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2013 Media Journal

 

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 ratings, and in fact the films and books in my media journal generally receive better than average ratings. The answer for this is simple: unlike professional film or book critics, I have the luxury of being selective. I'm far less likely to buy a book 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/book. These are works I feel everyone should see or read.

***1/2

Very strong recommendation. If a film, 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 work.

**1/2

If a film, a reasonable video rental. I might recommend it to certain people depending on specific elements. If a book, perhaps better borrowed than bought.

**

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

*

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

 

January

X-Men: Inferno (1/1/13) Comics (2009 **) Written (mostly) by Louise Simonson and Chris Claremont, illustrated (mostly) by Marc Silvestri and Jon Bogdanove. The original X-Men (as X-Factor), The New X-Men, The New Mutants and a new group of similarly mutated youngsters called X-Terminators take on S'ym, Mr. Sinister, N'Astirth and Jean Grey's evil twin, Madelyne Pryor. Originally published in 1988-1989 in X-Factor #33-40, X-Terminators #1-4, Uncanny X-Men #239-243, New Mutants #71-73 and X-Factor Annual #4. This hardcover edition was loaned to me by a friend. At 588 pages, it was a hefty volume, with an equally hefty $75 cover price! If I've done my math correctly, the content was originally published as 21 separate individual issues in (technically) five different comics series, making it one of the earliest "events" in comic book history, though it did come after Marvel's Secret Wars (1984-85) and DC's Crisis On Infinite Earths (1985). And that 21 issues just covered the Inferno events as they related to the main X-title-related storylines. I'm sad to report that I didn't enjoy this book very much, especially considering how long it took to make it through the whole thing. Brief "cameo" appearances by a group of ersatz "Ghostbusters" and FBI agents that looked like Jake and Elwood Blues went only so far to alleviate my level of boredom. X-Men: Inferno was originally published in the late 1980s, at a time shortly after I'd stopped buying and collecting comics. At least in the case of The X-Men titles, it's not hard to see why I stopped: Inferno took place at a time when "The Uncanny" X-Men and all its related books -- regardless of how popular they were at the time -- were honestly a drag to read. Most of the characters seemed unnecessarily tortured for one reason or another. My guess is that a postmortem of this "event" series provided some pretty solid data for both Marvel and DC as to what worked and what didn't work for large-scale storytelling, paving the way for dozens of future earth-shaking... well, events like DC's recent Blackest Night.
Cover Girl (1/1/13) TCM (1944 ***) Directed by Charles Vidor, starring Rita Hayworth, Gene Kelly and Otto Kruger, with supporting roles by Phil Silvers and Eve Arden. A manipulative empresario puts a small-time dancer on big-time Broadway and at odds with her boyfriend. According to TCM's Robert Osbourne, this was the film (made while on loan to Columbia) that got MGM to sit up and take notice of Gene Kelly's acting abilities. For me, the highlight of the film was a dance number Kelly did with his phantom double, and I'm still not entirely sure how they matched some of the camera moves using 1940s technology. As I've mentioned in previous reviews, I'm a big fan of the gorgeous Rita Hayworth, though with only a few exceptions her curvaceous form wasn't nearly as highlighted here as in some of her other films. In addition, Phil Silvers and Eve Arden played their comedic supporting characters splendidly, and I was delighted both times they appeared together. Finally, it was interesting to note how many elements of Cover Girl were later incorporated in Singin' in the Rain (1952), especially the song "Make Way for Tomorrow," which was very reminiscent of Rain's "Good Morning."
