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Film/Media Journal Archives

2007 Journal

January

February

March

April

May

June

July

August

September

October

November

December

 

A word about the ratings system used

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

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

****

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

***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 2007 Four Star (****) Club

 

Movies and TV

 

Books, Graphic Novels and Live Performances

 

January

Clerks (1/1/07) Netflix (1994 **½) Written and directed by Kevin Smith, starring Brian O'Halloran and Jeff Anderson as Dante and Randal. The last time I watched this movie was in the theater when it was first released. This time around, I figured I'd watch it before watching Clerks 2, which I had on my Netflix queue. At the time I first saw it, I found Kevin Smith's dialogue annoying, though over the years I've grown to appreciate it more. Watching his first film again, I can see why it had bothered me: Much of it was unnatural and polemic-driven and too much time was devoted to characters yelling at each other.

On the DVD's special features was an "alternate ending," one which Smith originally planned to use: It picked up right after the last shot in the film, in which Dante had said goodnight to Randal. A customer came in, fatally shot Dante, and robbed the cash register. Then the end credits rolled in silence, fading into the ambient sound of a cash register ringing up receipts. I can see why Smith as a young filmmaker might have wanted to use that ending -- I found it disturbing -- though it was a very wise decision to remove it before the film was released.

A Man and a Woman (Un Homme et Un Femme) (1/2/07) Netflix (1966 ***) Directed by Claude Lelouch, starring Anouk Aimee and Jean-Louis Trintignant. This is one of the all-time great romantic films, but it is also definitely a very odd duck. It featured more pseudo-documentary footage of race-car driving than one might expect. I haven't seen it in eight years or so, and for what it's worth, I think I appreciate it a bit more now that I'm in my early 40's. It was especially interesting watching the behind-the-scenes features on the DVD, which provided insight into how the film was made: 29-year-old Lelouch was a down-on-his-luck filmmaker who needed a hit or he was going to go bankrupt. During a drive he came up with the idea, wrote the screenplay in a month and a half, spent one month on pre-production and shot it in three weeks. During filming, he used a non-conventional, confrontational and improvisational directing style. The result, fortunately for all involved, was a beloved film, not an utter and absolute failure.

Portraits from Life (1/3/07) Graphic Novel (2001 **½) Written and illustrated by David Collier. This book definitely fits comfortably alongside the autobiographical/biographical comic work by R. Crumb, Harvey Pekar and Joe Matt, so if you like their work you'll be more inclined to enjoy this book. It's actually the first book of Collier's I've read. I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I bought it because it was marked-down to $5 on Amazon and I needed an inexpensive book to qualify for free shipping on an order. The selection of subject matter in Portraits From Life ranged from fairly obscure figures of Canadian history (feux Indian Grey Owl and Olympic high-jumper Ethel Catherwood) to events from Collier's own life as well as his grandfather's. My main criticism of this book was that the narrative of the stories was frequently hard to follow, jumping without transition from the subject to the narrator. I wished the writing had been tighter.

Clerks II (1/7/07) Netflix (2006 ***½)) Written and directed by Kevin Smith, starring Brian O'Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Jason Mewes, Rosario Dawson and Kevin Smith. At three and a half stars, this is a far higher rating than I'd ever expected to give a film featuring a sex act between a donkey and a human being. I enjoyed Clerks II immensely. Having just watched the original less than a week before, the sequel was a wonderful follow-up. Like any good sequel, it was not only respectful to the characters of the original but it added to them. There were a lot of laughs -- my favorite moment was the geek argument over which trilogy was better, Star Wars or Lord of the Rings -- but the heart of the film was the friendship between Dante and Randal. I was genuinely touched by the end of the film. While it was great seeing the original actors again, O'Halloran (Dante) clearly hadn't taken any acting lessons in the intervening decade. Rosario Dawson's acting strengths more than made up for it, however. Will Jay and Silent Bob return again? My guess is... yes.

World Trade Center (1/9/07) Netflix (2006 ***) Directed by Oliver Stone. When this movie came out, I was skeptical about whether a story about two policemen immobilized in the rubble of the 9/11 attack would be compelling. I certainly mean no disrespect by that, it's just that the physical constraints of that situation was a real challenge from a storytelling standpoint. I think this film handled that constraint as well as could be expected. The film began from the point of view of the two policemen, played by Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena, but after they became trapped, the film alternated between them and their families. While this film worked as a sincere, heartfelt tribute to the men and woman who sacrificed their lives at ground zero, United 93 was a stronger film overall and did a better job of capturing the horror of that day.

The Pursuit of Happyness (1/8/07) DWA Screening (2006 ***½) Directed by Gabriele Muccino. Based on a true story, Will Smith played Chris Gardner, a man who risks everything to change his life for the better. Set in 1980's San Francisco, he and his young son descend into homelessness while he participates in a competitive stock broker internship. This was an inspiring movie, but was also a hard movie to sit through. It was so emotionally unrelenting that I felt thoroughly drained afterwards. Will Smith delivered what I believe was his best performance to date, and his real-life son Jaden, who played his son in the film, was perfectly believable in his role.

CSI: Criminal Scene Investigation: Double Dealer (1/9/07) Novel (2003 ***) Written by Max Allan Collins. This was the second book in this series I've read; My primary reason for reading it was research for my own writing, but it was still reasonably entertaining. I'm still not truly familiar with the CSI TV show, and I am pretty sure that if I were I might have enjoyed the book more. Collins' writing was solid, though there were several times throughout the book when information related to the criminal investigation was presented more than once, and that redundancy was distracting. I also noticed the staff of the CSI night shift put in an awful lot of overtime.

Some Like It Hot (1/11/07) Netflix (1959 ****) Directed by Billy Wilder, starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe. It’s been quite some time since I last watched Some Like It Hot, probably five years or more. It’s one of those great screen comedies that really holds up. Watching it this time around, I kept thinking about how it was received by the world of 1959. Though nominally a screwball comedy, some of the alternative sexual themes that were touched on must have really struck a chord with whatever homosexual or transvestite-friendly audience that existed at the time. Watching Marilyn Monroe on-screen reminded me why she was such a huge star: She radiated sexuality with every molecule of her body.

Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively (1/12/07) Nonfiction (1999 ***) Written by Rebecca McClanahan. In my own writing I’m currently focusing my attention on my own limitations related to the physical description of settings and characters. This was my purpose in reading Word Painting. There was a wealth of information in the book, and the topics presented were explored in an appropriate depth. I appreciated that and it inspired me to think about things I hadn’t necessarily thought about. One example was the notion of "psychic distance," a technique I’d not been aware of before. Unfortunately, the language in which all this great knowledge was communicated was not one that came naturally to me as a reader. Ms. McClanahan's background in poetry showed in her writing, which was often… soft and flowery. At the risk of being branded a chauvinist, it was altogether too feminine for my liking. My writing tends toward the masculine, and I may have benefited more from a more male perspective on writing description.

The Children of Men (1/14/07) Glendale Mann 10 (2006 ***½) Directed by Alfonso Cuaron. The film opened with the world mourning the loss of Baby Diego who, at age 18, was the youngest person on a dying planet. This was a gut-wrenching, dreary, gray and utterly gripping portrayal of a bleak world, a future we can all to easily identify with. Clive Owen played an alcoholic who proved to be an unlikely hero. The story wasn't necessarily complicated, though there were several times when I wasn't quite sure what was motivating the action; I had to have my wife explain a couple of the plot points afterwards. Many of the sequences were filmed in single shots and were amazing tours de force. There was one nine-minute shot in particular in which the viewer was literally immersed in the middle of a battle that felt utterly real. When I first saw the trailer for Children of Men, which accurately portrayed the film's premise, I thought it was a Twilight Zone rip-off and didn't plan on seeing it. Then people at work started saying very positive things and I reconsidered. I'm glad I did. Considering how depressing the film was, would I ever want to see it again? Perhaps I would, probably for the same reasons I might re-watch Saving Private Ryan or Schindler's List.

Le Divorce (1/14/07) Netflix (2003 ***) Directed by James Ivory. I almost didn't want to watch this film, but I'm glad I did. I saw it for the first time when it was first released. At that point my own personal experience made me less than receptive to a film centering on a divorce. Kate Hudson (who I fell in love with in Almost Famous) was probably the reason I saw it back then. This was a fine film, nominally about the messy divorce of one sister (Naomi Watts), the affair of the other (Hudson), and the fate of a painting of Saint Ursula. It was also about the cultural differences between French and American families. Matthew Modine played an insanely jealous American husband whose character was completely out of place tonally with the rest of the film, resulting in an ending that felt extremely false.

Mallrats: 10th Anniversary Extended Edition (1/17/07) Netflix (1995 *½) Written and directed by Kevin Smith, starring Jeremy London and Jason Lee. I remember watching this several years back and liking it a hell of a lot more than I did this time around. Part of my disappointment was because I was watching the extended edition, a cut Smith himself described in the video introduction as "the version no one was ever supposed to see." This was his first "real budget" picture, so I guess I should be a little forgiving. Having so recently watched Clerks II, it's obvious Kevin Smith has made tremendous progress over the years, both as a writer and as a director, while still remaining true to his roots.

Chasing Amy (1/19/07) Netflix (1997 ***) Written and directed by Kevin Smith, starring Ben Affleck, Jason Lee and Joey Lauren Adams. This was an unconventional love story about a comic book artist named Holden McNeil (Affleck) who falls in love with Allysa (Adams), the "wrinkle" being that Allysa is a lesbian. I’ve been on a Kevin Smith kick lately and it’s been interesting for me to revisit films I haven’t seen this film almost a decade. I remember liking Chasing Amy more the first time around. While it was definitely far superior to the two films that proceeded it (Clerks and Mallrats), it wasn't nearly as good as last year’s Clerks II. This may be a reflection of Smith’s maturing as both a writer and as a human being. I was taken out of the experience several times by Holden’s insistence on being persistently stupid in a very non-real way. On the other hand, much of the Allysa’s dialogue rang surprisingly true.

An Affair of Love (Une Liaison Pornographique) (1/19/07) Netflix (1999 ***) Directed by Frederic Fonteyne, written by Philippe Blasband. This was a story about a man and a woman meeting anonymously for fantasy sex in a Parisian hotel room. We never learn their names, just as they never truly learn about each other. There was a framing device in which the two were interviewed years after the affair had ended. Their recollections differed, and so we observe the core of their problem: They had both moved from physical sex to something deeper; they had both fallen in love, but in slightly different ways. When the woman declared her love for the man and he (though he clearly felt it) was unable to respond in kind, they stopped seeing each other and with a kiss went their separate ways. This was a good film but not a great one. At the risk of sounding glib, I may have appreciated it more if I were French. The cynic in me can easily imagine it being remade for an American audience, likely starring Meg Ryan as the woman. Of course in that version the ending would probably be somewhat less... French.

The Queen (1/20/07) La Canada Universal (2006 ***½) Directed by Stephen Frears. Helen Mirren is a safe bet for best actress Oscar for her absolutely perfect portrayal of Queen Elizabeth during the week following the death of Lady Diana in Paris on August 31, 1997. The movie provided a rare glimpse into the workings of the royal family and especially the relationship between the queen and newly-elected Prime Minister Tony Blair, played with wide-eyed energy by Michael Sheen. I hope the queen herself appreciates the way in which she was portrayed; In my opinion, she came across as an admirable woman who committed veritable public relations suicide by making an unfortunate error of judgment (keeping the family's grieving private instead of making it public) but still managed to recover from it. Implicitly shown in the film was the dramatic contrast between how England and America treat their respective elected officials. Scenes set inside the Prime Minister's residence showed a domestic normality that more closely resembled my own household than the West Wing of the White House.

Much Ado About Nothing (1/21/07) DVD (1993 ***½) Directed by Kenneth Branagh, starring Branagh, Emma Thompson, Keanu Reeves and Denzel Washington. I really miss Kenneth Branagh. Where has he gone, anyway? He was truly able to make Will Shakespeare's words come alive. This movie was so full of joy, a delight for the eye, the ear, and the heart. Nicely done! Now if you see it yourself, beware: I had the "Weep no more, ladies, weep no more" song (the merry note on which the film ends) stuck in my head for several days afterward.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (1/22/07) Nonfiction (20001 ***) Written by Stephen King. This was a strange book. I'm not sorry I read it, but it was strange all the same. The subject of the book was writing, and in it one of the most popular authors of all time discussed the business of writing. However, this was also the book King was in the middle of working on in late 1999 when he was struck and nearly killed by a van while walking along the side of the road. As a result, the content of the book was an odd combination of elements. It began with a memoir section of recollections from King's life. This material was tangentially related to the main topic of the book in that it provided an understanding of King's development as a writer. In the second section, King described the writer's toolbox and in the third he waxed philosophical about his feelings about writing. Finally, there was a lengthy epilogue in which he wrote about the accident and his slow recovery to being a productive writer again. Unfortunately, probably due to the disjointed collection of related topics, the resulting book was ultimately more lightweight than I had hoped.

The Good Shepherd (1/22/07) DWA Screening (2006 ***¼) Directed by Robert Deniro, starring Matt Damon. At one point about an hour into the movie I thought I was going to give it four-stars. But then it lost its momentum and never recovered it. The subject matter, a close-up look at the birth of the Central Intelligence Agency, was gripping. Where I lost interest was when the film drifted toward Damon's characters family. Most of the film was told in an extended flashback with a "current day" framing device that wasn't particularly compelling. One big problem the production suffered from overall had to do with makeup: Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie played characters that aged from 18 to (I guess) 60, but neither really appeared to change physically. It was as though the producers never even made an effort to portray that aging. At one point Ms. Jolie looked really tired and I thought to myself "Oh, she must be dying of some incurable disease." No, as it turns out, she wasn't. It was just her playing old.

Mi-5: Series 1 (1/25/07) Netflix (2002 ***½) For reasons I don’t recall, my wife and I watched the second series (or season) first. This was a terrific TV show and deserves the fan base it has. It was originally aired on the BBC as Spooks, but apparently that title didn’t translate well for American audiences. The hallmark of the series was how much story the writers were able to pack into each individual 1-hour episode. It felt like watching a short movie or two American episodes instead of one.

February

Justice League Unlimited: Season 1 (2/2/07) Netflix (2005 ***½) The premise of this series was that the Justice League of America had opened its doors to virtually every available hero, and much of the fun of the series was getting to see a lot of minor DC Universe superheroes animated. The list included: Captain Marvel, Vigilante, Atom Smasher, Black Canary, The Question, Huntress and many more. There was definitely a geek factor in that setup which could not be denied. As I started watching the episodes, not expecting much, I was surprised by the high quality of the writing and that the level of dialogue was as rich as it was. I’m not sure what the target audience was for this show; it wasn't what I think of as a kid’s show, though possibly ten-year-olds are more mature these days than I was at their age.

Babel (2/8/07) DWA Screening (2006 ***½) Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. This was a powerful film about four (well, maybe three and a half) stories taking place around the world that were all connected, some of those connections being stronger than others. It was a fun film for post-viewing analysis: There was much duality and multiplicity at work, with echoes of actions and themes from one story showing up in the others. It wasn't a perfect film; the use of fractured chronology was sometimes distracting and there were three or four story elements that didn't work for me. Still, the film captured the drama of the human condition masterfully. It's clearly a strong contender for Best Picture. I won't be surprised if it wins, though I personally preferred Martin Scorceses' The Departed.

Idiocracy (2/8/07) Netflix (2006 *) Written and directed by Mike Judge. Luke Wilson played a statistically average army corporal selected for a special experiment and cryogenically frozen until the year 2505. Thanks to the perpetual dumbing-down of the planet, when he awakes he finds he's the smartest person alive. I rented this because I thought it was a wonderful premise and a great opportunity for social satire. Also, I had heard on NPR how the studio tried to bury the film. Having watched it, I understand why. This was the worst film I've seen in a long time. One big lesson for all you aspiring comedy writers out there: Watching scene after scene populated by people with operational IQ's in the 40's isn't really that funny.

MI-5 Series 3 (2/10/07) Netflix (2004 ***) This was the season (or series if you prefer) where the three “Spooks” we started with all left MI-5 (the organization and the show) for various reasons. They all departed over the course of the ten-episode season, impacting the tone of all the episodes. On the whole, I didn't find the situations quite as involving this time around. I don't know why that was. I also noticed these episodes didn't feel as plot-dense as in seasons past, which is one of the things I really loved about the show. I'm not sure if that was my imagination or not; It's also possible the soap opera aspects had begun taking over. Having said all that, it was still enjoyable, and I look forward to seeing what happens in season 4.

Kingdom Come (2/12/07) Graphic Novel (1997 ***½) Written by Mark Waid, illustrated by Alex Ross. I recently brought home a box of graphic novels from my storage unit, and this was one of the first ones I pulled out. It's hard to believe it's been a decade since I first bought and read what is one of the top ten landmark graphic novels of all time. Reading it again for the first time in about three years, I was almost immediately more aware of the interplay between Waid's writing and Ross's spectacular drawing/paintings as they contributed to the overall experience. You know what? It didn't work as well for me as it once did. In particular, I didn't find Waid's story nearly as compelling this time around. I'm still giving it a fairly high rating, just not as high as I'd expected.

The Kingdom (2/14/07) Graphic Novel (2000 **½) Written by Mark Waid, illustrated by various artists. Unlike Kingdom Come, which was originally written and presented in four high-quality books, this follow-up was presented in a more conventional serial format, with different artists on each chapter (or issue). The beginning and end were fairly solid but the middle meandered and sagged badly. While the idea of a powerful villain marching backward in time, killing Superman a different way each day was interesting, devoting a chapter/issue to Plastic Man's relationship with his son was less so. To me, it seemed as though Waid wanted to do his own version of Kurt Busiek's wonderful Astro City, only set in DC's proprietary parallel Kingdom Come universe.

