked up "coming of age" in the dictionary, there might be a picture of this movie. I don't remember the last time I saw this film -- it must have been sometime when I was in my early twenties. The first (and main) comment that jumped into my mind while watching was how absolutely horrible the dialogue was. Without exception, every word spoken by every character sounded clunky and awkward, not natural at all. I wish I could recommend Summer of '42, but I can't really, except as an example of a peculiar sub-genre: The nostalgic romantic coming-of-age category that includes superior films like Stand By Me and American Graffiti. The Oscar-winning score by Michael Legrand definitely was the highlight of the film.

Rushmore (12/16/06) Netflix (1998 ***½) Directed by Wes Anderson, written by Anderson and Owen Wilson. Jason Schwartzman starred as Max Fischer, a fifteen-year old who marched to the beat of his own drummer and lived life a little differently than most. This approach didn't always work for him. After falling in love with a teacher, played by Olivia Williams, he became rivals with his newfound friend, Bill Murray. When I first saw this movie a year or so after it was released, I didn't like it very much. I found the main character too unlikable and the situations (a 50 year-old millionaire romantic rivals with a fifteen-year-old?) too unrealistic. Clearly I felt differently this time around. I can't account for that except to say I might have originally been put off by Wes Anderson's quirky directing style. Ironically, it was those same touches that made The Royal Tannenbaums (one of my favorite films) so endearing.

Sideways (12/17/06) Netflix (2004 ***½) Directed by Alexander Payne, starring Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh. I hadn't watched Sideways since it was first released. At the time, I identified heavily with the main character. I still do to a certain extent, though I know I'm far happier now than I was then. It was a wonderful, character-driven movie, though, and it described a nicely nuanced commentary about our society.

"B" is for Burglar (12/20/06) Novel (1986 ***) Written by Sue Grafton. This was the second book in the Kinsey Millhone Alphabet Mystery Series. My main reason for reading it was that I'm currently working on a mystery novel project of my own that I'm hoping to expand into a series. Judging by their prominent display on newsstand book shelves, Ms. Grafton's books seem to be quite popular, and so I figured she must know what she's doing. In reading "B" is for Burglar, a few things stood out: (1) It was written in the first person, but Kinsey Millhone didn't project much of her own personality on the narrative voice; (2) There were a lot of scenes of dialogue that lasted pages, much longer than I would have expected; (3) Kinsey herself was actually pretty dull, so in many ways the source of interest (and fun) for the reader lay in the nut-jobs she encountered along the way; (4) Kinsey didn't face any physical danger until the last few pages of the book. All in all, "B" was an enjoyable read and was just about the perfect length; much longer and I might have gotten bored.

Grave of the Fireflies (12/22/06) Netflix (1988 ***½) Directed by Isao Takahata. Set in rural Japan during WWII, this was the heartbreaking story of Seita and Setsuko, a young boy and his very young sister forced to survive on their own when their home was destroyed, and their mother killed, during a bombing raid. One reviewer on Imdb.com called Grave of the Fireflies "the best movie you’ll never want to see again," and there's a lot of truth to that assessment. The film’s imagery was haunting throughout and even though the first lines of voice-over told the viewer where the film was headed, the ending was still devastating.

Night at the Museum (12/22/06) Glendale Mann 10 (2006 ***) Directed by Shawn Levy, starring Ben Stiller. Stiller played a divorced dad who never managed to figure out what he was doing with his life. He took a job as a night guard at the museum of Natural History, where the wax figures and dinosaur bones came to life every night and, naturally, hijinks ensued. I enjoyed this decidedly lightweight, highly-predictable film more than I expected to. It was definitely family fare, and I hope it finds an audience over the holiday season. It was also a special joy seeing Ricky Gervais as the curator and Dick Van Dyke featured as one of the three aging security guards Stiller was hired to replace.

Wordplay (12/22/06) Netflix (2006 ***) Directed by Patrick Creadon. This documentary about the magical, mystical world of crossword puzzles examined the people who create the puzzles, the people who solve them, and the people who compete each year at the national crossword puzzle championship. While the focus of the film was embracing this slightly nerdy subculture, it also featured interviews with celebrity crossword enthusiasts, including Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart and the Indigo Girls. The bottom line is that this is one of those movies where if the premise interests you, you’ll like it. If not, you probably won’t.

Raising Helen (12/24/06) Netflix (2004 ***) Directed by Garry Marshal. Kate Hudson starred as a young career-oriented woman who must try to raise three kids when her older sister dies. I didn’t expect much from this movie, but it was surprisingly sweet and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, though I suspect two or three months from now most of its details will fade into the recesses of my memory.

Dreamgirls (12/25/06) Burbank AMC 16 (2006 ***½) Directed by Bill Condon, starring an all-star cast and introducing Jennifer Hudson as Effie White. Released wide on Christmas day, this was a pretty great musical, and Jennifer Hudson definitely shined. It will be interesting to see if Eddie Murphy receives a best supporting actor nomination or not. I’ve never seen the Broadway production, but I could definitely feel it coming through the movie.

"A" is for Alibi (12/25/06) Novel (1985 ***) Written by Sue Grafton. I didn’t exactly do it purposely, but I read the second book ("B" is for Burglar) in this series before the first. I was particularly impressed by how well Ms. Grafton handled her descriptive passages. To be honest, I’m envious. With each new scene she seemed able to rattle off lean passages of fresh, richly-detailed description with no apparent effort. I would love to be able to do that. Comparing this book to the second in the series, Kinsey Millhone (the central detective character) exhibited quite a bit more personality in "A" than in "B."