Breaking Bad, Season 1 (1/2/13) Netflix/AMC (2008 ***1/4) Series created by Vince Gilligan, starring Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul and Dean Norris. Seven episodes, originally aired 1/20/08 - 3/9/08. Walter White, an underachieving high school chemistry teacher, discovers he has cancer and turns to producing crystal meth to leave behind money for his family. It seems like you can't turn around without running into rave reviews for Breaking Bad. I have been aware of the show for a few years but hadn't quite gotten around to watching it until now. And to be honest, overall I wasn't as blown away by it as I'd expected to be. I will grant you, however, that the first episode of this series was AMAZING, covering a physical and emotional scope that was truly impressive. But of course that kind of level is impossible to sustain. Once the series got going, typical "soap opera"-ish B-story elements started to creep in (like Walter's sister-in-law's kleptomania), which seemed largely extraneous, though I could see how they related thematically to the show's primary theme of "breaking bad." Highlights of Season 1 included: (a) Walt's cancer diagnosis and his decision to team up with Jesse, a former student, to sell meth; (b) Walt and Jesse's first team-up ending with a horrific double-homicide and the emotional aftermath of that and (c) Walt's revelation to his family that he has cancer. The first season ended with Walt and Jesse realizing their new drug buyer Tuco has lots of cash but is also a certifiable lunatic with a hair-trigger temper.
FF, Vol. 2 (1/5/13) Comics (2012 ***) Written by Jonathan Hickman, illustrated by Steve Epting, Barry Kitson and Greg Tocchini. Originally published in FF #6-11. Black Bolt returns from the dead, Doctor Doom and other villains have joined the Future Foundation's fight against alternate universe Reed Richardses and The Supreme Intelligence has re-awakened from his long slumber. I'll be honest with ya, there was so much going on that I didn't even attempt to follow every storyline covered in this volume, which started with two Black Bolt / Inhuman issues before the FF even showed up. I think perhaps I've grown tired of Hickman's writing at this point. With his earlier books I felt a link to the Stan Lee / Jack Kirby run from my childhood. But now, while the books are certainly readable on a page-by-page basis, his storytelling has just become confusing and unsatisfying, with far too many disparate elements jockeying for attention in the same kitchen sink.
Crumb (1/6/13) TCM (1994 ***) Directed by Terry Zwigoff, featuring interviews with Robert Crumb, his wife Aline Kominsky and his brothers Charles and Maxon. The life of renowned underground comix artist R. Crumb is explored, with special attention given to his two brothers. If you ever want to see a documentary that will make you get down on your knees and thank God for your own dysfunctional family, this is that film. Taken on his own, judging solely by his body of art, Robert Crumb is a pretty messed-up and misogynistic -- albeit highly talented -- dude. But compared to his family, he's positively *healthy.* In fact, this documentary made it fairly evident that Robert was able to use his artwork as a means of releasing a lot of scary psychological shit that otherwise would probably have made him as broken as his brothers: At the time of the documentary, Maxon was a sex offender living in squalor and making his living as a street beggar and Charles lived at home with his mother and hadn't ventured outside the house for years. Several times throughout the film, my wife said aloud, "My God, what happened in that family?" For myself, there was a definite sense of "there but for the grace of God go I." There was clearly a history of physical and emotional (and likely sexual) abuse throughout the brothers' shared childhood, though many of the details were never explicitly spelled out. I imagine this "selective editing" was due in part to Crumb's mother still being alive during filming, though she only allowed herself to be seen on camera briefly. The film ended on a somber note: On camera, Charles joked about past homicidal and suicidal thoughts. And so it should come as little surprise (as we're told in a pre-credits card), between the time the documentary was shot and released, he had killed himself. I couldn't help but wonder what, if any, role his participation in Zwigoff's film may have contributed to that act.
Looper (1/6/13) Netflix (2012 ***1/4) Written and directed by Rian Johnson, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Noah Segan, Jeff Daniels and Pierce Gagnon. In the near dystopian future, a hit man gets rich killing men sent back from exactly thirty years in the future, until one day when the intended victim is his future self. It's no secret that I love time travel movies, and Looper is definitely a good one. It was also surprisingly violent, easily earning its "R" rating. The use of prosthetic makeup throughout the film to make Gordon-Levitt (young Joe) look more like Bruce Willis (old Joe) was an original touch that worked surprisingly well. I appreciated that the nominally sci-fi film devoted lots of screen time to personal interrelationships. I also enjoyed the novelty of having an antagonist who's actually the same person as the protagonist, only in older form. While I liked Looper, I ultimately didn't love Looper, but there was definitely a sense of a psyche behind the film. More than anything, this film made me want to watch Rian Johnson's first feature-length film, Brick (2005), which also starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