Breach (2/16/07) Glendale Mann 10 (2007 **) Directed by Billy Ray. Chris Cooper and Ryan Phillippe starred in this factual story based on one of the U.S. Intelligence communities biggest breaches. Honestly, given the intriguing premise, I expected more spycraft and less interpersonal drama. The weakness, I suspect, lay in the screenplay; the actors didn’t have much to work with.

Essential Fantastic Four: Vol. 3 (2/17/07) Graphic Novel (1999 ***) This 520-page volume collected issues #41-63 and Annuals 3 and 4. Somewhere in my storage unit I actually have all of these comics, with the notable (and valuable) exception of issue #48, the first appearance of the Silver Surfer. I haven't read these stories in more than twenty years. Produced during the mid-to-late 1960's, it marked a period when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were really hitting their stride. But you know what? I didn't enjoy these stories as much as I'd remembered, nor as much as earlier issues. I think something got lost somewhere along the way. The earlier stories were more self-contained and considerably more plot-rich. As the series ran on, the plots became more episodic, with subplots like "Will Johnny Storm and Wyatt Wingfoot find Crystal and the Inhumans?" stretching out for half a dozen issues or more. On the art side, Jack Kirby was in his prime; it was actually during this period when he established the style that would last him for the remainder of his career. As exciting as that was to witness, the flip-side was that the writing took a back seat to the visuals. The unfortunate side effect of the famous "Marvel method" of comic production (in which finished dialogue was added after art was completed) meant that Stan Lee's dense -- some might say wordy -- writing in the early years of The Fantastic Four gave way to extended battle scenes. As a result, the individual issues felt much "lighter." Let me put it another way: Each of the first twenty or so issues felt to the reader like they were watching feature-length science fiction movie from the 1950's; By contrast, each of the issues in this collection felt about as weighty as a half-hour sit-com.

The Pro (2/19/07) Graphic Novel (2004 ***) Written by Garth Ennis, illustrated by Amanda Conner. 72 pages. I picked up this hardcover volume at my local used book store on a whim. I'd never seen it before and scanning through the interior I got a sense of the intriguing premise: A single mom who just happens to be a prostitute is given super powers. It was certainly a fun idea and an opportunity to crack wise at the expense of super heroes in general and the Justice League in particular. I enjoyed it for its shock value as much as anything. Be warned: This book contains a lot of cursing, gratuitous violence and adult situations. One example: When the main character is hit by a power beam during a fight, her response was to beat the living crap out of the villain and then pee on her. The Pro is definitely not going to be everyone's cup of... er, tea, but I thought it was a fun read.

The Ultimates, Vol. 1: Super-Human (2/21/07) Graphic Novel (2002 ***) Written by Mark Millar, illustrated by Brian Hitch. This was an updated, "realistic" version of The Avengers. Brian Hitch's illustrations were superb, but the writing felt a little flat at times. While I appreciated the attempt to add a heightened degree of nuance and weight to Bruce Banner (and the Hulk), Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Giant-Man, The Wasp and Nick Fury, the results weren't always that interesting. Still, it was a decent read and a visual feast: The high point for me was the realistically-depicted rampage of the Hulk through the streets of Manhattan as he attempted to find and kill -- believe it or not -- Freddie Prinze Junior.

Lady in the Water (2/28/07) Netflix (2006 *½) Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Like a lot of people, I was a big fan of The Sixth Sense. And like a lot of people, I've been waiting with each subsequent movie for Shyamalan to create something anywhere near as good. The Lady in the Water definitely wasn't it. The backstory was that its plot grew out of an original bedtime story Shyamalan told his daughter. Those humble (and gentle) beginnings were clearly evident. Unfortunately, it was a total misfire (in several different dimensions) from beginning to end. I could see what he was trying to do as a writer, but he forgot one important thing: His audience. In my mind's eye I could see this material working as a fantasy novel, but it definitely did not work as a feature film.

March

Zodiac (3/3/07) Glendale Mann 4 (2007 ***½) Directed by David Fincher. I really enjoyed this movie. At 160 minutes it was a little long, but still good. I admired the courage of the filmmakers; from a storytelling perspective, this was a challenging tale to tell, especially in film form. The Zodiac killer terrorized San Francisco and surrounding areas from the late 60's to the mid-70's. During that time, the center of investigative activity shifted between reporters at the San Francisco Chronicle and the SFPD. Finally, the hunt was taken up by Robert Graysmith (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), a cartoonist who went on to write the book on which the film is based. Zodiac (the killer, not the film) was never apprehended, but thanks to relatively recent events the film was able to provide closure that the book could not.

For Your Consideration (3/7/07) Netflix (2006 *) Directed by Christopher Guest. This film was a real disappointment for me. I've been a huge fan of Guest's films since Waiting For Guffman. I have to wonder: What happened? The premise seemed a sure thing: Take Guest's trademark pseudo-documentary approach and apply it to the world of the indie film. According to imdb.com, For Your Consideration was 86 minutes long, but the version I saw went into its credits just past the 70-minute mark. Was there some sort of post-credit sequence? I certainly wasn't in a hurry to find out, nor was I curious to watch the deleted scenes; clearly there were scenes left out of the final cut. One example: At about the 2/3 point in the film, Catherine O'Hara's character suddenly appeared to have had breast implants and Botox treatments, yet it was never explained.

300 (3/10/07) Glendale Mann 10 (2007 ***¼) Directed by Zack Snyder. Based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller, this film broke serious box office records both for March releases and for R-rated films. I have to admit I didn't originally plan on seeing the movie; from the trailers it looked too much like an extended video game cinematic. It was my lovely -- and apparently bloodthirsty -- wife who wanted to go, and so we went. By the time we'd gotten to the theater (after an appropriately-messy barbecue rib dinner at Tony Roma's), I'd heard the reviews were decent and so I wasn't worried it would be a total waste of time. My expectations weren't too high and I really enjoyed the film. The digitally-enhanced look was consistent throughout, and I was pleased there was enough visual variety to keep my interest for the length of the story. It was pretty gory, but then what does one expect from a film whose logo is rendered in dripping blood? My only major criticism, really, was that I found the subplot with Queen Gorgo to be overly melodramatic and unpleasantly sexist.

Prime Suspect: Season 1 (3/15/07) Netflix (1991 ***) Helen Mirren starred as a homicide investigator forced to deal with sexism while trying to get a break in solving a series of murders. This story was told over the course of four 1-hour episodes. At first I was more than a little annoyed by all the early-1990's obligatory "boys club" resistance to a female lead detective, but over time that aspect of the story faded as Mirren's character earned the respect of her male subordinates, and the series became more compelling.

Stranger Than Fiction (3/17/07) Netflix (2006 ***) Directed by Marc Forster, written by Zach Helm. Will Ferrell delivered an uncharacteristically subdued performance as Harold Crick, a man who discovers he's the fictional protagonist in a novel being written by Karen Eiffel (played by Emma Thompson). There was a distinctively "meta" aspect to the story, which tickled my brain. Unfortunately, that dimension of the film promised more than it ultimately delivered. The problem, really, was that the characters often didn't react in believable ways, even taken within the fantasy context. This was especially true in the film's third act.

Sympathy for the Devil (3/19/07) Novel (1998 ***) Written by Jerrilyn Farmer. This was the first in Ms. Farmer's Madeline Bean mysteries series. The premise offered a terrific story engine: Madeline Bean is a Hollywood caterer who moonlights as an amateur sleuth. I bought this book because I was considering taking a mystery-writing class Ms. Farmer is teaching through UCLA extension. After reading the first couple of chapters, I enrolled: Clearly Farmer is a writer who knows what she's doing. I was particularly impressed by her ability to establish a light-hearted, "cozy" tone while still dipping into the seedy side of life in Los Angeles.

Modern Romance (3/21/07) Netflix (1981 *½) Written and directed by Albert Brooks. Frankly, I was disappointed. Watching this film had me re-thinking my opinion of Albert Brooks' body of work. Maybe this film was funny at the time it was released, but I sure wasn't laughing. If nothing else, the film gave me a new appreciation for how far we've come since the early eighties. We now have names to go along with unhealthy dysfunctional behavior, names like "codependency" and "stalking."

The Host (3/22/07) DWA screening (2006 ***¼) Directed by Joon-ho Bong. The Host (originally entitled Gwoemul) was produced in South Korea, with special effects from The Orphanage in San Francisco. I don't go to a lot of monster movies, but if they're this good, I may have to start! I was knocked out of my seat by how intense some of the action was. There was a sequence early on in the film when the creature first made its presence known that was incredibly fun. It wasn't a perfect film by any means, hence my wishy-washy ***1/4 rating; in particular, there were times when the action dragged a bit. While I enjoyed the ongoing humor, it was a South Korean film and there a definite non-American sensibility at work. I don't want to give anything away, but certain things happened in The Host that would never happen in a mainstream Hollywood movie.

MI-5: Series 4 (3/24/07) Netflix (***¼) (SPOILERS) About two thirds of the way through this, the fourth season of the British TV show Spooks, another major character died. On one hand it added a certain tension for the audience, knowing any of the characters could die at any time. On the other hand, after awhile it became increasingly tempting to stop investing emotionally in the characters. Still in all, Series Four re-found a certain thrill that had gone missing in the third season, and I was glad to see energy that back.

Meet the Robinsons (3/30/07) El Capitan Theater, Hollywood (2007 ***½) Directed by Stephen J. Anderson. I was fortunate enough to see this film as a special Dreamworks Animation 3-D screening. This was my first time inside the beautiful El Capitan on Hollywood Boulevard, an experience in its own right. Based on the trailers and commercials, I didn’t have very high expectations of the film and I was pleasantly surprised. In terms of animation history, this was the first non-Pixar Disney film to bear the hint of John Lasseter’s thumbprint. While it was clear the story had "had some work done," it still managed to show a hell of a lot of heart. Hopefully it will be rewarded at the box office for its efforts.

It Happened One Night (3/30/07) Netflix (1934 ***½) Directed by Frank Capra. It’s been years since I’ve watched this classic film, a film often listed high on lists of all-time great films. Winning five academy awards, it was the film that put Capra on the map. I didn’t realize until watching the DVD’s bonus featurette prior to the movie that (A) the film was shot in four weeks to accommodate a window in Claudette Colbert’s schedule and (B) Colbert thought the film was a dog the whole time she worked on it. Knowing about the short shooting schedule made me more conscious of the economical measures Capra and the producers took, and it was all the more impressive what they were able to do while working within tight production constraints.

Blades of Glory (3/31/07) Glendale Mann 4 (2007 ***) Directed by Josh Gordon and Will Speck. My wife and I went to see this on the Saturday evening of its opening weekend. The theater was very full, which actually added to our enjoyment. We got as big a kick out of some of the audience reactions as anything happening onscreen. It was a pretty good comedy and I laughed out loud many times, even though I was occasionally embarrassed at what I laughed at. I was also pleasantly surprised that Will Ferrell shared as much of the limelight with his less famous co-star Jon Heder as he did.

April

TMNT (4/1/07) Hollywood Mann 6 (2007 ***¼) Directed by Kevin Munroe. My wife and I attended a special ASIFA screening of this film. The production had a limited budget, with the production work being done at Imagi studios in Hong Kong. I was familiar with Imagi; they were the studio Dreamworks tapped to do the animation for the short-lived TV series Father of the Pride. Being in the animation industry, I was extremely interested in seeing the level of quality they were able to achieve. I must say I was impressed. The quality wasn’t quite as high as that of the big studios, but at times it came awfully close, though uneven. I would estimate that approximately 25% of the film, including the opening sequence, looked a little weak, but that just meant it wasn’t as solidly executed as the rest of the movie.

Batman Begins (4/2/07) Netflix (2006 ***½) Directed by Christopher Nolan. So here's the deal: As a lifelong Batman fan, I'm one of the few people who wasn't all that thrilled with Tim Burton's 1989 version. I've been waiting my entire life for the Batman film that fits my personal image of the character. For most of Batman Begins, I thought that was exactly what I got. I would probably give the first two acts four stars, I loved it that much. Unfortunately, the third act was a total letdown, and I'm not completely sure why. Something was lost as the thoughtful plot and interesting characters gave way to a less-than-engaging car chase and "final showdown."

My First Mister (4/2/07) Netflix (2001 ***½) Directed by Christine Lahti, starring Leelee Sobieski and Albert Brooks. I very nearly missed watching this charming little movie. It was on my wife's Netflix queue and she didn't remember adding it. We considered returning it unseen, but I'm sure glad we didn't. The simple premise was this: A 17-year-old goth girl falls into an unexpected friendship (and possibly more) with a 49-year-old salesman. Though it dragged a little in the third act, it truly was an underrated gem. In a weird way, My First Mister was reminiscent of one of my all-time favorite films, Harold and Maude. As an added bonus, it also restored my faith to some degree in Albert Brooks, having recently watched a couple of his early films (Real Life and Modern Romance) that I didn't much like.

Science of Sleep, The (4/4/07) Netflix (2006 **) Directed by Michel Gondry. Stephane is a man whose dreaming reality gets in the way of his real (waking) life love for a girl. This was definitely a case of a time when I really wanted to like a film but it let me down. So what happened? Throughout the film, I had a hard time identifying with or even understanding Stephane and what drove him to behave in a generally dysfunctional and destructive way. To make matters worse, the final scene was deliberately ambiguous, which was the final insult. Was the ending happy or depressing? I have no idea. With so much wonderful material to work with, why did Gondry have to screw it up? Why?

Hero (4/5/07) Netflix (2002 ***¼) Directed by Yimou Zhang. This movie was truly unique, so much so that it's a challenge to describe. Though nominally a martial arts movie, it was also an absolute feast for the senses, particularly the eyes. The use of color was out of this world. Jet Li played a nameless warrior who visits a tyrant King and tells him a tale. But is the storyteller to be trusted? Hero's story was simple and complex at the same time. Archetypal characters ("Flying Snow," "Broken Sword," "Sky," "Moon") met in mortal combat and killed each other, sometimes multiple times. This film may not be for everyone, but if you're interested in an eye-opening experience, you owe it to yourself to watch Hero.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (4/7/07) Netflix (1988 ***) Directed by Marilyn Fox. There was an odd charm to this late eighties British TV production of one of C.S. Lewis’ most beloved stories. It was one of a series, and based on our Netflix queue I suspect we’ll be watching others in the weeks to come. It’s probably not fair to compare it to the 2005 Disney version, since the scales of production were quite different. I got the sense they did the best they could with the money they had to work with. One thing I will single out for criticism, however: The casting of the character Lucy was horrible. In the words of my wife, "Worst. Lucy. EVER." I don’t want to be mean, but holy cow did that little girl have dreadfully bad teeth!

The Middle Aged Man and the Sea (4/8/07) Short Stories (2005 ****) Written by Christopher Meeks. Chris Meeks was the instructor of a terrific UCLA Extension class I recently completed, entitled "The Writer‘s Workout." Though I started reading this collection shortly after the class began, I’ve been so busy with my own writing projects that I only just finished it. That was actually quite appropriate for the material; it gave me time to savor the individual stories, which explored various facets of human relationships, often with a touch of humor. I both admired and enjoyed Meeks' writing style; His word choices and overall narrative voice were similar to my own, though richer and more developed, and this wonderful collection of stories provided an excellent example of what my own writing can be if I continue to push the development of my skills.

Volver (4/8/07) Netflix (2006 ***½) Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar. Volver was highly visible this past awards season and much was made of Penelope Cruz’s acting prowess when working in her native tongue. Watching it, I couldn’t help but think that this story might not have been made in the U.S. There was a definite European sensibility to it. It was also interesting to note that all the major and most of the minor characters in this film were women. While I very much enjoyed this movie, I must admit I managed to put together all the pieces in the story's puzzle long before they were revealed.

Creature Tech (4/9/07) Graphic Novel (2002 **½) Written and illustrated by Doug Tennapel. This was another one of those situations where I picked up a graphic novel at the low, low price of $4.95 at my favorite used book store. Not much to lose, right? The premise was intriguing enough: The scientific genius son of a pastor works at a secret government laboratory dedicated to researching "unsolved mysteries." The plot was somewhat convoluted, and so I won’t even bother trying to explain it here, but it included ghosts, monsters, aliens, freaks, mutants, demons and the shroud of Turin. With all those great ingredients, I wish Tennapel had managed to spin a more compelling tale. Too bad he didn’t.

American Splendor (4/9/07) DVD (2003 ****) Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. I hadn't watched this movie for a couple of years. When it was first released I was about two-thirds of the way through generating material for My Comic Journal, my own 100-page collection of autobiographical memoir stories in comic book form. Truth be told, because of the timing I was a little nervous about people thinking I was ripping off Pekar, when in my view I was just following in a well-established tradition. The movie was wonderful; it took advantage of an interesting, almost postmodern mode to play with what constituted an autobiographical movie. As for Pekar himself, I confess I identified with him and his middle-aged inner drive to be recognized. I was an undergrad student when I saw him for the first time on Letterman's NBC show back in the mid eighties, and I still vividly recall a mesmerizing energy in the way Pekar interacted with David Letterman.

Rocky Balboa (4/10/07) DVD (2006 ***¼) Written and directed by Sylvester Stallone. Some part of me really wanted to see this movie in the theater when it was released late last year. I'm very glad I didn't let the cynical half of my inner voice talk me out of final watching it on DVD. Considering the mixed reviews it received, I didn't expect much, and was therefore happily surprised. Rocky Balboa captured much of what made the first Rocky film -- which was released thirty years ago -- great. While watching Rocky's struggle to demonstrate his continued viability as both a man and a fighter, it was impossible not to see Stallone going through the same thing. It was clear from his performance and direction that Stallone truly loved his character. Nicely done.

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader (4/16/07) Netflix (1989 ***) Directed by Alex Kirby. This DVD contained adaptations of two separate Narnia books, books I've never read. In my view, it would be a mistake to watch these videos with a cynical eye. With that in mind, I did my best to allow my inner child to enjoy them for what they were, not what they weren't. The result? I learned there are more ways to get to Narnia than just through a dusty old wardrobe. Yes, I had a good time and look forward to the next in the series, The Silver Chair. I may even try to make time in my busy schedule someday to read the books on which they were based.