Creating Unforgettable Characters (12/27/06) Nonfiction (1990 **) Written by Linda Seger. I learned almost nothing from this book. Written in 1990, virtually all the examples Seger used were oddly dated. This wasn’t intentional, it was just that she apparently exhibited a fascination with B-grade TV shows like MacGyver and Beauty and the Beast. In addition to that, her analysis of characterization came across as frustratingly superficial; I kept waiting for her to get into greater depth. Finally, the word "unforgettable" in the title was clearly there for marketing purposes only, as the concept of what makes certain characters memorable never actually appeared in the book.

Bottle Rocket (12/27/06) Netflix (1996 ***½) Directed by Wes Anderson, written by Anderson and Owen Wilson. This was a wonderful, quirky little movie. Obviously produced with more love than money, it demonstrated why Wes Anderson and the Wilson brothers went on to do great things. It was interesting to note how solidly Owen Wilson had already established his well-known half-insecure, half-crazy character this early in his career.

Zoolander (12/28/06) DVD (2001 ***1/4) Directed by Ben Stiller. The first time I saw Zoolander was shortly after it was released, and at the time I thought it was pretty dumb. Somehow over time I’ve warmed to it. I now see Derek Zoolander as Ben Stiller’s answer to Mike Meyer’s Austin Powers. I don’t know if that was conscious or not. It was interesting to see the "usual suspects" showing up time and again: Owen Wilson, Christine Taylor and Vince Vaughn, as well as Stiller’s parents, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara.

The Notebook (12/28/06) Netflix (2004 ***) Directed by Nick Cassavetes, based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks. This was a fairly conventional love story, told with the framing device of James Garner reading to his wife, played by Gena Rowlands. I don’t want to be too dismissive. It was a touching love story and certainly well-told. One's enjoyment of this film at any given time would probably be a good barometer of how cynical one is.

They Might Be Giants (12/29/06) DVD (1971 ****) Directed by Anthony Harvey, written by James Goldman. This quixotic film -- about a delusional man whose personal tragedy has caused him to believe he is Sherlock Holmes -- is one of my all-time personal sentimental favorites. I saw it for the first few times during my high school years; for some reason the local CBS affiliate in Omaha, Nebraska played it practically every week as their Friday night late-late movie. This particular viewing, just two days before New Year’s Eve, I shared it with my wife, who had never seen it before. As good fortune would have it, I watched it with the benefit (some would say under the influence) of two beers and one exceptionally strong gin martini. This combination of spirits and sentimental nostalgia proved to be nearly lethal emotionally and I cried more than a little bit. While in the cold light of day I might be persuaded to acknowledge some of the film's faults, I take far more pleasure in ignoring them, and I stand by my four-star appraisal.

Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (12/30/06) Netflix (1980/2006 ***) Directed by Richard Donner, obviously. The story behind this version of Superman II is one for the ages: Donner directed Superman I and shot much of Superman II in parallel. For reasons I didn’t really understand, he was replaced as director by Richard Lester, who had directed (among other things) A Hard Day’s Night. Lester re-shot much of what Donner had filmed. Driven by fan-based pressure from the internet community and thanks to a great deal of archival effort, it was possible to locate nearly all the notes and original material. Subsequently this recreation of Donner’s original vision was assembled, thus representing an odd kind of parallel universe version of Superman II. This “filmic reconstruction” mostly worked, though there were a few continuity errors introduced by the process.

Akira (12/30/06) DVD (1988 ***½) Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, based on his graphic novel. Akira was a fascinating film, and I suspect you’ll either appreciate it or you won’t. I have to explain something: For the past month or so I’ve been reading the 6-volume graphic novel version of Akira, which I’ll review separately. I had nearly completed the last book when I decided (for reasons I don’t fully understand) to watch the movie, which I hadn’t watched in a few years. As an animated film, Akira was incredible and influential. I don’t pretend to understand Japanese popular culture, but it's interesting to note that at the time it was made it was Japan's highest-budgeted animated films ever -- I remember hearing its budget was around $80M. It’s hard for me to comprehend how strongly-received the graphic novel (or Manga) version must have been received to have warranted such treatment. It’s similarly fantastic for me to imagine the business decision that led to first-time Otomo being permitted to helm the filmic version of his vision.

Akira (12/30/06) Graphic Novel (1985 ***¼) Written and illustrated by Katsuhiro Otomo. I’ve reviewed the film version of Akira separately, so I’ll concentrate on the graphic novel itself. It’s worth noting that while the two versions shared many things, especially characters and relationships and themes, the stories were very different. The film version was absolutely not a condensed version of the graphic novel. Even the nature and appearance of Akira himself was different. The graphic novel stretched over six thick volumes, more than 2,000 pages of material. Reading it over the space of a month, it felt a little repetitive after awhile. Much of the action involved skirmishes in post-Akira-fied Neo Tokyo between warring groups. In many ways it was a celebration of Otomo's visual dexterity as much as anything. Overall, I have to say it was still an amazing, Herculean accomplishment for an individual, and it was certainly a major landmark in the history of the comic book medium.

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: Killing Game (12/31/06) Novel (2005 ***) Written by Max Allan Collins. This was kind of a strange choice for me, but it went hand-in-hand with recent books I’ve read by Sue Grafton. I read this book as a kind of research to help me flesh out a novel I’m currently working on. I’ve been familiar with Max Allan Collins’ work for some time now. He’s a native of Iowa, the state I called home for seventeen years. He has produced a great deal of work over the years and is probably best-known for writing the Road to Perdition graphic novel on which the Tom Hanks film was based. As for this particular book, I was impressed by how Collins was able to smoothly interweave character description, backstory, and plot. I found myself getting pulled into the mystery more than I’d expected to be. I might have been more engaged if I’d been more familiar with the characters; I’ve never actually watched any of the hugely-successful CSI series, and so this was virtually my first introduction to the characters that populate that series‘ world.