The Good Life (AKA Good Neighbors), Season 1 (1/7/13) DVD (1975 ***1/2) Series produced and directed by John Howard Davies, written by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey, starring Richard Briers, Felicity Kendal, Paul Eddington and Penelope Keith. Seven episodes, originally aired 4/4/75 - 5/16/75. British suburbanites Tom and Barbara Good abandon the rat race in exchange for a go at self-sufficiency. In my early to mid teens, this show aired on PBS as "Good Neighbors," a title chosen to differentiate it from an earlier, short-lived American program that had also been called The Good Life. I fell in love with it then, though I can't really explain why a 14-year-old boy in Omaha, Nebraska should identify so strongly with a middle-aged suburban couple in England. Perhaps it was just that I had a growing love affair with all things British (Monty Python, The Beatles, Benny Hill) and it fit right in to that. Also, the show was particularly well-written and while it was nominally a sit-com (complete with wacky neighbors), it was also about something. Highlights of this first season included: (a) Tom's initial late-night self-revelation that he didn't want to spend his remaining life designing plastic toys for breakfast cereals; (b) the reaction of his neighbors Margo and Jerry when pigs are added to their livestock and (c) Tom's ingenious creation of a finicky generator powered by pig poop. The season ended with the near-disaster of the Good's first big harvest.
Les Misérables (1/13/13) DVD Screener (2012 ****) Directed by Tom Hooper, based on the novel by Victor Hugo and the musical by Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer. The miserable French Revolution is the backdrop for a tale of the redemption and misery of Jean Valjean, a man with superhuman strength who went to a miserable prison for nineteen years for stealing a miserable loaf of bread. Since the late 1980s, I have seen Les Miz on Broadway three or four times and once at The Hollywood Bowl. So I guess you could say I'm a fan. I was blown away by Hooper's dynamic, yet faithful translation of the powerful story and music from the stage to the screen. I watched it mere hours before the 70th Golden Globes, where it won the award for best musical or comedy, as well it should have. Anne Hathaway also won – quite deservedly – for best supporting actress for her role as Fantine, a miserable woman who "dreamed a dream."
This is 40 (1/14/13) DWA Screening (2012 ***) Written and directed by Judd Apatow, starring Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Jason Segel, Megan Fox and Albert Brooks. A married California couple with two girls turn forty and find themselves dealing with all the frustrations and pressures of middle age. While I enjoyed this film, I didn't respond to it to the same degree as two of Apatow's previous films, The 40-Year-Old-Virgin and Knocked Up. Knocked Up actually introduced us to the main characters of This is 40, Pete and Debbie, along with their daughters Charlotte and Sadie. You may or may not know that Debbie was played by Apatow's wife, Leslie Mann, and the children were played by Apatow and Mann's children. So why didn't I respond to it more than I did? It's certainly a funny film. I laughed out loud many, many times at the "slice of married life" humor, much of which reminded me of my own marriage. Unfortunately, the conflict between Pete and Debbie (which I understand was necessary to drive the film) repeatedly turned me off and came largely at the expense of Pete's likability. I felt there were a few too many scenes devoted to screaming fights, though not quite taking it into the category of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Finally, the storyline related to Pete's mismanagement of his failing record label company wasn't handled as well as it could have been and its resolution felt cheap and unsatisfying.
Murder, My Sweet (1/15/13) TCM (1944 ***) Directed by Edward Dmytryk, based on the novel by Raymond Chandler, starring Dick Powell, Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley and Mike Mazurki. Philip Marlowe gets doped up and knocked out repeatedly in his attempt to unravel a mystery involving blackmail and a stolen jade necklace. Chandler's acerbic detective Philip Marlowe has been played by many actors over the years, most notably Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep, one of my favorite films. Dick Powell did a serviceable job, but his Marlowe never quite felt grounded in reality, and not for a moment did I feel he was in any real danger. I'd never seen this movie before, and while it's not the best hard-boiled detective film I've ever seen on a story or entertainment level, I'm hard-pressed to think of a better film to watch as an example of the genre.