I'll Be Seeing You (4/18/07) Netflix (1944 **½) Directed by William Dieterle, starring Ginger Rogers, Joseph Cotten and Shirley Temple. Set during the Christmas holidays, Rogers played a woman released from prison for a ten day furlough and Cotten played a shell-shocked WWII sergeant with secrets of his own. Based on a magazine story that stretched credulity, this was not a particularly great movie. It fell into the category of "good" movies I've never had occasion to see. At one point I added a couple dozen of these movies to my Netflix queue. I've never been a rabid fan of either of the two main stars, but it was certainly fun watching Shirley Temple play a seventeen-year-old sexpot wannabe

Justice League Unlimited: Season 2 (4/24/07) Netflix (2007 ***¼) It's a pity this series has been canceled, which explains why there were only thirteen episodes in this season. I wonder if the things I liked about it were precisely the reasons it didn't find a bigger audience among children: There was a lot of adult humor and implied adult relationships. I liked that it jumped around the DC universe, highlighting esoteric heroes and villains, instead of focusing on the big three: Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. If nothing else, watching this series, which I started doing more or less on a whim, has shown me that great strides have been made in the writing and production of animated programs since the days of Super Friends and Scooby Doo. As a result, I'm far more likely to rent and watch this kind of program in the future. I'm giving this collection a slightly lower rating than the first season because there was a deliberate focus on Lex Luthor and the other villains in the Legion of Doom; I found that story direction less interesting that focusing on the multitude of heroes in the DC universe.

Killer Wedding (4/29/07) Novel (2000 **½) Written by Jerrilyn Farmer. This was the third book in the "Madeline Bean Culinary Detective" series, and the second one I've read. My primary reason for reading it was that I'm taking a class taught by the author and I wanted to get a sense of who she was as a writer. As a man, I'm not the primary audience for this book; its bright pink cover motivated me to take steps to avoid reading it in public. It was a generally decent read but the storyline seemed to wander an awful lot. In particular, the main story took too long to get off the ground, primarily due to pages spent on an ongoing sub-plot (a legal battle over the status of Mad Bean Catering) that wasn't particularly interesting. I also felt the series' supporting cast of characters wasn't utilized effectively: They didn't contribute to the advancement of the main plot and only really served as foils for dialogue.

JLA: Syndicate Rules (4/29/07) Graphic Novel (2005 **½) Written by Kurt Busiek. I bought this book because I'm a big fan of Busiek's writing. I have especially appreciated the degree of verisimilitude he's often injected into books like Marvels, Astro City, and Superman: Secret Identity. Perhaps I expected too much, because I was disappointed by Syndicate Rules. Overall it just felt stale. Busiek didn't appear to be bringing much of his talent to the project. I was also put off by the "multiple universes in crisis" storyline, which has been a cliche' for at least a decade.

May

It's a Gift (5/2/07) Netflix (1934 *) Directed by Norman Z. McLeod, starring W. C. Fields. I rented this because it was one of those rare classics I'd never seen. Settling down to watch it, I knew I'd made a mistake almost immediately. I very nearly didn't make it all the way through the thing, but at 68 minutes long it was short enough I went ahead and persevered. As mind-blowing as it is, I somehow managed to make it to the advanced age of forty-two without ever having seen a W. C. Fields movie. Honestly, I don't get it. Why was this guy ever popular? From start to finish, It's a Gift was grating and unfunny.

Dark Passage (5/4/07) Netflix (1947 ***) Directed by Demer Daves, based on a novel by David Goodis. This was a very strange movie. It’s the third film Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall made together, following To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946). The beginning of the movie was filmed (more or less) in the first person. We hear Bogey’s voice but never see his face. Why? About a third of the way through the film, Bogart’s character had plastic surgery to change his appearance. The first person camera was an experiment that almost, but never quite, worked. In addition to that weirdness, there were a number of crazy over-the-top performances (including a delicious one by Agnes Moorehead) that all added up to a film that wasn't entirely satisfying, but probably worth seeing for its uniqueness.

Spider-Man (5/5/07) DVD (2002 ***½) Directed by Sam Raimi. With Spider-Man 3 opening this weekend, I thought it might be a good idea to watch the previous two, which I liked enough to have in my permanent collection. The first thing I noticed this time around was the writing. The dialogue felt dumbed down, as though it came from a dimension halfway in-between the real world and the world of the comic books. That probably wasn’t the wrong decision; I’m not sure why it irked me slightly now when it never did before. It’s still a wonderful film though, full of simple action and saturated colors and a sense of hope.

Spider-Man 2 (5/6/07) DVD (2004 ***½) Directed by Sam Raimi. The remarkable thing about Spider-Man 2 was that much of the conflict in the movie was internal. Peter Parker was conflicted about who he was and what his priorities were. Spidey didn't meet Doctor Octopus -- thus engaging the physical conflict -- until nearly an hour into the film. Under normal situations, that emphasis on the internal would be the kiss of death, and yet somehow it worked. I think it was successful primarily because Peter Parker (and Tobey Maguire) was so damned likable. Because of that, the audience forgave a multitude of sins, including introspection and the occasionally clunky, on-the-nose dialogue from Aunt May about what it meant to be a hero. Stan Lee really knew what he was doing when he (along with artist Steve Ditko) created the character in the early 1960's. The essence of Spider-Man was that he was young and neurotic and conflicted and didn't know what he was doing most of the time. This contrasted nicely with another, more straight-laced character with a secret identity, Clark Kent.

Trekkies 2 (5/10/07) Netflix (2004 **½) Directed by Roger Nygard, hosted by Denise Crosby. This was a follow-up to the 1997 original, which examined the fringes of the Star Trek fan subculture in America. In addition to catching up with some of the fans featured in the first film, the sequel expanded beyond the borders of the U.S., looking at fans around the world. Of particular interest to me were some of the subcultures within the subculture, such as Star Trek themed rock bands. It was also interesting hearing fans talk about "how much is too much." Not surprisingly, different fans drew the line at different points.

Shrek the Third (5/12/07) Sherman Oaks Galleria (2007 ***) Directed by Chris Miller and Raman Hui. The third installment in the Shrek franchise was truly gorgeous to behold. I was stunned by how many different locations there were and the overall high quality of the film. There was a visual richness in the world that was quite impressive. Unfortunately, as beautiful as the film was, the story left something to be desired. The key to the story working on an emotional level was making the relationship between Shrek and the young King Arthur real. I hate to say it, but that never worked for me. The original Shrek did a near-perfect job of hitting all the right emotional notes; unfortunately Shrek the Third suffered by comparison.

Excalibur (5/12/07) Netflix (1981 ***) Directed by John Boorman, starring Nigel Terry, Helen Mirren and Nicholas Clay. In the early days of cable TV, this movie was played almost as much as Stripes. A gritty telling of the Arthur legend, Excalibur holds up surprisingly well, with some stunning cinematography. Unfortunately, most of the effects shots look pretty cheesy by modern standards. Watching the bonus features, I found it ironic that the shots with the highest cheese-factor were all included in the theatrical trailer!

The Harvey Girls (5/14/07) Netflix (1946 **) Directed by George Sidney, starring Judy Garland. I generally enjoy musicals, but this one left me flat. I was bored most of the time and by the end of the film I would've gone stark raving bonkers if I'd heard "On the Atchinson, Topeka and the Santa Fe" one more time! John Hodiak was especially creepy as the love interest. His big-mouthed grin was truly the stuff of nightmares!

Spider-Man 3 (5/19/07) La Canada 16 (2007 ***) Directed by Sam Raimi. Spider-Man 3 had the biggest box office opening weekend in history. That's really saying something. At this point the critics have almost unanimously voiced their disappointment. I went to the theater (a 9:45am Saturday showing, no less) with my expectations appropriately set. So what happened? Most critics have pointed to too many villains, too much story. Rather than blame the failure on that, I'd like to point instead to the Temple of Doom phenomenon. You remember the universally-panned Indiana Jones 2, in which Indy turned evil and slapped his youthful sidekick Short Round? Hey, screenwriters! Guess what? The audience doesn't like that shit! A similar thing happened in Superman III. In fact, the black "venom" suit in Spider-Man affected Peter Parker a hell of a lot like Red Kryptonite affects Clark Kent in Smallville. Annoying. Hey screenwriters! It's me again! How about if you quit dipping your lazy pens into that particular inkwell? It never works!

Showcase Presents: The Brave and the Bold -- The Batman Team-Ups, Vol. 1 (5/19/07) Comics (2007 **½) I have a great fondness for Batman, and many happy memories of Batman in the 1960's. After all, that's when I was first introduced to him. However, I have unfortunately come to the conclusion over the past year or so, reading these inch-thick Showcase collections, that Bob Haney (who penned most of the stories in this book) wasn't exactly a great writer. In spite of Neal Adams' dynamic visuals, I was more than a little bored (and disappointed) reading through these stories. Now it's quite possible I've become accustomed to the quality of writing found in contemporary graphic novels. It could just be historical perspective. After all, comic writing changed substantially between the 1940's and the 1960's, and it has certainly continued to evolve over the past forty years.

Identity Crisis (5/19/07) Graphic Novel (2003 ***½) Written by Brad Meltzer, Illustrated by Rags Morales. I last read and reviewed this book on 1/20/06. This time around, my perspective was a little different: Because I'm currently taking a mystery writing class, I read Identity Crisis not as a superhero book, but as a murder mystery. In my class I've learned that in order for a mystery to be effective, certain conventions must be followed. For the most part Identity Crisis worked. Its story: Sue Dibney, wife of The Elongated Man, is killed, and doctor Light is the prime suspect, but is he the killer? Secrets are revealed until the final clue causes the identity of the killer to click into place. Overall, it followed the traditional path of a mystery, with one exception: There wasn't a consistent detective/protagonist/point-of-view character to carry the reader through. I can't help but wonder if the book would have been even stronger if there had been.

Death: The High Cost of Living (5/20/07) Graphic Novel (1994 ***) Written by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Bachalo. I was going through some old books and came across this one. I was sure I'd read it before but didn't remember it. It's been a while since I've read any of Neil Gaiman's Sandman stories, but I think I'm going to start working my way through the series again. This particular book, which centered on a version of Dream's sister, Death, wasn't Gaiman at his best, but even Gaiman on a bad days is still far better than most books out there.

Barton Fink (5/20/07) Netflix (1991 ***½) Directed by Joel Coen, starring John Turturro, Judy Davis and John Goodman. My motivation for putting this movie on my Netflix queue came from a filmmaking seminar I attended about six months ago, which used several scenes from Barton Fink as examples of good directing. It was hard for me to believe it's been sixteen years since it was made. I hadn't watched it in a very long time, but I was sure I'd seen it on video at least once since it was first released. As I watched this film, I was frequently reminded of David Lynch's Eraserhead. In fact, I would go so far to say that one could think of Barton Fink as a more accessible version of that earlier film. That is not to say the stories are equivalent, only that the Coen brothers were clearly either influenced by David Lynch's work or were exploring similar territory. Was there something in the water or in the zeitgeist in the early 1990's that explains it? Perhaps.

Pan's Labyrinth (5/21/07) Netflix (2006 ***) Directed by Guillermo del Toro. I had heard wonderful things about this film -- some people thought it was the best movie of 2006 -- and perhaps my expectations were too high. That'll teach me to listen to rave reviews, huh? Don't get me wrong, I liked it, and would recommend it... for some. I think it's safe to say it's not for everyone. Set in WWII fascist Spain, much of it was... forgive me... a real bummer. While I appreciated the importance of contrasting Ofelia's imaginative world with the horrible reality in which she lived, the fantasy elements were so dark they offered no relief from the suffering she endured at the hand of her cruel (and yes, evil) stepfather.

The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes (5/25/07) Graphic Novel (1989 ****) Written by Neil Gaiman. It's been about four years since I last read through my collection of Sandman volumes. I figured the summer was a good time to start going through them once again. I'd almost forgotten how lilting Neil Gaiman's writing voice could be. Lord Morpheus is definitely his greatest character creation; there was something about him in these stories that was so damned engaging. If you've never experienced The Sandman for yourself, I highly recommend picking up this volume.

JLA Vol. 7: Tower of Babel (5/28/07) Graphic Novel (2001 **½) Written by Mark Waid. This was another one of those worldwide superhero crisis books, but it did have some personal drama thrown in. The premise of the main story arc contained in this volume was that Ra’s Al Ghul had stolen Batman's secret plans for taking down his fellow Justice Leaguers and then proceeded to do just that. Meanwhile, Batman had been lured away from the action by the theft of his parents' bodies. Naturally enough, the members of the League felt betrayed by Batman's secret plans. All in all, the story was readable but not particularly memorable nor special.

13 Going on 30 (5/28/07) Netflix (2004 **½) Directed by Gary Winick. Jennifer Garner starred as a character who goes from her thirteenth birthday party directly to her thirties without passing go. It was kind of like It's a Wonderful Life, with a main character who learns how life would be different if she grew up to be an asshole. 13 Going on 30 actually had a sweet message about how the choices we make early in life affect who we eventually become. Overall, I liked it more than I thought I would, due primarily to the likability of stars Garner and Mark Ruffalo. It was still decidedly lightweight cinema, though, and the end of the film was more than a bit problematic. Without going into detail, the filmmakers wrote themselves into a corner and their solution was kind of a cheat. I couldn't help but wonder if there wasn't another way to handle it, one that might have been more satisfying emotionally.

The Sandman Vol. 2: The Doll's House (5/29/07) Graphic Novel (1990 ***½) Written by Neil Gaiman. While still quite good, this volume wasn’t quite as engaging as the first. This was probably due to the fact that the focus was not on Lord Morpheus (AKA “Dream”) but on minor characters Rose Walker and her brother Jed. The highlight of the collection (originally presented in The Sandman issue 8-16) was probably "Collectors," a darkly comic story set in a convention of serial killers. A second standout was the stand-alone "Tales in the Sand," in which an African boy hears a very special story about the lord of the Dreaming; it provided an early hint of Neil Gaiman’s ability to tap into the ancient tradition (and power) of storytelling.

Infinite Crisis (5/31/07) Graphic Novel (2006 ***) Written by Geoff Johns, illustrated by Phil Jimenez. This DC comics "event" series got a lot of bad reviews when it was originally published. I didn’t think it was so bad, but it wasn’t as strong as Marv Wolfman and George Perez's original 1985 Crisis on Infinite Earths. The purpose of the original Crisis was to simplify DC’s complex continuity and to allow certain characters to interact with other characters without weird "imaginary story" framing devices. Thematically, Infinite Crisis was a diatribe about a certain "sickness" in comics and in the world itself. It was highly critical about the DC comics of the 1990’s, and seemed to make a case for making comics "fun again." However, the way it went about doing this was by turning Superboy (albeit the "Earth Prime" Superboy) into a mentally and emotionally retarded homicidal maniac. There was a lot of "uber-violence" in the series (faces punched out, arms pulled off, etc.) that served more to sicken than to shock. The underlying message of Infinite Crisis was that the world can be a better place if its heroes make better choices. It was impossible to read that without thinking about our current geopolitical situation.

Bullitt (5/31/07) Netflix (1968 ***½) Directed by Peter Yates. It’s hard to believe I’ve never watched this Steve McQueen movie, though I’m hard-pressed to name any of his films I’ve seen. In reviewing the film, it’s helpful to look at it in the context of the time it was made and also on its own merits. It was clear to me that great strides were made to make the film "feel real." Real San Francisco locations were used and (according to the behind-the-scenes featurette on the DVD) real doctors and nurses played real doctors and nurses. Steve McQueen also did his own stunts, something that surely must’ve given the holders of the film's completion bond ulcers. Mostly the realism (neo-realism?) worked, helped by the fact that the story structure itself was a conventional crime drama. For some reason the Matt Damon "Jason Bourne" movies come to mind, in that they’re a recent example of injecting a heightened realism into stories that would normally be presented in a slick Hollywood fashion.

June

One for the Money (6/1/07) Novel (1994 ***½) Written by Janet Evanovich. This was the first of Evanovich’s immensely popular Stephanie Plum novels. Currently, I believe there are thirteen or fourteen in the series. My wife has read many of the Plum books and has periodically recommended them to me over the past few years. From her description, I expected something fairly… fluffy. Boy was I in for a surprise. I found much of the tone and many of the situations (threats by a serial rapist, for example) in One for the Money to be pretty hard-boiled, with a few comic elements -- like Plum’s wacky grandmother -- sprinkled in. I suspect the humor may have taken over as the series evolved. My primary motive for reading the book was as research for my own writing: I’ve been reading a variety of detective novels lately, particularly those with female protagonists. However, I’ll confess that -- and I’m sure this will make my wife very happy -- upon finishing this first book in the series, my first thought was to buy another to see what happens next!

Superman: Strange Attractors (6/2/07) Comics (2006 ***) Written by Gail Simone, San Abnett and Andy Lanning, Illustrated by John Byrne. I bought this volume used for $7.50, primarily because it was a good value and was illustrated by Byrne. This book collected a half-dozen or so issues of Superman continuity, but didn't have a single story arc. The writing was generally solid, as was the art. I must admit that I was impressed with Byrne's continued development as an illustrator. He was so hot "back in the day," but his limitations were obvious after awhile. Clearly he's done an admirable job of keeping his skills current instead of resting on his early successes.

The Sandman Vol 3: Dream Country (6/2/07) Graphic Novel (1991 ***½) Written by Neil Gaiman. Let's be completely honest, shall we? As "graphic novels" go, Dream Country wasn't exactly the best "value." The volume only contained four stories: "Calliope," "A Dream of a Thousand Cats," "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Facade." Padding the remainder of the book was the annotated script for "Calliope." Yet I'm still giving the book three and a half stars. Why? With the exception of "Facade," the other short stories were exceptionally strong. In fact, according to Amazon.com, Gaiman's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" won the World Fantasy Award for best short story.

Crisis on Multiple Earths, Vol. 4 (6/3/07) Comics (2006 **) Written by various, illustrated by Dick Dillon. Back in the good ol' days when life was simpler (or was it?), the Justice League of America would get together once a year with their Justice Society counterparts on Earth 2. Then things would get crazy. This volume collected JLA #123-124, #135-137 and #147-148, from years 1975, 1976 and 1977 respectively. In addition to the JSA, the JLA also encountered heroes from Earth-S ("S" as in Shazam!) and the Legion of Superheroes from the 30th century. I have to be honest here. These were not particularly well-written nor well-illustrated stories. They exist primarily as examples of mediocre DC comics from the mid-1970's.

Come Back, Little Sheba (6/4/07) Netflix (1952 **) Directed by Daniel Mann, starring Burt Lancaster and Shirley Booth. Booth won the best actress Oscar for her portrayal of the wife of a recovering alcoholic, then went on to play the irreverent maid in the Hazel TV show. I rented this movie because I'd never seen it before. I keep hoping to discover somewhere in my Netflix queue a "lost classic." Maybe it's a foolish notion, I don't know. I wanted to like this movie, but fewer than ten minutes in I knew it was not to be. My problem was one of perspective; I live in the 21st century and the handling of the subject of alcoholism -- which was probably shocking for 1952 -- just seemed over-the-top and dated. Also, the film's dialogue reminded me of a cross between Tennessee Williams and some of the less subtle socially-conscious episodes of The Twilight Zone.

Annie Get Your Gun (6/6/07) Netflix (1950 ***½) Directed by George Sidney, starring Betty Hutton as Annie Oakley and Howard Keel as Frank Butler. First of all, I must confess my enjoyment was enhanced greatly by a seminal experience I had seeing a Kansas City stage production of this musical when I was six or seven. Hearing all those wonderful Irving Berlin numbers brought back a flood of happy memories. There's something about this particular musical that is positively archetypal. If you needed an image to illustrate the definition of musical in the dictionary, Annie Get Your Gun would be a great place to start. Seen through the eyes of the world in 2007, there were a few things that begged for revisionism (American Indian stereotypes, sexist attitudes), but I'm willing to forgive them. Betty Hutton had mighty big shoes to fill: Ethel Merman defined the character on Broadway, then Judy Garland was originally cast in the film before she left for health reasons.

Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need (6/7/07) Nonfiction (2005 ***) Written by Blake Snyder. I first learned of this book when I attended a presentation Snyder gave to the Alameda Writer's Group. As I began reading the Save the Cat!, I immediately appreciated Snyder's light, conversational style. It was a quick read, but I have to say that when I got to the end I was far from satisfied. The information content just felt a little light. Having said that, I would still recommend it to anyone who wants to write a screenplay. Snyder's book would probably make a good companion to How to Write a Movie in 21 Days by Viki King. It's worth mentioning that Snyder has a sequel book coming out in October entitled Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies: The Screenwriter's Guide to Every Story Ever Told. This apparently will be an expansion of Snyder's chapter on his own genres, which included "Monster in the House" and "Dude with a Problem." I may just find myself buying a copy when it's available.

Oceans Thirteen (6/9/07) Glendale Mann 10 (2007 **) Directed by Steven Soderbergh, starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and all the rest. It’s another caper movie, this time targeting evil Casino mastermind Al Pacino. I'm afraid the movie didn’t really work very well for me. Sure, it was fun seeing Clooney, Pitt and Damon together on the same screen, acting in the same scenes, but that wasn't enough to recommend Oceans Thirteen. The prototype for this kind of "caper" film was The Sting, and there wasn’t anything in this story that came close to that level of quality. Specifically, there were no twists that paid off in a big way.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Silver Chair (6/9/07) Netflix (1990 **) Directed by Alex Kirby. This was originally presented as a six part BBC miniseries. Stretching the material over 180 minutes was probably a mistake. The story definitely could have been compressed. I found myself getting bored frequently. Instead of dismissing the effects as bad, I have to give credit where credit is due. Some of the effects (in particular the giant interaction shots) worked surprisingly well, given the time in which they were produced. It was also a pleasure to see Doctor Who’s Tom Baker again, who played Puddlegum the Marshwiggle.

The Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists (6/9/07) Graphic Novel (1991 ***½) Written by Neil Gaiman. Lord Morpheus travels to hell to find an old lover and instead receives a terrible responsibility when Lucifer hands over the keys to his dominion. For the most part this self-contained arc worked well: New characters were introduced and the Sandman mythos was expanded nicely. However, a couple of the chapters consisted primarily of Morpheus welcoming guests to the dreaming, having a dinner party, talking to the guests individually and bidding the guests farewell. This dragged a bit and I might have appreciated less talk and more action.

View From the Top (6/10/07) Netflix (2003 **½) Directed by Bruno Barreto. Gwyneth Paltrow starred as Donna Jensen, a woman forced to choose between the man she loves (Mark Ruffalo) and being the best flight attendant in the business. Along the way she encounters glass-eyed flight attendant instructor Mike Myers. This wasn't a bad little movie, and at times I enjoyed it. I'll chalk that up to Paltrow's likability as an actress and her sex appeal: She spent most of the movie running around in short skirts, hot pants, bikinis or underwear. Watching View From the Top, I felt I wasn't watching a film so much as an exercise from a screenplay-writing class. For much of the movie, all the story and character beats seemed to hit exactly right, and somehow that felt wrong. At 87 minutes, it was unusually short for a contemporary comedy, which caused me to wonder what material was cut.

Road to Perdition 2: On the Road (6/11/07) Graphic Novel (2003 ***¼) Written by Max Allan Collins. This was an interesting book in that it wasn't a prequel, nor was it a sequel. Broken into three 100-page chapters, On the Road actually fits inside the story of the original graphic novel. Collins explained in the introduction that his original concept was to create a multi-volume epic in the tradition of Lone Wolf and Cub. This was not to be, however: He was pressured by his publishers to deliver a complete narrative in a timely fashion. With the success of the film version triggering sales of the original, Collins was able to see his dream through to a degree with a "sequel." While the stories in this volume were limited by the constraints of working within a larger story, they were still compelling and well worth reading. The illustrations (especially those by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez) fit perfectly with the writing.

The Big Country (6/14/07) Netflix (1958 ***½) Directed by William Wyler, starring Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, Charlton Heston, Burl Ives, Charles Bickford and Chuck Conners. Ever since I joined Netflix I've been using it off and on as a way to sample old "classic" movies I've never seen, in hopes of discovering a new favorite. Most of the time I've been disappointed, but that wasn't the case with The Big Country. Gregory Peck was fantastic as a Baltimore ship captain who finds himself in the middle of a civil war and in love with the daughter of a rancher. From start to finish I loved how the story unfolded, and the writing (especially the dialogue) was top-notch. I don't want to generalize too much, but I may have to start renting more westerns!

Knocked Up (6/14/07) Glendale Mann 10 (2007 ****) Written and directed by Judd Apatow, starring Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl as Ben and Alison. First off, a tip of the hat to two of my co-workers for their enthusiastic recommendation of this movie. Knocked Up was a comedy masterpiece. My wife and I laughed out loud too many times to count. I especially appreciated that the humor always flowed naturally from the characters, yet seemed to come from unexpected sources. There was a scene with Paul Rudd and Rogen in a hotel room in Vegas that was hilarious, yet I don't know exactly why. This demonstrates the potential of the writer/director: Something might not read as funny on the page but a confident director may know what he can sell onscreen. One of the things I loved about Apatow's writing was that each and every character we encountered was unique, with their own distinctive motives, quirks and voice. This was basic screenwriting (and writing for that matter), but it's surprising how few writers make an effort to make that happen.

It's worth comparing Apatow's work with that of Kevin Smith. Since Clerks, I've had a love/hate relationship with Smith's writing, often drawn to it and annoyed by it at the same time. Over time his writing has progressed to a far more mature place than where it started. I liked Clerks II (his most recent film) quite a lot, admiring how it balanced the outrageously raunchy with the sweet. In both The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, Judd Apatow examined similar territory but pulled it off in a way that was more subtle, funnier and more honest.

The Sandman Vol. 5: A Game of You (6/16/07) Graphic Novel (1992 **½) Written by Neil Gaiman. I feel like a jerk for criticizing Gaiman’s writing, but what didn’t quite work for me in The Doll’s House really didn’t work for me in this volume. A Game of You collected a six-issue story arc centering on Barbie, a character introduced in The Doll’s House. It also concerned her imaginary fantasy world, a world she visited every night since she was a young child. Since we last saw Barbie, she doesn’t dream anymore. My problem with A Game of You is that the overall story was weakly constructed. A half-dozen potentially interesting elements were set up but not paid off. The story didn’t end so much as it stopped when Morpheus stepped in suddenly in a deus ex machina device. Ultimately I’m not even sure what the story was all about.

Groundhog Day (6/16/07) DVD (1993 ****) Directed by Harold Ramis, screenplay by Danny Rubin and Ramis, starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. There are some movies that occupy a special place in your heart. For me, Groundhog Day is one such movie. In fact, it’s one of my favorite movies of all time. When it was first released it resonated with me so much I returned for a second viewing, a real rarity for me. With its "one man forced to live the same day again and again" premise, Groundhog Day led the pack of time-fracturing films like Pulp Fiction (1994), Sliding Doors (1998), Run Lola Run (1999) and Memento (2000). It also had the audacity to ask the fundamental question: What is the purpose of existence? But it didn’t dwell on the existential; it framed that question into a concrete, feel-good message: People can change for the better, and isn’t that a beautiful thing to behold? Bill Murray, with his ability to play a jerk but still be sympathetic, was the perfect choice as weatherman Phil Conners. Ultimately, Groundhog Day was one of those rare movies that made you (or me anyhow) want to be a better person. It also demonstrated that a mainstream comedy can be very funny and still be about something big. That’s pretty cool.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (6/17/07) Glendale Mann 10 (2007 **) Directed by Gore Verbinski, written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. I have a hell of a lot of respect for the writing team of Elliott andRossio, mainly because they wrote the first Shrek Movie. Unfortunately, at no point in this third Pirates movie did I have any idea what was going on. From its reviews, I knew going in that the plot was confusing and hard-to-follow, and you know what? Those reviews were dead right. Ahoy, mates! Best to keep a weather eye on that cruel beastie, comprehensibility!

Road to Perdition (6/17/07) DVD (2002 ***) Directed by Sam Mendes, based on the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, starring Tom Hanks, Liam Aiken, Paul Newman and Jude Law. I hadn’t watched this film since it was first released. Having recently read the sequel (well, in-between-quel) of the graphic novel, I thought I would. It’s really pretty good, though the story took a bit too long to get going. Tom Hanks was particularly well cast as likable, but cold-blooded gunman Michael Sullivan.

The Sandman Vol. 6: Fables and Reflections (6/17/07) Graphic Novel (1993 ****) Written by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by various. This book collected nine stand-alone stories from the Sandman comic. After the disappointment of A Game of You, Gaiman returned to top form. This collection included the telling of the story of Dream's son Orpheus and ended with "Ramadan," which presented a far different Baghdad than the current one, nearly making me cry.

Mamma Mia (6/20/07) Winter Garden Theater, NYC (***) Thank God for half price tickets at TKTS, huh? Even with the wait, it was still worth it. Only problem was the seats were up in the Mezzanine and far enough to stage right that sometimes we couldn't see the action. I didn't know anything about this musical before the performance we attended, other than the fact that it was built around ABBA songs. The plot was light but fun: A young woman is to be married and she invites the three men her mother had sexual relationships with. Which one is her father? While I liked it and left the theater feeling great, I probably would've enjoyed it even more if I'd been more familiar with the ABBA songs.

Les Miserables (6/21/07) Broadhurst Theater, NYC (***½) As I write this review a week after the fact, I still have the music haunting my ears. By this I mean I've literally had the soundtrack playing in my head for the past week. That's a little weird, isn't it? And yet I don't mind. "Tomorrow we'll discover what our God in heaven has in store..." This was the fourth or fifth time (so far) I've seen Les Miz on Broadway. It's my favorite musical ever, and I'm delighted I was able to share the experience with my wife. I have always gotten choked up a bit watching it, and I think that's because some part of me identifies with the plight of Jean Valjean and his attempts to be a righteous man in spite of a world that wants to beat him down. There are a lot of different ways to be miserable, that's for sure. My reason for giving it 3 1/2 stars instead of 4 is that my recollection of previous performances I've seen (the most recent being ten years ago now) was that the principals had far more powerful voices.

Rent (6/23/07) Nederlander Theater, NYC (**½) Featuring Tamyra Gray as Mimi. I have a terribly embarrassing confession to make: I had so much trouble following the plot for Rent that when intermission came I thought the show was over! Whoops! At the risk of sounding like an old fogy, I didn't really identify with any of the characters. The AIDS-related elements, while still absolutely relevant in today's world, seemed dated. I was far from bored, though. The performers were certainly good and the music was fun enough. I had a good time while during the performance, but simply cannot remember any of the songs now, a week later.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (6/26/07) Glendale Mann 10 (2007 **½) Directed by Tim Story, screenplay by Don Payne and Mark (Twin Peaks) Frost. I'll be honest: I went in with zero expectations and left the theater with a sense of having been entertained. However, as I write this a few days later, there are no real lasting impressions of the film. One of the things it did well was capturing the family squabbling of the original comics. Compared to the Spider-Man and X-Men films, there was a definite second-tier feel to the Fantastic Four films. As a long-time fan of the FF comics (I happen to own a copy of FF #5, the first appearance of Doctor Doom, as well as a nearly full run of issues 20 through 200-something), that irked me. On the other hand, I can see how it made sense financially from the perspective of the movie studio. Will there be a third FF film? I wouldn't mind if there was. Hell, I might even go see it.

50 First Dates (6/29/07) Netflix (2004 ***) Directed by Peter Segal. Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore re-teamed for the first time since The Wedding Singer in this movie about a man in love with a woman who lost her long-term memory in a pineapple-related car accident. 50 First Dates was surprisingly sweet and I found myself enjoying this movie a hell of a lot more than I expected to. The one thing that held it back from being a better movie was that some of the ersatz Farrelly Brothers comic elements (Sean Astin as Drew’s weightlifting brother, for example) felt out of place and lessened the experience.

The Sound of Music (6/30/07) Sing-along at the Hollywood Bowl (**** 1965) Directed by Robert Wise, starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. Just how in the hell do you solve a problem like Maria? Based on a true story, Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music has some of the most beloved and memorable music ever. Seeing it with a drunken, singing mob was a real kick. It reminded me of going to drive-in movies when I was a kid, only it was at the freaking Hollywood Bowl!

July

Transformers (7/2/07) DW/Paramount screening, Burbank AMC 16 (2007 ***½) Directed by Michael Bay. I didn't expect much of a story, and on that point I was right to keep my expectations low. There were a lot of plot holes and things that didn't add up or make a whole lot of sense. But hey, it had giant robots duking it out in an urban center. ILM's effects were astonishing. I hope people remember them come Oscar time. I loved watching a slug-fest of this magnitude taking place in downtown L.A. (I'm not sure why the Autobots took their fight there, but that's another story.) Shia LaBeouf did a nicely quirky job as the teenager whose car turns out to be Bumblebee; I'm looking forward to seeing him in the new Indiana Jones movie.

Sabrina (7/3/07) DVD (1995 ***) Directed by Sydney Pollack, starring Harrison Ford, Julia Ormond and Greg Kinnear. I would like to begin by saying the 1954 original (directed by Billy Wilder) was far better. This mid-nineties remake was a loving tribute to that film and was heavily influenced by it: The three principle actors seemed at times to be doing impressions of Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn and William Holden. The new version began differently than the original, following the chauffeur's daughter Sabrina to Paris. This had an interesting effect story-wise: It started the movie firmly establishing that it was Sabrina's story, but then when she returned, the story shifted to Linus, Harrison Ford's character, where it remained until the end of the film. This diluted the story's unity considerably.

Live Free or Die Hard (7/4/07) Glendale Mann 4 (2007 ***½) Directed by Len Wiseman, starring Bruce Willis and Justin Long. John McClane is back and he's having another really bad day. Poor guy. He finds himself partnered with the Macintosh kid (Long), who actually did a good job, acting-wise. Having just seen Transformers two days before, it was hard not to compare the two. Both were exciting, entertaining "balls-to-the-wall" popcorn action movies. They did different things right: Transformers had giant CG robots and Die Hard had characters worth caring about.

Red Dawn (7/4/07) TV-AMC (1984 **) Directed by John Milius, starring Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson, Charlie Sheen and Jennifer Grey. I'm so spoiled; I rarely watch movies on TV and the continual commercial interruptions made me almost stop watching. The most interesting thing about Red Dawn was that it starred everyone who wasn't in The Breakfast Club. It was a veritable "Who's Who" of mid-eighties teenage cinema. Hell, even Harry Dean Stanton made an appearance! The second most interesting thing about the film was that it was 100% unabashed nationalistic propaganda. I can't help but wonder if Red Dawn wasn't directly responsible for much of the survivalist culture in our country. I wonder how often Patrick Swayze encounters fans from that demographic? It must suck to be him.

Ratatouille (7/7/07) Universal Citywalk (2007 ***½) Directed by Brad Bird. Pixar has done it once again. Ratatouille is a beautiful movie, possibly the best-looking movie Pixar has made to date. Brad Bird’s direction was as strong as ever. Having said that, the film didn’t leave a lasting impression on me like The Incredibles did. While I liked Remy the rat and thought his character was interesting and his situation was original, I never cared about him as much as I should have. I also never really cared about Linguini, the garbage boy who becomes known as the greatest chef in Paris. Finally, I must reluctantly admit that the scenes of Remy and the other rats in the kitchen were disgusting and a real turn-off. As cute and adorable (and clean) as they may have been, I still didn’t want rats fixing my meals!