The One and Only June Foray (1/16/13) DWA Screening (2013 **) Directed by Vavin Freitas, written by Stephen Nasto, narrated by Gary Owens, featuring interviews with June Foray, Matt Groening, Leonard Maltin, Mark Evanier and many others. The life and career of animation's queen of female voice actors is explored. I was honored to attend this apparently inaugural screening of Freitas' film, which in his introductory announcements indicated he'd been working on for six years. The screening was held at Dreamworks Animation and Ms. Foray was in attendance. I'm saddened to say that while I adore June Foray (who doesn't?) and believe she is very deserving of a good documentary about her life, this film wasn't it. I don't want to be too harsh, because it was clearly a labor of love, but this was one of those films that could be shown in film school as an example of what not to do. Here's a list of the film's minor infractions: (1) In this day and age, when documentary production values are reaching new heights as the result of advances in consumer-level cameras, the fact that the film was produced in standard definition and its interviews shot on substandard equipment was unforgivable; In particular, the lighting and makeup used for the aging Ms. Foray's recent footage was particularly unflattering. (2) I love Gary Owens, but his over-the-top Laugh-In narration should have been dialed down a few notches, as it was frequently distracting and/or tonally wrong for the material he was delivering. (3) In an apparent effort to mask weak audio, Freitas chose to accompany all his interview footage with "loony" music that was even more distracting that Gary Owens. However, the far worst offense of the documentary was Freitas' consistent presentation of the same information redundantly, sometimes three and four times in a row. It gave me a real appreciation for the careful selection good documentary editors must do to pick which interview subjects they want to convey various pieces of information. As I said, I love June Foray and know that while she's still going strong into her 90s, I only hope that she receives a far stronger celebratory tribute before she passes away.
The Heavenly Body (1/17/13) TCM (1944 **) Directed by Alexander Hall, starring William Powell, Hedy Lamarr, James Craig and Spring Byington. It's a battle of astronomy versus astrology when the wife of an unromantic stargazer believes – based on her horoscope – that her destiny intends her to be with a man other than her husband. This was another example of the kind of sexual shenanigans to be found as screwball comedies were evolving into their modern romantic comedy form. In this sense, it has a great deal in common with another William Powell film I watched recently, I Love You Again (1940). Lightweight even by the standards of the day, the ridiculous plot of The Heavenly Body was mainly a framework for multiple set pieces involving whether or not Dr. Whitley's wife Vicky would sleep with handsome air raid warden (and international adventurer) Lloyd Hunter. Will she or won't she? Seeing this thing through modern eyes, though the ultimate message was that men should pay more attention to their wives, the film was pretty misogynistic, with women portrayed as either silly busybodies or as easily-manipulated air-heads with an operational I.Q. around 70.
Walt Disney's Donald Duck: "Lost in the Andes" (1/18/12) Comics (2011 ***1/4) Written and illustrated by Carl Barks. Donald and his nephews race through fantastic adventures both long and short, using their ingenuity to overcome whatever obstacles lay before them. This collection was the first volume in Fantagraphics' The Complete Carl Barks Disney Library series and contains stories originally published in 1948 and 1949. According to the introduction, this and future volumes in the series are/will be presented in chronological order, but with the stories within each volume rearranged to balance longer stories (20-30 pages) with shorter, 10-page ones. In addition to “Lost in the Andes,” The "full-length" stories included: "The Golden Christmas Tree," "Race to the South Seas" and "Voodoo Hoodoo." As can be expected by any stories originally printed in the 1940s, many of the stories were not exactly politically correct by 21st century standards, and frequently depicted less-than-flattering racial stereotypes. The writing and storytelling was still exceptional, however, and it's clear even from these early stories why Carl Barks' reputation as a master was well deserved. In my early childhood, around age five or six, my mother encouraged my love of reading by buying me a subscription to Walt Disney Comics Digest, which I had for several years. I read those 100-page pleasures repeatedly and though I haven't read one since childhood, I recognized at least one of the stories in this collection: "Race to the South Seas," which pit Donald and his nephews against the despicably lucky duck, Gladstone Gander. While I enjoyed these stories, I have to acknowledge that as good as they were, they were still intended primarily for a young audience, an audience I don't quite fit into anymore. As such, I read this book largely as an experiment. Will I buy and read future books in the Carl Barks Library? Perhaps, but likely not for awhile.