Free to Be You and Me (7/8/07) Netflix (1974 **½) This was originally aired as a TV special, with Marlo Thomas as the primary name attached to the project. I was nine at the time, and the collection of stories and songs certainly made an impression on me. Watching this special 33 years later was a bit like taking a trip in a time machine, precisely my motivation for renting it. The message of the special was the power of diversity, and that women, minorities and people in general shouldn’t be limited by antiquated notions of male, female or racial roles. It was certainly a sorely needed message for the time. I’m enough of a wide-eyed idealist to think that maybe this star-studded special (which was also popular children’s record) was one of the drops in the bucket that changed generational values for the better.

Nightwing: Year One (7/8/09) Graphic Novel (2005 ***) Written by Chuck Dixon and Scott Beatty, illustrated by Scott McDaniel. If you ever wanted to know what happened in between Dick Grayson (Robin) getting fired by Batman and taking up a new identity as Nightwing, this is the book for you. It was pleasant enough and featured cameos by lots of characters (Superman, Deadman, Jason Todd, Batgirl), but was also definitely lightweight reading. Then again, it's a COMIC BOOK!

The Sandman, Vol. 7: Brief Lives (7/8/07) Graphic Novel (1994 ****) Written by Neil Gaiman. In this volume, Delirium enlists her brother Dream to go on a journey in the waking world to find their long-lost brother Destruction. This was my favorite of all the story-arcs in the Sandman series. If there's ever a Sandman movie, I hope this is the storyline used for its sequel. The story was mostly linear, but there were a few twists along the way. Its bittersweet ending, in which Dream encountered his son Orpheus again, set the tumblers in motion for the end of Gaiman’s run on the series.

Majestic: Strange New Visitor (7/8/07) Comics (2005 **½) Written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, illustrated by Karl Kerschl. I was vaguely aware of Majestic as a character in the WildStorm comic universe. At last count, there are at least three thousand parallel universe versions of Superman, created by various writers and comic publishers. Flipping through this volume in my favorite used book store, it seemed to promise a cross-over in which Superman met one of those alternate versions of himself. That sort of happened in this volume, but not really. As best as I can tell, DC bought the rights to the Majestic character and has incorporated him into their universe. Unfortunately, the material in this book was taken from several issues of DC comics continuity and it wasn't unified by a single story-arc.

Zathura: A Space Adventure (7/12/07) Netflix (2005 ***¼) Directed by Jon Favreau, based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg. This movie didn’t do much in the way of box office when it was originally released, and I can kind of see why. It didn’t really seem like the right movie for the times, somehow. I rented it mostly because Favreau directed it. After Elf, I have a lot of respect for him as a director. I also have the distinction of having seen the movie Jumanji (also based on an Allsburg book) in the theaters twice. I can’t explain it, but apparently there is something in the premise of kids playing with a magical board game that speaks to me.

The Sandman, Vol. 8: World’s End (7/14/07) Graphic Novel (1994 **½) Written by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by various artists. Strangers from different times and worlds meet in a tavern as a storm rages outside. I was largely let down by this volume, which was really a collection of stand-alone stories unified by a somewhat weak framing device. My favorite of the stories was "The Golden Boy," which was illustrated by Mike Allred and based on the early 1970’s DC character Prez.

Spanglish (7/14/07) Netflix (2004 ***¼) Written and directed by James L. Brooks. I wanted to like it a little bit more. It was certainly a well-done character-driven movie in the same vein as Brooks’ Terms of Endearment and As Good As It Gets. Adam Sandler delivered what may be his best performance to date. The story was perhaps a little more ambitious than it needed to be. Not everything clicked for me, and I wonder if James L. Brooks was qualified to write this particular story. There was a sort of reverse-racism in that the Hispanic characters were superhuman to a degree: Flor Moreno, the mother, was clearly a "perfect mother" for purposes of the film’s theme, while her daughter Christina was an academic genius.

Saturday Night Live: Season 1 (7/15/07) DVD (1975-76 ***½) First off, I want to acknowledge that watching this much material (26.5 hours!) was a hell of a time commitment. I bought the DVD set in anticipation of my shoulder surgery because I knew I would need something to occupy my mind while I recovered. One of my personal fantasies is time traveling back to 1975 to sit in the audience for the first episode of SNL. God, has it really been that long? It’s hard to fathom that it’s been over thirty years since these shows were first aired. I watched nearly all of them at the time, and seeing them again brought back many happy memories. Early on, it was evident that the "not ready for prime time players" were going places, especially Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Dan Ackroyd. Watching the shows gave me more appreciation for all of them, but Ackroyd in particular. As I watched the episodes over the space of a week it was also apparent the show ran out of gas toward the end of the season. Some of the those episodes were a little hard to watch. In particular, there was the infamous (mostly boring) Louise Lasser episode (7/24/76), which Lorne Michaels later pulled from syndication. Still, late in the season there were some real gems too: The episode with Madeline Kahn (5/8/76) featured an elaborate number with her singing "I Feel Pretty" as the Bride of Frankenstein. Also late in the season was the second appearance of Elliott Gould (5/29/75), which included not only the classic Star Trek sketch (penned by Michael O’Donohue) but also the Bees’ Honeymooners sketch.

The Sandman Vol. 9: The Kindly Ones (7/15/07) Graphic Novel (***½) Written by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Marc Hempel. Gaiman’s handling of some of the minor characters was better this time around. Surprisingly, it was more interesting as a reader to revisit them than to meet them in the first place. This was the longest of all the Gaiman-penned Sandman story arcs. That's appropriate, since The Kindly Ones was the series' effective climax. While I understand that what transpired had to happen, I couldn’t help but think that the actions that eventually led to the death of the Dream King weren’t entirely motivated.

Twin Peaks: Season 2 (7/16/07) DVD (1990-91 ***½) It’s hard to believe it’s been more than fifteen years since Twin Peaks went off the air, but sure enough it has. When it first aired I was a rabid fan of the show. However, as disappointed as I was at its cancellation, I could understand why it got the axe. They talk about "jumping the shark" and I think Twin Peaks jumped the shark multiple times. Seriously, what in the hell was that "Miss Twin Peaks" storyline all about, anyhow? Part of me would love to know exactly who was responsible for making the poor story decisions that led to its doom. Still in all, the final episode, directed by David Lynch, was really something. It was truly amazing television. It was also fun watching all the DVD extra interviews with the directors (excluding Lynch himself) and about a dozen of the actors and actresses. Ultimately for me there remains an issue of closure. Since Twin Peaks was a continuing story, it stopped right in the middle and we fans never got any real closure. Halfway through watching the season episodes, it occurred to me that perhaps the series might someday enjoy a new life in graphic novel form.

The Sandman Vol. 10: The Wake (7/16/07) Graphic Novel (***) Written by Neil Gaiman. Ah, denouement. This was Gaiman’s last of his original Sandman stories. Following the death of Dream in The Kindly Ones, this volume contained a multi-issue story arc of his funeral and then included three stand-alone stories. While I appreciated the importance of painting a sense of closure on Gaiman’s run, there really wasn’t much of a story there. We got one final visit with all the characters in the Sandman universe, but there was virtually no conflict. What story there was seemed unnaturally elongated. As for the three additional stories, they seemed out of chronology somehow. My favorite of the three was the one entitled "Sunday Mourning," which featured Dream's immortal friend Hob Gadling at a Renaissance Fair.

Yellow Submarine (7/16/07) DVD (1968 ***½) Directed by George Dunning. It’s hard to imagine this film being anywhere near as entertaining as it is without the Beatles’ music. Much of the late-60’s animation technique was experimental, and some methods definitely worked better than others. Several times during the film I wondered what the film would be like if it were animated today, using modern CGI techniques? Would that be an unspeakable sacrilege? I would never want to take anything away from the original, but it remains an intriguing question.

Quantum Leap: Season 3 (7/17/07) Netflix (1991-92 ***) First off, I was a fan of the original series. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have made the time commitment to watch the entire season. As I watched the episodes, I couldn’t help but feel that Quantum Leap’s target audience was being talked down to. A lot of the episodes were kind of, well, dumb. It rarely lived up to its full potential. However, when it stretched it could be quite special. The first episode of the 3rd season was my personal favorite of the entire series. It was called "The Leap Home" and in it Sam Becket "leaped into" his younger self. This episode also contained my all-time favorite scene from the show, in which Sam played the John Lennon song "Imagine" for his little sister: As he played the song, she slowly came to the realization that her brother might be telling the truth about having knowledge of the future.

Fatal Fascination: Where Fact Meets Fiction in Police Work (7/18/07) Nonfiction (1988 ***) Written by Phil and Karen McArdle. This volume was comprised largely of articles the husband and wife team wrote for the Northern California chapter of the Mystery Writers of America. While the writing was a bit stiff at times, the narrative voice reminding me of something written in the 1950’s, not the late 1980’s, the material was interesting enough. It was kind of a hodge-podge of material, though, much of it taken from the files (and scrapbooks) of the Oakland and Berkeley police departments. Tossed in for good measure were articles about fictional detective work as well. Much of the material dated back to the 1800’s and provided an informative, historical context for modern criminology and crime fiction.

Invincible: Ultimate Collection, Volume 1 (7/18/07) Comics (2005 ***½) Written by Robert Kirkman, illustrated by Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley. This was my first real introduction to Image Comics’ Invincible. I’d recently read praises for the book on a couple of blogs I read regularly, and decided to give it a shot. I’m glad I did. The series is about teen-aged burger-flipper Mark Grayson, whose father just happens to be Omni-Man, Earth’s greatest super-hero. The series had a freshness to it that made it great fun to read. It would be an all-ages book except that the plot twisted suddenly in the series‘ seventh issue, taking an unexpectedly bloody and adult turn.

Kiki’s Delivery Service (7/18/07) Netflix (1989 ***½) Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, based on a book by Eiko Kadono. I’ve been meaning to watch this film for years and finally got around to it. It was a beautiful movie, filled with positive energy. Kiki is a young witch on her own who establishes herself as a delivery girl in a city by the sea. While the plot and character motivations didn’t stand up to close scrutiny, the overall spirit of the film more than made up for its minor failings.

Showcase Presents: Legion of Super-Heroes, Volume 1 (7/19/07) Comics (2007 [stories 1958-1964] ***¼) Written and illustrated by various. I had read many of these stories reprinted in the back of the 100 Page Super-Spectacular comics in the early to mid 1970's. It was great fun to revisit the 30th century and spend some time in the Legion clubhouse. As was the case of many of the DC comics stories of the era, there was a surreal innocence to these tales from the early days of Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes. As simple as they were, the stories were also surprisingly dense, and the 549-page collection took quite some time to read.

Invincible: Ultimate Collection, Volume 2 (7/19/07) Comics (2005 ***½) Written by Robert Kirkman, illustrated by Ryan Ottley. This collection included stories that were originally published in issues 14-24. It also included issue #0, which was an origin/recap of sorts. Mark Grayson and the other characters in the Invincible universe have definitely grown on me. I continue to appreciate the mix of verisimilitude and innocence in the book.

My Favorite Wife (7/19/07) TV-AMC (1940 ***) Directed by Garson Kanin. Irene Dunne and Cary Grant starred in this romantic comedy about a shipwrecked woman who returns, apparently from the grave, the day after her husband has had her declared legally dead in order to get remarried. Grant and Dunne were cute enough, but the primary source of humor in this comedy was sex, sex and more sex. The fun lay in how many times sex and kinky sexual situations could be implied without being stated overtly.

Hero (7/20/07) DVD (1992 ***½) Directed by Stephen Frears. From the first few bars of "Auld Lang Syne," this film, one of my personal favorites, asked the unabashed question: Can one make a Frank Capra film in the cynical last decade of the 20th century? In my opinion, Hero did that just as well as it could have possibly been done. It made me sad, however, that it was as great a challenge as it was; clearly, a measure of innocence has been lost over the years. Still, I applaud Frears and the makers of this under-appreciated film for making the effort. This is one of those films that, if you haven't seen it, will pleasantly surprise you, and it might just get under your skin, as it has mine.

Powers Volume 1: Who Killed Retro Girl? (7/20/07) Graphic Novel (2000 ***) Written by Brian Michael Bendis, illustrated by Michael Avon Oeming. Having recently finished reading Neil Gaiman’s ten-volume run on The Sandman, I looked at my collection of graphic novels and decided Powers would be a good next set of books to read over the next month or so. For those who aren‘t familiar with the series, the novelty of Powers was that its creators had taken the police procedural genre and set it in a world populated by superheroes. In particular, Bendis made an effort to take advantage of the rapid-fire, ping-pong dialogue associated with the genre, frequently with more than two characters speaking. Unfortunately, there were many times when this technique (which in Powers was often accompanied with re-used art) was used self-consciously and pulled the reader out of the experience. My main complaint about this first story-arc in the Powers series was that while some police work was portrayed, the killer wasn’t discovered as the result of that detection. Instead, he more or less presented himself and asked to be locked up. I would have enjoyed more, albeit conventional, twists and turns leading to the solution of the murder.

The Concrete Blonde (7/21/07) Novel (1994 ***½) Written by Michael Connelly. This was the first book of Connelly’s I’ve read and I enjoyed it immensely. Part courtroom drama, part police procedural, the story centered on homicide detective Harry ("Hieronymous") Bosch. Bosch must balance being the defendant in a wrongful death civil suit with the search for a serial killer copycat. Written in a close third person, The Concrete Blonde was verisimilitude-packed police drama at its best. Connelly’s background as a crime and courtroom reporter for the L.A. Times, coupled with a strong, no-nonsense writing style resulted in a vivid portrayal of murder in L.A. that never rang false.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (7/21/07) Netflix (1962 **½) Directed by Robert Aldrich, starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Crawford played a crippled movie star of yesteryear and Davis played her sadistic alcoholic caretaker. This was another movie that fell into the "I can’t believe I’ve never seen it" barrel. There was something decidedly unsavory about this film from beginning to end. On one level I suspected the goal was to take Gloria Swanson’s 1950 portrayal of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard and turn it up to eleven. Aldrich’s direction was heavy-handed and the whole film had the appearance of an episode of The Twilight Zone. By today’s standards it seemed totally exploitative, but it still got Bette Davis nominated for best actress.

Powers Volume 2: Roleplay (7/21/07) Graphic Novel (2001 ***) Written by Brian Michael Bendis, illustrated by Michael Avon Oeming. College kids dressed as superheroes get slaughtered in this very short (i.e. "quick read") four-issue story arc. Bendis seemed to be throttling back on the unnecessary chatter I complained about in the first volume, finding a less distracting middle ground. There was also a subplot involving Johnny Royale and a teleportation accident that contained one of my favorite moments in the series.

Powers Volume 3: Little Deaths (7/22/07) Graphic Novel (2002 **½) Written by Brian Michael Bendis, illustrated by Michael Avon Oeming. The third volume wasn’t quite as satisfying as the first two. This was primarily due to a mysterious death of the heroic Olympia that turned out not to be much of a mystery at all. The volume also was comprised of a very short story-arc (called "Groupies"), with the remainder of the volume padded with two stand-alone stories. The first, called "Ride Along," broke the fourth wall via the inclusion of a character introduced as graphic novelist Warren Ellis.

1408 (7/22/07) Glendale Mann 10 (2007 ***¼) Directed by Mikael Hafstrom. Based on a short story by Stephen King, 1408, starred John Cusak as a cynical writer (is there any other kind?) of popular "haunted" tourism books. One day he receives a mysterious postcard that sends him to New York to stay in the infamous room 1408 at the Dolphin hotel. I knew from the reviews that this movie would be a fun roller coaster ride of a movie that wouldn't ask me to do too much thinking. You know what? It didn’t let me down.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (7/23/07) Glendale Mann 10 (2007 ***¼) Directed by David Yates. Order of the Phoenix was the fifth of seven Harry Potter books/movies. In a brilliant execution of marketing, it was released scant weeks before the publication of the final book in the series. It’s been a few years since I read the book on which this movie is based. The movie did a solid job of covering (and necessarily condensing) the material of the book. Looking at it objectively, there were definitely story elements (Like a certain giant’s half-brother) that didn’t really fit in with the rest of the movie, but they were still fun and didn’t bother me. The cast was fine; Daniel Radcliffe did a decent job, though the notes of his performance all seemed within a limited key. Imelda Staunton was a delight as the "wicked-in-pink" Dolores Umbridge. In this day and age it’s easy to take the CGI technicians for granted, but the effects in Order of the Phoenix were superb; I was frequently impressed by their virtuosity and how well they were integrated.

The Cat Who Saw Red (7/24/07) Novel (1986 **½) Written by Lilian Jackson Braun. At one point in the mystery writing class I recently took, the instructor repeated a joke: "There are two kinds of mysteries: Those with cats and those without them." It was, ironically, curiosity that led me to buying and reading The Cat Who Saw Red. I have seen the "Cat" books on bookshelves for years and had always wondered what they were like. Now I know. Having recently read Michael Connelly’s The Concrete Blonde, I feel I’ve experienced the entire spectrum of mystery writing within the span of a single week. While I mean no disrespect for fans of Braun’s work, my personal tastes apparently tend toward Connelly’s gritty realism. Braun’s book was definitely the coziest of cozies. Without giving much away, there wasn’t much detection to be done. I figured out who I thought "done it" almost immediately and waited patiently for a plot twist that never came.

From the Earth to the Moon (7/26/07) HBO Miniseries (1998 ****) Tom Hanks, executive producer. This was the third time I’ve watched this series, and for the third time I loved everything about it. The mission of the series was to dramatize the Apollo space program, something it did amazingly well. The casting in particular was superb. As a total coincidence, I watched the episode about Apollo 11 on the afternoon of July 20th, the 38th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin‘s first lunar footprints. The idea (and complexity) of sending a man to the moon and bringing him back has a special appeal to me, having grown up in a household where my grandfather was an Air Force engineer. The bottom line: If you liked Apollo 13, and if you haven't done so already, you owe it to yourself to watch From the Earth to the Moon.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (7/26/07) Glendale Mann 4 (2007 ***¼) Directed by David Yates. Yes, I saw this movie twice in the theater within the space of a single week. Why? Well, I made the mistake of seeing it the first time while my wife was out of town. I didn’t mind seeing it a second time, in part because I was most of the way through reading the seventh and final book. Yes folks, it’s Harry Potter week in the ol’ Boylan household!

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (7/27/07) Novel (2007 ***½) Written by J.K. Rowlings. Well, what can I say? The first Harry Potter book was published by Scholastic in 1997. What an amazing decade it’s been for the little boy wizard. It‘s been a genuine phenomenon. I’m enough of an idealist to think that maybe, just maybe, Rowlings’ writings have inspired a generation of book-readers. It would certainly be nice to think that’s the case. As for the final book itself, it was an entertaining read, but at 757 pages it was not a particularly fast one. The first quarter of the book was reasonably entertaining, the middle 50% was (sorry, Ms. Rowlings) so-so, and the last quarter of the book was a lot of fun. So what went wrong in the middle? I don’t want to give away any specific plot details, but much of the book focused on Harry, Ron and Hermione off on a largely aimless quest. This quest was punctuated occasionally with action but was mostly slow-going, offering a great deal of repetition but little in the way of story advancement. The readers didn’t even learn the meaning of the book's title until page 400! Thankfully, once past the 600-page mark the book's pace picked up again and I found the end reasonably satisfying, though I could see how some might not. I noticed as the story proceeded that Rowlings seemed to make a point of touching upon the highlights of all her previous books, often with little or no explanation. There were many times when I wondered if she wasn’t doing that to please her hardcore fans, rather than for legitimate storytelling reasons.

The Right Stuff (7/28/07) Netflix (1983 ****) Directed by Philip Kaufman, based on the book by Tom Wolfe. Having recently watched the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, I guess you could say I'm on something of an astronaut kick. I'll stop just short of describing myself as an "astro-nut." The Right Stuff was a terrific movie and as fresh as it felt, it was very hard to believe it was released so long ago, the same year I graduated from high school! The cast was tremendous, including Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager, Ed Harris as John Glenn, and Fred Ward as Gus Grissom. What made the movie so gol-darn great? Everything just worked, and worked well, on several levels: Solid direction, solid action, solid storytelling. Even though it was based on real events and people, it still worked dramatically. The cherry on top was that it was inspirational as hell.

Friday the Rabbi Slept Late (7/29/07) Novel (1964 ***) Written by Harry Kemelman. I read this as part of my survey of modern mystery authors. As I read, I got the sense I may have started reading this book a long time ago but I stopped after thirty or so pages. Originally published the same year I was born, this book definitely had a few scenes that felt dated to my 21st Century eyes. I also found the shifting point of view to be a bit annoying. Still, I was interested enough in Rabbi David Small and the bedroom community in Massachusetts in which the action took place to want to read another book in the series.

The Simpsons Movie (7/29/07) Glendale Mann 10 (2007 ***¼) Directed by David Silverman. I'm going to add my opinion to the near-universal throng of reviewers and say that this movie is every bit as good as (but not especially better than) the series on which it was based. The challenge of making the film work was to find a storyline worth telling over the space of an hour and a half. I think the writers managed to do that. The one negative I will add is that I didn't think the subplots involving Bart and Lisa were developed sufficiently. I understand why they were needed, but they absolutely felt like fillers and were related to the A-plot by the thinnest of threads.

Powers Volume 4: Supergroup (7/29/07) Graphic Novel (2003 ***) Written by Brian Michael Bendis, illustrated by Michael Avon Oeming. More of the same, with a couple of ultra-violent visuals and sad plot-turns thrown in. With each successive volume I notice more and more that there was an unevenness to Bendis' plotting and pacing on the series. Read in a single sitting, the story didn't feel quite rounded out. I suspect the serial publication (in comic book form) may have been somewhat responsible. It made me wonder how fully fleshed out (written) the story was before it was published.

Sicko (7/30/07) DWA Screening (2007 ****) Directed by Michael Moore. In Sicko, Michael Moore takes on the HMOs. There are plenty of people who don't like Mr. Moore or anything he has to say, but I've been a fan since Roger and Me, his first film. He has consistently demonstrated a gift for getting in his audience's face and forcing us to look at things that are seriously broken in our American society. Somehow he manages to do this with a sense of humor. At various times during Sicko I was horrified, enraged, depressed and even moved to tears. The film also made me want to move to France for reasons other than health care, and I imagine plenty of Americans may share that opinion after seeing the film. In addition to the primary focus, Sicko also asked the question: "Is our U.S. government working with big business to deliberately keep us scared?" That was a pretty big and scary question. Look, I'm not naive; I know there was a lot of slanting and shading and emotional manipulation in the film. It wasn't that big a secret. As slanted as it may have been, Sicko still made some excellent points. I'm not necessarily advocating all-out revolution, but I still hope the film has had an impact and that people like Michael Moore continue to fight the system.

Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist (7/31/07) DWA screening (2007 ***) Directed by Andrew D. Cooke. I've been a fan of Will Eisner since I was about ten years old. His work on The Spirit in the 1940's inspired me to draw. Years ago I saw director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Rataouille) give a presentation at the Siggraph computer graphics conference about good directing. His negative examples came from The Three Amigos and his positive examples came not from film but from Will Eisner's The Spirit comic stories. Produced over a period of five years, this documentary on Eisner's life and work began slow but got increasingly interesting as it continued. To the filmmakers' credit, they've used rich source material in the form of audio taped interviews and family home movies. The production values were quite good: Almost, but not quite, broadcast quality. The best part of the film for me was seeing the interview material with so many of my comic idols. Judging by the comments in the Q&A with the director that followed, I wasn't alone in that opinion.

August

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (8/1/07) Netflix (2001 ***½) Directed by Chris Columbus. It's been a few years since I last watched the first movie in the series, and it was a real kick seeing the principle actors so young again. I would say the first hour of the movie, which set up Hogwarts and the rest of J.K. Rowlings' magical world, was real four-star material. As the film approached its second hour, things began to lose some momentum, however. The less-than-stellar (sorry FX guys) Quidditch effects didn't help. Considering how short the first book was, it's amazing how much Rowlings was able to squeeze into it! I truly believe that this film (and the rest of the series, for that matter) is a classic and will be enjoyed by kids (as well as adults) for years to come.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (8/2/07) DVD (2002 ***½) Directed by Chris Columbus. Harry, Ron and Hermione are back for more magic in the second installment of the now classic franchise. Chris Columbus did a fine job directing. I've often wondered why he decided not to continue with the franchise; he hasn't done much directing since then (3-D Rocks and Rent in 2005). I enjoyed this second film almost as much as the first. Like Sorcerer's Stone, Chamber of Secrets felt a bit long after the 2nd hour. It was, however, fun to watch the kid actors growing into their roles a bit more, and it definitely had that "classic" quality.

Powers Volume 5: Anarchy (8/2/07) Graphic Novel (2004 **½) Written by Brian Michael Bendis, illustrated by Michael Avon Oeming. I'll be honest: I was a little disappointed by this story. It included the return of Detective Christian Walker, who left at the end of the previous volume. There were a couple of surprising twists, but what was missing story-wise was the same thing missing in earlier volumes: There wasn't nearly enough actual detective work. What the hell fun is a police procedural if the first suspect is the only suspect?

The Best of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In (8/3/07) Netflix (2003 [episodes 1968-70] ***¼) It’s been over a decade since I last watched an episode of Laugh-In, and that was in reruns on Nick at Night. Occasionally imitated (Hee-Haw, You Can’t Do That on Television!) but never duplicated, it was truly a ground-breaking show. Sadly, it wouldn’t work in today’s world: We’ve lost the requisite innocence, replaced by a cynicism. Besides, the show frequently hearkened back to an earlier vaudevillian humor that was corny even at the time. Especially enlightening were the "present-day" interviews with Henry Gibson, Ruth Buzzi and Arte Johnson. Buzzi and Johnson both mentioned Saturday Night Live and were clearly irritated that SNL got the historical praise (and place) they felt Laugh-In deserved. In my opinion, the two shows were fundamentally different, with different comedic roots. They were also separated by the great divide of Watergate. It’s ironic that Laugh-In, which took pot-shots at Vietnam and the Johnson/Nixon governments, was considered counter-cultural at the time, and yet some of its players definitely belonged ideologically to an older generation.

Powers Volume 6: The Sellouts (8/4/07) Graphic Novel (2004 **½) Written by Brian Michael Bendis, illustrated by Michael Avon Oeming. The story arc of Sellouts began with the murder by an invisible assailant of Red Wing, a member of a Super Friends-like group, and ended with something far larger in scope. My main complaint about Bendis’ stories on Powers thus far has been that the stories haven't felt complete and that there hasn't been enough detective work presented. This (longer) story was a step forward in that direction but it had its own problems: The big one for me was that there were several points where the narrative point of view became confusing. At one point there were supposed to be scenes taking place in parallel (indicated by one 2-page spread that was presented twice), but it wasn't made explicitly clear and there also didn‘t seem to be any motivation for it. Adding to that confusion, there were two sets of secondary characters that were drawn similarly enough that I became confused about who was who.

The Bourne Ultimatum (8/5/07) Glendale Mann 10 (2007 ***½) Directed by Paul Greengrass. No doubt about it; I love the Jason Bourne movies. They're a globe-trotting roller coaster ride of adventure and physical jeopardy. This third installment, in which Bourne closed in on those responsible for his memory/identity loss, was more of the same. I especially appreciated that the people who stood in Bourne's way (i.e.: "the bad guys") weren't dumb. In fact, they legitimately got the jump on Bourne more than a few times. The fast-editing style probably wasn't for everyone, but I enjoyed the hell out of it. It was fun how shots that lasted a third of a second were used to establish information. My only minor quibble: there were a few times when Jason Bourne got knocked around hard enough to kill a normal man and then walked away with the barest hint of injury.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (8/5/07) DVD (2004 ***) Directed by Alfonso Cuaron. When Chris Columbus exited the Harry Potter franchise he left behind big shoes to fill. While I think Cuaron (Y tu mama tambien, Children of Men) did a fine job, his visual style drained much of the magic out of Harry Potter's world, and I ultimately enjoyed this third film less than the first two.

Powers Volume 7: Forever (8/5/07) Graphic Novel (2004 ***) Written by Brian Michael Bendis, illustrated by Michael Avon Oeming. Forever began with the dawn of man (and the first super-being) and concluded during the Retro Girl storyline. It described the surprising origin of Christian Walker and explained how he lost his powers. I liked this story and enjoyed the historical scope, even though it broke the pattern of previous Powers stories: It was neither noir, nor was it a police procedural.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (8/9/07) Netflix (2005 ***) Directed by Mike Newell. This, the fourth installment in the filmic version of the Harry Potter franchise, was murky, monochromatic and generally pretty damned dark. It certainly wasn't nearly as fun to watch as any of the first three films. The main story focused on the Wizard's cup competition. For reasons explained in the film, the competition took place over the span of the entire school year. This felt artificial, even when I read the book version. Unfortunately, with the majority of screentime devoted to the competition, there was little time left for normal school classes or activities... with one happy exception: Hogwarts' own version of the "Enchantment Under the Sea" dance. This sequence was my personal favorite of the film, mainly because it showed Harry, Ron and Hermione acting like teenagers. When Harry asked Cho Chang to the dance, he behaved like a normal fourteen-year-old might, and that sampling of truth was refreshing. Sadly, the whole sequence ended awkwardly, and I suspect some material was deleted. Too bad.

Powers Volume 9: Psychotic (8/10/07) Graphic Novel (2005 ***¼) Written by Brian Michael Bendis, illustrated by Michael Avon Oeming. As I’ve been re-reading and reviewing this series (skipping over volume 8 which I don’t own) I’ve been complaining about Bendis’ story structure. In this book, a cop accidentally shoots a man who’s illegally bought a costume and powers. This book had plenty of detective work and some real twists and turns which all added up to more fun than some of the other more linearly-scripted Powers volumes.

Sgt. Pepper's at 40: A Beatles Celebration (8/11/07) Hollywood Bowl (2007 ***½) The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and Cheap Trick were joined by Aimee Mann, Joan Osborne, Rob Laufer, Ian Ball and others. By and large they did a fine job, though Ian Ball of Gomez goofed his lines a few times. A highlight of the show was vocalist Al Jourgensen and guitarist Sin Quinn of Ministry doing a very goth metal version of "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" from the White Album. It may not have gone over well with some of the older members of the audience, but my wife and I sure enjoyed the hell out of it.

The Sopranos: Season 4 (8/14/07) Netflix (2002 ***) Series created by David Chase. What's there to say? When Tony and his boys aren't f*cking their mistresses, they're whacking their enemies. (SPOILERS) In this, the fourth award-winning season, Adrianna became the unwitting target of an FBI undercover agent and Christopher's addiction to heroin took its toll on his ability to step up to the responsibilities Tony had planned for him. Meanwhile, Tony and Carmella bickered over their financial future and eventually things went to hell. Meanwhile, A.J. stumbled through the 13-episode season as a poster child for eye-rolling disaffected teens everywhere.

Fletch (8/15/07) Novel (1974 **) Written by Gregory McDonald. I.M. (Irwin Maurice) Fletcher is a newspaper reporter working undercover on a "drugs on the beach" story when he's approached by a rich man who hires Fletch to kill him. This setup kind of turned the murder mystery on its head, but didn't really work for me. The identifying characteristic of McDonald's writing was spare to non-existent description. Most of the book consisted of page after page of dialogue, much of it unattributed. While this was fun for a few pages, it got old quickly. Another annoying habit of McDonald's was that he frequently presented information redundantly.

The Sandman: Endless Nights (8/18/07) Graphic Novel (2004 ***) Written by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by various artists. Gaiman returned to what is arguably his most beloved creation after an absence of several years. Endless Nights was a collection of seven stories about Dream and his six siblings: Desire, Despair, Destruction, Delirium (Delight), Destiny and Death. The earlier stories in the collection were wonderful, but the later stories left something to be (no pun intended) desired. Granted, some of the characters presented more of a challenge than others. While I appreciated the experimentation Gaiman embraced with "15 portraits of Despair," it didn't make for compelling storytelling.

Hot Fuzz (8/20/07) Netflix (2007 ***) Directed by Edgar Wright, starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. This was the same team behind 2004’s Shaun of the Dead. I don’t think I enjoyed Hot Fuzz quite as much as the previous film, in part because I’d heard so many good things about it that my expectations were high. The story also seemed to sag in the third act and that was a let-down. Still, the action sequences mixed well with the comedy.

Ratatouille (8/22/07) DWA Screening (2007 ***½) Directed by Brad Bird. Watching Ratatouille the second time I was amazed by the high level of visual excellence throughout. I did, however find myself getting a little bored with the story about halfway through. That might possibly have something to do with the fact that I watched the movie around dinner time and I was distracted by hunger. As is often the case, watching the movie again allowed my eye to wander and observe the artistry in the background as well as the foreground. One observation: There was a nice variety of character heights among the human characters. For example, Skinner (the head chef) and the health inspector were both quite short, while Linguini and Anton Ego were tall. This might not seem like a big deal, but in addition to the visual variety this offered, it also resulted in more interesting camera angles.

Notorious (8/25/07) Hollywood Forever Cemetery (1946 ***) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. This was the first time this year my wife and I attended one of the Cinespia showings at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. We were joined by a couple of friends of my wife and it was a beautiful evening: Neither too cold nor too hot. The movie was quite good too. That Hitchcock fella knew what he was doing.

Wicked (8/26/07) Pantages Theater (2007 ***½) I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I'm giving this musical high marks even though my hearing was such that I couldn't hear most of the dialogue or lyrics. Still, the production was beautiful and the story/premise was compelling. I did think the first act was stronger than the second, however.

Hairspray (8/27/07) DWA Screening (2007 ****) Directed by Adam Shankman. I absolutely loved this movie from beginning to end. The casting was fantastic. Nikki Blonsky was radiant in the lead role of Tracy Turnblad. The stunt casting of John Travolta as her mother (in the role made famous in the 1988 version by Divine) was truly inspired. The term "feelgood" movie is thrown around a lot, but I definitely left the theater feeling pretty damned good! Shankman's direction was spot on, and the wall-to-wall musical numbers all felt fresh. It didn't just stop there, either. In particular I found myself oddly drawn to the stylized 1962 period Baltimore production design. All in all, Hairspray was an excellent film.

Sequins (AKA A Common Thread) (8/29/07) Netflix (2004 ***) Directed by Eleonore Faucher. The story: A pregnant teenager's life intersects that of an Armenian woman who has recently lost her son; they share a kindred love for elaborate embroidery. As you may have guessed, this was one of my wife's Netlix picks. It wasn't one of those films I would've chosen on my own, but I enjoyed it well enough. Once again I'm forced to recognize I do genuinely enjoy a good foreign film now and then. As was the case with Sequins, they are often a good reminder of storytelling alternatives to those found in the American mainstream.

September

The Big Picture: The Films of Paramount Pictures (9/1/07) Hollywood Bowl (Live ***) Leonard Nimoy was the host of this tribute to Paramount's movie music history. I must admit I didn't like this performance quite as much as last year's AFI's 100 Best Films celebration. Some of the choices (like this past year's Dreamgirls and Transformers) were... interesting, but lacked the universal appeal of better-known films. The evening's program took place in the middle of a heat wave, which made the program's "White Christmas" encore all the more ironic.

Bridge to Terabithia (9/3/07) Netflix (2007 ***½) Directed by Gabor Csupo. Based on the children's book, this movie celebrated the friendship, imagination and trials of childhood. For much of the film, I found it to be a guilty pleasure, sort of a fulfillment of young dreams. The story took an emotionally devastating turn late in the second act, however. I personally cried like a baby and so I definitely would not recommend the movie for kids under the age of eight or nine.

The Night Strangler (9/3/07) Novel (1974 ***¼) Written by Jeff Rice. This was the novelized version of the sequel to the original Night Stalker TV movie. I saw it sitting on the shelf of the Movie World bookstore in Burbank and bought it, reading it the following day. The Night Strangler was set in Seattle and featured intrepid and troubled reporter Carl Kolchak. Rice (who penned the original teleplays) did a nice job in the space of the short novel of expanding Kolchak's world.

The Adventures of Superman: Season 1 (9/3/07) DVD (1951-53 ***½) My wife gave me the DVD set for Christmas and it took a while, but I finally finished watching all 26 episodes. There was something special about the first season of the Superman TV show. It had a real grittiness to it, and not just because it was filmed in black and white. Most of the stories showed Superman fighting common criminals, not masterminds or supervillians. This was understandable; the series grew out of the tradition of Saturday-morning serials as well as the Superman radio show. George Reeves' life may have ended tragically, but he still made one hell of a terrific man of steel!

Romance (9/3/07) Netflix (1999 **) Directed by Catherine Breillat. This French film described the sexual awakening of Marie, a young schoolteacher in a sexually dead relationship with a male model. My wife and I watched the unrated version, which was at times sexually explicit (edging effectively into pornographic territory), but otherwise generally boring. She and I have a longstanding joke about "French endings," meaning films that rebel against the popular American "happy ending." Romance had an ending so improbable and bizarre it actually made me laugh out loud.

The Best of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In 2 (9/6/07) Netflix (1968-73 ***¼) Watching this, the second three-disc six-episode set of selected shows from Laugh-In's five year run, I was continually amazed by the balanced tone of the show's politics. As many jabs as it took at the establishment, George Schlatter's Laugh-In never forgot it was an entertainment program. High energy persisted throughout the run and even though most of the jokes were old to the point of being moldy, some of them still managed to hit my funny bone. I greatly admire that Laugh-In's creators began the show because they wanted to do something different from the standard variety show formula at the time, and they achieved that goal in spades. It was a real challenge keeping the non-formula formula fresh over the run of the show, and from the final episode in this collection it did seem like it sagged in its final season after Schlatter, Goldie Hawn and others left. In many ways Laugh-In remains an odd cultural artifact. The 60's were marked by the generation gap, a division of the culture of those over thirty and those under thirty. Laugh-In somehow managed to embrace the best of both cultures, alienating neither, while still not exactly copping out. It's a truism that history is written by the winners and clearly for the 60's it was the culture of the youth that won out. When we think of that decade, we tend to think of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, not Red Skelton, Dean Martin and Dinah Shore. Laugh-In, which belonged to both worlds and neither, has largely fallen through the cracks of history.

Superman: The Man of Steel Volumes 1-3 (9/8/07) Graphic Novels (1986 **) Written and illustrated by John Byrne and various. A lot of people, myself included, were excited when John Byrne was tapped to reboot the Superman comics franchise in 1986 following Crisis on Infinite Earths. I bought the original six-issue Man of Steel miniseries (which is collected in volume 1 of the set I just read) and somewhere I still have them bagged and boarded in my storage unit. While I had fond memories of those issues I bought two decades ago, I was largely disappointed by this collection. I don't want to judge too harshly -- they are just comics after all -- but now that I'm older and wiser I found Byrne's writing of the time overly-simplistic and... well, fluffy. His over-reliance on thought balloons may have come from years of exposure to Chris Claremont's X-Men.

A Real Young Girl (Une vraie jeune fille) (9/10/07) Netflix (2001 ***) Written and directed by Catherine Breillat, based on her 1974 novel, starring Charlotte Alexandra. This was one weird mamma-jamma of a movie. In fact, I don't know where to begin. The main character was Alice, a 14-year-old girl home for the summer. Because this was a French film, she naturally had what one could euphemistically call a "sexual awakening." Breathtakingly pornographic at times, this movie was often so awful that it veered into Edward Wood Jr. territory. It boggled my mind that this film was (a) made in 2001 and (b) actually released to the public. It was directed, lit, shot and edited with an incompetence that made Manos: The Hands of Fate look good. Still, I'm giving it three stars. Why? As true as all my above comments are, there were other times when the film reminded me so much of some of the work of David Lynch that I had to wonder if the whole film was deliberately engineered to look like utter and absolute shit. With an English-translated title like A Real Young Girl... well.... Another thing that made me stop to consider the possibility of a genius mastermind behind the scenes: Unlike most of the bad films of history, I never once found the movie to be boring. Okay, okay, the whole movie was pretty much devoted to a pretty young girl finding different places and ways to masturbate, but still...

Hairspray (9/12/07) Netflix (1988 ***) Written and directed by John Waters. Ricki Lake starred in the original version of John Waters' PG-rated film which spawned a successful franchise. I had thought I'd seen this film long, long ago, but I think I confused it with Cry-Baby (1990). Having recently watched and absolutely loved the new John Travolta version, I thought it would be fun to watch the original. I was just a little disappointed: While I liked it quite a lot, and it started out with a great promise and energy, the story definitely began to fizzle and sag after around the two-thirds point.

Two For the Dough (9/18/07) Novel (1996 ***½) Written by Janet Evanovich. In this second installment in the Stephanie Plum series, the mystery revolved around a funeral parlor, two dozen missing caskets and cop-killing ammo stolen from a military base. I was very impressed by Evanovich's writing skill; she definitely deserves the success she's received. While I loved the individual pages and especially the cast of characters, I had one small complaint: In this book, the action all took place in a very small number of locations: The funeral home, Stephanie's apartment, and Stephanie's parents' house. Much of the book was spent with Plum and/or her cop love interest Morelli parked in cars doing surveillance. I would have liked a little more variety. A few times I got the impression Evanovich might have been writing without a clear idea of where her story was going.

Meeting of Minds: Series 1 (9/19/07) Teleplays (1977 ***½) Written by Steve Allen. When I saw this book (and its sequel) sitting on the shelves of Burbank's Movie World I knew immediately I had to have it. This volume collected the scripts for the first six-episode series of Allen's PBS show Meeting of Minds. The lofty goal of the series (of which I was a fan) was to present American and World history to a lay audience in a way that didn't send them scurrying for the safety of Three's Company and The Love Boat. The show proceeded from a simple premise: If you summoned the spirits of four varied personalities from beyond the curtain of death, what would they have to say to each other and to us? In the series, mostly they talked about themselves, much in the same way you'd expect from the animatrons in Disney World's Hall of Presidents. Occasionally the historical figures would engage in debate, their ideas and the ideas of their respective times in conflict. It was at these times that the show was at its most interesting.

Weeds: Season 1 (9/20/07) Netflix (2005 ***¼) This Showtime original series is about a recently-widowed suburban mom played by Mary-Louise Parker who turns to dealing drugs to make ends meet. I had been intrigued by the premise since the show premiered, but since we don't have Showtime, I waited until it floated to the top of my Netflix queue. While watching the first episode I occasionally thought "the writers are trying too hard and it shows" but the show has definitely grown on me, as have its characters. Elizabeth Perkins' character was both despicable and appealing at the same time -- not an easy feat. The show presented some interesting questions about the morality (and legality) of marijuana use and sales. Having been produced in America, however, it did often try to have its cake and eat it too in this regard, which could be a little annoying. While the audience was clearly supposed to sympathize with Nancy Botwin's plight (How will she pay her mortgage and keep her kid in the right schools if she doesn't sell pot?) and respect her decision "not to sell to kids," we were also shown the flip-side of the drug industry where territorial rivalries often lead to violence and death.

Ella Enchanted (9/23/07) Netflix (2004 **½) Directed by Tommy O'Haver. Anne Hathaway starred as Ella of Frell, a young woman under a magical spell of obedience who must do whatever people tell her. When her evil stepsisters learn her secret, havoc ensues. There was nothing particularly wrong with this film; it played like a bigger-budget version of a Disney Channel original movie. If you're a girl between the ages of three and ten, this may well be the best movie ever! It did at times feel like it was blatantly ripping off Shrek, but there's no law that the animated big green ogre has a monopoly on irreverent medieval comedies with a modern soundtrack, is there?

Superbad (9/24/07) DWA Screening (2007 ***¼) Directed by Greg Mottola. I loved the balls it took writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg to name their two main characters Seth and Evan (played well by Jonah Hill and Micheal Cera, respectively). My expectations for the film were higher than what it actually delivered, and so I was mildly disappointed. While it was set in the present day, it may as well have been set in 1976. At one point in the film (when the boys ended up going to a party they weren't invited to), it looked like they were walking into a scene from Dazed and Confused. I wanted to like this movie more and there were some scenes and elements I really loved, but there was an awful lot of misogyny in the film: Nearly all the female characters were unlikable and none were developed. Also, ultimately I'm not sure what the movie was about. Was it about friendship or about growing up and parting ways? The ending left me confused as to Superbad's final message.

Journeyman: Series Premiere (9/26/07) NBC-TV (2007 ***¼) Directed by Alex Graves, written by Kevin Falls, starring Kevin McKidd. Seeing how I love time travel, I felt obligated to watch at least the first episode of this new show. I enjoyed it much more than I'd expected. While it was nominally an updated version of Quantum Leap, it also incorporated elements of the novel The Time Traveler's Wife, which I loved. As much as I hate to commit to another TV show, I think I'm going to watch this one for awhile. I'm not sure how long it's going to last, though. Maybe it will get lucky and build an audience.

Quantum Leap: Season 4 (9/27/07) Netflix (1991-92 ***) There's a subtle irony in that I watched the last episode of the fourth season of Quantum Leap the day after watching the premiere of NBC's new time-traveling show, Journeyman. I really hate to give this season a lukewarm 3-star rating, but I'm going to have to. As much as I enjoyed Quantum Leap (enough to rent and watch it on DVD), many of the episodes were about as fluffy and inconsequential as any episode of The A-Team. Variety is fine and I understand that some episodes were purposely heavy and others were light. I appreciate that much of the appeal of the premise was that Sam Beckett found himself in a different situation each week, but over the course of the fourth season about 40% of the episodes seemed to have been written for an audience with a fourth-grade education, and that drove me absolutely nutty. But then, just when I was disgusted with an episode and felt like maybe I won't be in such a hurry to rent season five, I'd watch a show that had some real heart and dramatic meat (and solid writing). That's when the show really shined and that was what kept me coming back for more.

Bionic Woman: Series Premiere (9/28/07) NBC-TV (2007 ***) Directed by Michael Dinner, written by Laeta Kalogridis, starring Michelle Ryan as Jaime Sommers. I gotta be honest: I heard this series was faltering (replacing the show runner is never a good sign) and I sadistically wanted to see if it was a total, spectacular train wreck. From the bloody carnage of the opening scene, I was pleasantly surprised. While I'm not yet sure if the show is heading in a direction I want to go, I will probably (as they say) tune in again next week. Oh, just in case you were wondering: Yes, I did religiously watch the original Lindsay Wagner series when it first aired.

L'elisir D'amore (The Elixir of Love) (9/29/07) Opera -- Madrid Theatre, Canoga Park (2007 ***¼) Directed by Dylan F. Thomas. What's this? A night at the opera? And in Canoga Park of all places? Explanation: One of my wife's co-workers/friends landed a role in this production and so we got dressed in our glad rags to, as they say, support the arts. I didn't really know what I'd gotten myself into, but to my pleasant surprise I enjoyed it thoroughly. This was a fresh take on Donizetti's The Elixir of Love set in the 1980's at a high school. The main character Nemorino was the bungling (and not so bright) football mascot pining for the beautiful cheerleader Adina. He bought a love potion (either a beer or a wine cooler, depending your interpretation) from Dr. Dulcamara, an evil drug-dealing alchemist / substitute biochem teacher. And hilarity ensued. While the casting choices were sometimes interesting and the production had many of the hallmarks of a community theater production, I can't really fault it for that. The music was a little forgettable (to me, anyhow), but the performances were energetic and the projected superscript translations, which had been rewritten in the language of the 1980's, contributed much humor to the classic Italian comedy.

October

Apollo 13 (9/30/07) Netflix (1995 ***½) Directed by Ron Howard, starring Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris and others. I was on an "astronaut kick" not so long ago, watching From the Earth to the Moon and The Right Stuff, and this was a Netflix queue continuation of that theme. It's hard for me to believe this film is twelve years old. Based on the book Lost Moon by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kulger, Apollo 13 told the dramatic story of NASA's greatest near-miss. It was an interesting film in that on the one hand it was obvious (sometimes a little too obvious) that liberties had been taken for "dramatic purposes" and at the other times it frequently made an equally-obvious effort to be true to the historical facts and technical details. Because of these "liberties," I can't help but wonder how the people (many of them still living) depicted in the film felt about this "re-imagining" of their lives. It looked to me that Fred Haise (played by Paxton) got the short end of the stick as far as that went. After the movie finished I watched and enjoyed the DVD's hour-long bonus behind-the-scenes video, which included interviews with many of the participants and a comparison of the filmic and true events.

Doctor Doolittle (10/8/07) Netflix (1967 ***½) Directed by Richard Fleischer, starring Rex Harrison, Samantha Eggar and the wonderfully bizarre Anthony Newley. My guess is that when most people (especially kids) think of Doctor Doolittle these days they think first of the Eddie Murphy version. That's really a terrible shame. This film was released theatrically a mere three years after I was born, and there is a possibility I saw it at that time, though I can't be sure. (Sadly, I was not keeping a movie journal at age three.) I have exquisitely fond memories of the original, and I love many of the songs, such as "When I Look In Your Eyes," "Fabulous Places," and "Beautiful Things." Anthony Newley was such a nut that watching him was a lot of fun and it was also a special treat seeing director and occasional actor Richard Attenborough ("Welcome to Jurassic Park!") as carnival barker Albert Blossom.

Weeds: Season 2 (10/8/07) Netflix (2006 **½) Series created by Jenji Kohan. Mary-Louise Parker continued her role as the pot-selling (and now growing) Mom in this second season of the acclaimed Showtime series. Overall, the second season lost much of the energy of the first, primarily because there was a lot of gear-shifting -- make that gear-grinding -- with the storylines. The writing took on a decidedly uneven quality that often resembled a poorly-planned daytime soap opera. Plot lines seemed to be tried out and then abandoned with little thought, such as one in which Nancy Botwin's brother-in-law Andy attempted to become a rabbi to escape active duty in Iraq. The relationship subplot between Nancy and DEA agent Peter Scottson suffered the teleplay equivalent of being driven into a concrete embankment; it would've been obvious (SPOILERS) to a twelve-year-old that Scottson's character was hastily being set up for destruction. Will I watch season three when it comes out on DVD? Yes, probably. However, after being jerked around by the writers for twelve consecutive episodes I'm far less enthusiastic about the currently-running season than I was after watching season one.

High Society (10/17/07) Netflix (1956 ***) Directed by Charles Walters. Had The Philadelphia Story never been made, I might be more inclined to give this movie a higher rating, but the fact is that the original (albeit non-musical) film was made and was superior on virtually every level. Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly played the roles played far better by Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Katherine Hepburn. Historically, this was the last film Kelly made before her marriage to Prince Rainier and it was a pity her last performance was little more than a pale imitation of Hepburn's. Louis Armstrong -- who I loved as a musician and singer -- was thrown into the mix in a clumsy attempt at a "hep cat" framing device. Technicolor added absolutely nothing and actually killed most of the atmosphere of the original. Similarly, the film was shot in widescreen, which resulted in wide shots and clumsy staging instead of the intimacy created by the close-ups of the 1941 version. Having said all that, Cole Porter's music was definitely fun, with the high point being the duet between Crosby and Sinatra, "Well Did You Evah?" ("What a swell party this is...") though whenever I hear it I still think of the Iggy Pop / Debbie Harry version from the concept album Red Hot + Blue: A Tribute to Cole Porter.

Bee Movie (10/18/07) DWA Crew Screening (2007 ***½) Directed by Simon J. Smith and Steve Hickner. It's always a little dodgy reviewing movies I worked on. How could I possibly be objective? The simple truth is I can't. For the record, I worked on Bee Movie for eighty-two (sometimes long) weeks and saw multiple screenings along the way. Overall, I'm pretty happy with the way it turned out. The character design, production design and execution was beautiful in a way different from any of Dreamworks' previous films. Each movie project is a process and this was no exception. It was interesting observing the effect of Jerry Seinfeld's involvement on the project: Having a personality as well-known as Seinfeld contribute not just his time but his personality to an animated film was an experiment that had never been tried before. Considering he was more or less a novice to the world of animation before the project began, it could have been an awful disaster, but instead it became something pretty special. Jerry Seinfeld isn't everybody's cup of tea, but that's true of any great comedian. The bottom line is that if people are predisposed to like or dislike Seinfeld they're going to bring that to Bee Movie.

The Smothers Brothers (10/21/07) The Orleans Showroom, Las Vegas (2007 ****) Four stars? You betcha! Yes, you could say I am a pretty damned big fan of the Smothers Brothers. I was fortunate to be in Vegas during their limited four-night run, and seeing them was a high point of my trip. I got a little excited when I saw their familiar faces on a billboard during the short taxi ride from the airport to the Planet Hollywood hotel. My first order of business once my wife and I were in the room was to call and reserve the best ticket they had (My wife and her friend went to Mama Mia instead -- their loss). I've been a fan of The Smothers Brothers and their distinctive combination of folk music and sibling rivalry comedy since early childhood. Seeing them in person (and from the third row, no less!) was an absolute delight. Judging from the laughter and applause, the audience (most of which I kindly refer to as "cotton tops") had a great time. It's a real shame the Smothers' controversial late-60's CBS TV show still isn't available on DVD; I suspect that part of the reason they showed a short mid-point slide show / video presentation may have been to generate interest in its release. At one point during the video there was a montage of the covers of their albums, nearly all of which I once owned... until they were lost when my basement flooded in 1993. As a point of mild interest, this was the second time I've seen them perform live: The first time I was a teenager in the early eighties at Ak-Sar-Ben auditorium in Omaha.

Goal, Motivation & Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction (10/24/07) Nonfiction (1996 ****) Written by Debra Dixon. Over a year ago I had lunch with a published writer -- the sister of a friend of mine -- and she strongly urged me to purchase and read Goal, Motivation & Conflict. Now I know why. It's a shame the book is not more easily available (I ordered it from Gryphon Books for Writers), because it was one of the best, most straightforward books on writing fiction I've ever read. A surprisingly fast read, GMC laid out a very simple approach to plotting by understanding at a fundamental level what your characters need and why they need them. If you are a writer, I highly recommend this book.

ENRON: The Smartest Guys in the Room (10/24/07) Netflix (2005 ***½) Directed by Alex Gibney. The story of Enron was a gripping tale of corporate greed and deceit. Hopefully it will long serve as a cautionary tale for corporate executives for decades to come. On a broader scale, we all have to constantly relearn the lesson that all too often the emperor truly has no clothes. It would be harder for me to believe that Enron went from seventh largest U.S. company to bankruptcy had I not experienced (and participated in) the late 1990's / early 2000's dot com bust personally. My heart goes out to the Enron employees who lost everything by being encouraged to invest their 401K's in Enron stock. Much of the film's footage came from video that was produced internally by Enron, and it reminded me at times of the chilling home video in Capturing the Friedmans. As a documentary, it was mostly solid but slanted, which made me a little skeptical. The production was also a bit on the slick side at times, which was marginally annoying. One example: At one point the metaphorical narration of "a magician pulling a rabbit out of his hat" was accompanied by on-the-nose footage of same. Unnecessary.

JLA/Avengers (10/28/07) Graphic Novel (2003 ***) Written by Kurt Busiek, illustrated by George Perez. I've long since grown weary of these "event" comic series, and yet I keep buying them. They always seem to have hundreds of characters dealing with the end of the universe, time and/or reality as we know it. JLA/Avengers was no exception. Told in four parts/books, the first two were devoted to setup and an old-fashioned JLA treasure hunt, wherein members of the Justice League split up into smaller groups and competed with members of the Avengers to find a dozen vital artifacts, half from the DC universe, half from the Marvel universe. Kurt Busiek is a hell of a writer, though, and he had a couple of pleasant surprises for the reader, which managed to elevate the book somewhat, but not quite high enough for me to give it a strong recommendation; when I finished the last book I felt more disoriented and weary than satisfied.

The Kingdom (10/29/07) DWA screening (2007 ***½) Directed by Peter Berg, starring Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman. An armed assault on a protected compound of Americans within the heart of Saudi Arabia triggers a response by members of the F.B.I., who circumvent protocol and manage to launch an investigation on Saudi Soil. Part police procedural, part hyper real action adventure, part political intrigue, I was fully engaged from start to finish and the story was strong with verisimilitude. I have to admit that when I watched the trailer and saw the cast included Jason Bateman and Jeremy Piven, names more associated with comedy than drama, I wondered if there'd been an error in judgment somewhere along the way. However, both actors contributed nicely to an ensemble led by Jamie Foxx, whose performance demonstrated he has the acting chops worthy of his Oscar.

The Hunting of the President (10/30/07) Netflix (2004 **) Directed by Nickolas Perry and Harry Thomason, based on the book by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons. Morgan Freeman halfheartedly narrated this documentary which chronicled the active campaign by Ken Starr and others to remove Bill Clinton from the White House. Having recently watched the far superior Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, I found this documentary considerably lacking. There was an attempt by the filmmakers to make the film more interesting by inserting "appropriate" stock footage and graphics that were so ill-fitting or weak they made me laugh out loud. On top of that, the film didn't even do a very good job as a documentary. We were told that Hillary was strongly disliked, at times more than her husband, but that was never explained. Also, the historically significant Monica Lewinski scandal was virtually glossed over.

November

Guess Who (11/3/07) Netflix (2005 **) Directed by Kevin Rodney Sullivan, starring Bernie Mac and Ashton Kutcher. This film was a remake of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? with a twist, starring Mac & Kutcher in the roles made famous by Spencer Tracy and Sidney Poitier. Now how could that possibly go wrong? The "twist," of course was that this time it was the black family who had to accept their daughter's white fiancé into the fold. I have to admit I thought this movie was going to suck, suck, suck, but I was pleasantly surprised when it did not suck quite as much as I'd expected it to suck. It was more watchable than I'd expected and it even made me laugh a couple of times. You know what? At the end of the day that's the best review I can give it.

Resident Evil 4 (AKA Biohazard 4) (11/4/07) Video Game (2005 ***½) Directed by Kuniomi Matsuhita and Shinji Mikami. A video game review? What kind of topsy-turvy alternate reality have we stumbled into? A couple months back my wife was at an event with her co-workers in a bowling alley and I found myself playing a coin-op zombie killing game. I liked how it felt. A lot. And so, for my 43rd birthday my wife bought me Resident Evil IV for the Wii so I could satisfy my zombie-killing bloodlust. The last time I played a comparable game was about ten years ago when I played the first Tomb Raider. Even though I've worked on video game projects in the past, I have never been a "gamer." I really enjoyed the hell out Resident Evil IV, though. I was impressed not only by the graphics but also by the multiple gameplay aspects. The only weak area for me was the story, which I accepted from the beginning as just a framing device to allow for the creature-killing action. The "translated" dialogue was at times pretty awful, but I didn't really expect anything better. According to the stats at the end of the game, it took me nearly fifty hours to play all the way through. I must admit I used online walk-throughs when the puzzles got a bit tricky. Having completed the game, I've unlocked a few more options, including a separate mini adventure, as well as being able to take my accumulated weaponry through the game with me. If you're looking for pulse-raising zombie-killing action like I was, this is a wonderful game.

The Hoax (11/10/07) Netflix (2006 **) Directed by Lasse Hallstrom, based on the book by Clifford Irving. Richard Gere played Irving, the man behind the fictionalized Autobiography of Howard Hughes. His character was set up right off the bat to be sympathetic, but then proceeded to do so many despicable things that he really wound up coming across as an unlikable jerk. I frequently felt I was watching a dumbed-down version of a far more intelligent movie. The performances were good enough, so I'm willing to place much of the blame with William Wheeler's screenplay. Hallstrom, a director I've liked since My Life as a Dog, didn't seem to be playing his "A” game here, and his directing choices frequently lacked subtlety.

Batman: Under the Hood, Vol. 1 (11/10/07) Graphic Novel (2005 ***) Written by Judd Winick. Who is the Red Hood, the new villain in town? Unfortunately I knew the "surprise" answer to that long before reading the book. For the most part I enjoyed it, and I especially liked watching Batman interview Green Arrow and Superman, asking them what it was like to come back from the dead. If that wasn't a big hint, I don't know what is.

Nightmare Before Christmas 3D, A (11/11/07) Downtown Disney AMC (1993 ***) Directed by Henry Selick. I'd been looking forward to seeing this film in 3-D since last year when it was first released. The 3-D effect was achieved using (as I understand it) a very time-consuming technical post-process. In all honesty, it was a disappointment for me. I found the 3-D effect to be distracting, and it certainly didn't add anything to the story.

Top Ten: The Forty-Niners (11/11/07) Graphic Novel (2006 **) Written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Gene Ha. I've enjoyed the Top Ten books in the past. The concept of a "Hill Street Blues" police procedural set in a city of super-heroes with a police force staffed by super-heroes is a lot of fun. This prequel, set shortly after WWII was decidedly less satisfying than the earlier books for a variety of reasons: (1) Instead of exploiting an ensemble cast, its story-arc focused on only a few characters; (2) the homosexual awakening of 16-year-old Jetlad was awkwardly handled, overblown and generally given too much "screen time"; and (3) the dramatic climax involved two separate and unrelated conflicts (the vampire siege and Sky Sharks' air assault), which only served to dilute each other.

The Darjeeling Limited (11/12/07) DWA Screening (2007 ***¼) Directed by Wes Anderson. Anderson directed The Royal Tannenbaums, one of my favorite movies. The Darjeeling Limited wasn't nearly as good as that film, but it was better by a far sight than The Life Aquatic. Anderson certainly has a well-defined style of filmmaking, and this film was visually engaging to watch. Even more than the film's quirky visual imagery, what I liked best about Darjeeling was watching Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman as three very quirky brothers. I have a pet theory that Anderson's ultimate goal as a director is to make the modern equivalent of Harold and Maude. Maybe he'll even get there some day. Darjeeling certainly had some moments, and it very nearly left an impression, but ultimately, in trying to describe what concrete value it has to offer to its audience I'm drawing a blank. For what it's worth, I left the theater feeling better than I entered, and maybe that's enough.

#$@&! The Official Lloyd Llewellyn Collection (11/13/07) Graphic Novel (1995 ***) Written and illustrated by Daniel Clowes. As the title implied, this was a collection of short Lloyd Llewellyn stories that appeared in 8-Ball, Clowes' anthology comic. Llewellyn was an early creation of Clowes, and I got the impression that Clowes outgrew him at some point. There was still something fun and retro about these stories, which were produced in the mid to late 1980's. They were a funky mishmash of hard-boiled noir and sci-fi. The stories themselves seemed to drift, though; it was clear that even then Clowes was experimenting with different ways to tell stories. He later went on to greater renown for Ghost World and An Iron Fist in a Velvet Glove.

C is for Corpse (11/14/07) Novel (1996 ***) Written by Sue Grafton. Kinsey Millhone is back once more, and this time it's... well, personal. This was a good book, nearly as strong as the two that proceeded it. I noticed that with her third outing Grafton's hallmark descriptive passages were more tightly integrated into the flow of the story. My only complaints: (a) the B-story (about a sweet-talking con-artist who pulls the wool over Kinsey's landlord) was completely unrelated physically and thematically to the main story; and (b) the conclusion, while certainly exciting, was a bit predictable. In particular, the hiding place for the murder weapon, while unique, was telegraphed well in advance. I guess what I'm saying is that, as a reader, when all was said and done, not everything added up for me.

Mean Girls (11/25/07) DVD (2004 ***) Directed by Mark Waters, screenplay by Tina Fey. Remember back when Lindsay Lohan wasn't just a substance-abusing joke? Obviously as a man in my early 40's I was not the primary demographic for this movie. My main interest in seeing it when I first did was Fey's writing, which was sharp and entertaining throughout. Sadly, the story was weak and a little confusing, and in the end I wasn't sure which characters I was supposed to care about.

December

Flash & Green Lantern: The Brave and the Bold (12/1/07) Graphic Novel (2001 ***) Written by Mark Waid, illustrated by Tom Peyer. This was a collection of six self-contained stories highlighting the strained friendship of two "deceased" heroes, Hal Jordan and Barry Allen. The series took place over a span of years and that was part of the fun of it. The highlight for me was the fourth story, which included Green Arrow and was an artful simulation of a "lost issue" from the historic early 1970's Denny O'Neil / Neal Adams run of the Green Lantern comic. Overall, The Brave and the Bold was an okay read but not great, though perhaps I wasn't the best audience for it: Growing up, I was never a big fan of either GL or Barry Allen's Flash; I just never identified with them as characters, somehow.

American Gangster (12/3/07) DWA Screening (2007 ****) Directed by Ridley Scott, starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. Based on a true story, this film related the parallel tales of detective Richie Roberts and drug-trafficker Frank Lucas. Over the course of the movie we in the audience developed certain sympathies for each. As crime-centered dramas from The Godfather to The Sopranos have taught us, there is something especially satisfying about family drama punctuated by killing. Crowe and Washington reminded us why they have each won Academy awards for their acting; They really are wonderful actors, among our generation's best. Also great was the light-fingered direction by Ridley Scott, which never called attention to itself. I don't give four-star ratings lightly or often, but this was probably the best movie I've seen all year and I wouldn't mind at all if it won Best Picture.

Beowulf (3-D) (12/8/07) Glendale Mann 10 (2007 ***¼) Directed by Bob Zemeckis. It's impossible to review this film without a mention of technique. In my opinion, this was a truly landmark film. It was the first animated motion picture that really pushed performance capture to its limits. It wasn't perfect, but it was still impressive and the artists who worked on it should be proud of themselves; they have certainly demonstrated the potential of this new medium. The story, with screenplay co-written by Neil Gaiman, was classic. In high school I somehow managed to sidestep the literary landmine that was Beowulf. I doubt I could've tolerated the middle English enough to comprehend it -- that's just the way I'm wired. I'm not honestly sure how much of the original story remained, but it was strong and solid, representing the epitome of the flawed tragic hero. Zemeckis' direction was top-notch, and the choreography of the fight sequences was especially thrilling.

Woody Guthrie: This Machine Kills Fascists (12/9/07) Netflix (2005 **) Written, produced and directed by Stephen Gammond, narrated (awkwardly) by Billy Bragg. I've been a fan of Woody Guthrie since my college years, and the fact that I'm a die-hard fan was the only reason I watched this overlong (3 hour), poorly-produced documentary through to the end. The content, especially interviews with Woody's daughter Nora, his son Arlo, his sister Mary Jo and cohort Pete Seeger wasn't bad, but it should have been trimmed. Much of what was presented was redundant. I respect Billy Bragg as a musical artist, but his narration should have remained unseen. Honestly, the whole thing reminded me more than anything else of video projects I created when I was a graduate student.

It's a Bird (12/9/07) Graphic Novel (2005 ***½) Written by Steven T. Seagle, illustrated by Teddy Kristiansen. Sometimes coincidences occur in life that are downright spooky. I read this book immediately after finishing watching the documentary Woody Guthrie: This Machine Kills Fascists. Woody died of Huntington's Chorea (Disease), a degenerative disease of the central nervous system passed down along genetic lines. Huntington's also played a huge role in It's a Bird, which was about Steve, a comic book writer given the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to write for Superman, arguably the most important character in comics history. Unfortunately, Steve had childhood associations of Superman that were entwined with his first limited understandings of the potential horrors embedded in his genetic code. Written in a dry, sparse style that reminded me of some of the better autobiographical comics, It's a Bird presented a unique angle on Superman as a character and as an icon and it was quite touching at times. My final impression: I wanted to share it with others to demonstrate the potential of comics as a medium.

Top Ten: Beyond the Farthest Precinct (12/9/07) Graphic Novel (2006 ***) Written by Paul Di Filippo, illustrated by Jerry Ordway. After reading and not exactly enjoying Top Ten: The Forty Niners, I had more or less written the series off. But then I was in my favorite used book store and I saw this volume priced to move, and so I picked it up. It was interesting seeing Alan Moore and Gene Ha's characters taken over by Filippo and Ordway. I have to say I liked what I read, even if there were some weird, arbitrary changes made at the stationhouse, which many of the characters just accepted. Aside from that, the story was more straightforward cop drama.

Batman: Under the Hood, Vol. 2 (12/10/07) Graphic Novel (2006 ***½) Written by Judd Winick, illustrated by Doug Mahnke. This volume was a continuation of the return of Jayson Todd. It was filled with more action and violence than the first volume, and it played out well. Todd's number one question: Why has the Batman allowed the Joker to continue to live, even though he's killed time and time again? Collecting six issues of continuity, the final chapter was devoted to the mechanics of the apparent resurrection of Batman's second Robin, and for the most part I was willing to accept the explanation. Hell, it's a comic book, after all. It also helped as a reader to know that Todd's fate was decided by an 800-number call-in and that the editors never expected the readers of Batman to be quite so bloodthirsty. At any rate, I'm personally glad Jayson Todd is back; he is loaded with plenty of internal conflict and motivation for hating Batman, something that definitely makes for an interesting character and villain.

Inland Empire (12/15/07) Netflix (2007 **½) Directed by David Lynch. Let's be honest; Nothing I say is going to convince you to watch this film or not. If you're a David Lynch fan, you're probably going to want to watch it. If you are not, or if you hate his work, then God bless you; I don't blame you for swimming toward safer waters. At three hours, it was a long movie that felt much, much longer. I read one review that said that if you watched it immediately a second time it made perfect sense. Forgive me if I'm not willing to make the time commitment. I respect the hell out of David Lynch and I'm not sorry I watched Inland Empire, but I also have no plans to view it again, at least not for a decade or so. What's it about? Well, I'm actually not too sure, but does that really matter?

A Prayer For Owen Meany (12/28/07) Novel (1989 ****) Written by John Irving. This was the third time I've read this very dense, very Dickensian work, and it won't be my last. Owen Meany is both an amazing character and a hell of a good book. It's not perfect -- the present-day framing material sometimes ran a bit long -- but then how many things in life are perfect? I laughed and wept in equal measure as I read. When I got to the final page I was tempted to return to the beginning to start all over. Yes, the book is that good. Here's my highest praise: Reading it again frequently reminded me of why I still aspire to be a writer. Thank you, John Irving. Thank you.

The World's Fastest Indian (12/31/07) Air New Zealand Flight (2007 ***) Written and directed by Roger Donaldson. I am a real sucker for this kind of movie. Based on a true story and set in the mid-1960's, Anthony Hopkins played Burt Monro, a New Zealander who late in life pursued his dream of racing his motorcycle at the Bonneville Salt Flats. It's easy to cheer for the underdog, and there was plenty to cheer for in this film. My only negative comment is that it seemed at every stop on Burt's odyssey that he encountered people who were surprisingly nice and wanted to help him to achieve his dream. His "insurmountable obstacles" invariably melted in the dessert sun as people repeatedly said, "Awe shucks, Burt, how could I turn down a lovable rascal like you?"