Jubilee! (1/20/13) Bally's Las Vegas (2013 ***1/2) Originally produced by Donn Arden, costumes designed by Bob Mackie and Pete Menefee. According to Wikipedia, Jubilee! has been running continuously since 1981, making it "the longest-running production show" in Las Vegas. I first saw the show when I was 18, which would have been a couple of years after it opened. Let's just say the show made an indelible impression on me. To paraphrase my wife, "I think it might have been the boobs." Seeing it again as a middle aged man, the topless showgirls and their... er, assets... were still pretty impressive, and in such abundant numbers, too: At one point I counted twenty-two of them on the stage at one time (topless showgirls, not breasts), but they kept moving around, so there may have been more. Flesh-tastic fun aside, I loved the whole scale of the production, which was definitely a taste of Busby Berkeley-inspired Vegas spectacle from years gone by. The costumes were fantastic and the sets were big and impressive. Everything sparkled and glistened, and there was a sense of what I believe they used to call "high class." The show's format was divided into big-scale musical numbers punctuated by smaller acts that included juggling, acrobatics and feats of strength. To be honest, a little of that went a long way, but the big numbers were worth the wait. One of them, "The Sinking of the Titanic," seemed a little tonally inappropriate, given that it was basically a musical comedy take on an epic tragedy that ended in 1,500 deaths. According to Wikipedia, that act's lavish sets go all the way back to the show's original production. Ultimately, the best thing about Jubilee! was that the entire production was executed without one single hint of irony. And believe me, that was a pretty damned impressive accomplishment.
Lincoln (1/22/13) DWA Screening (2012 ****) Directed by Steven Spielberg, based on the book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, starring Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. As the Civil War winds down to its inevitable conclusion, "Honest" Abe Lincoln pulls out the political stops to get the 13th Amendment passed, thereby abolishing slavery in the United States. Let me get this out of the way first: Daniel Day Lewis was absolutely astounding in his utterly believable, nuanced portrayal of one of America's greatest historical figures. If he doesn't win an Oscar, I will eat my stovepipe hat. This film was marketed heavily during our recent presidential election, and released shortly after Barack Obama was re-elected. The timing of Lincoln's release may have been orchestrated or may have simply been a coincidence. Either way, contemporary politics made the 19th century politics portrayed in the film all the more meaningful. When one thinks of the 21st century writer's approach to presidential political drama, it's hard not to think of Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing. There was a little touch of Sorkin sprinkled here and there, but not nearly as much as I'd expected. What did surprise me was how star-studded the film was, including what seemed like scores of familiar faces, which were mostly covered by beards and handlebar mustaches. Those faces included: James Spader, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Jared Harris (Mad Men), Bruce McGill (Animal House, Quantum Leap) and many more. At one point I could've sworn I saw Will and Grace's Sean Hayes in the background, but surely I was mistaken, right?
Brick (1/23/13) Netflix (2005 ***1/2) Written and directed by Rian Johnson, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lukas Haas, Nora Zehetner and Noah Fleiss. When his ex-girlfriend disappears after seeking his help, outcast Brendan leaps fists-a-flying into the shadowy world of a high school crime syndicate. Who knew being a teenager in San Clemente, California could be so hard-boiled? I'd heard about this movie back when it was originally released. It's conceit was intriguing to me: A contemporary high school drama using dialogue and situations straight out of Raymond Chandler. Intriguing, yes, but it smelled to me at the time like a gimmick. After watching Rian Johnson's Looper recently, I bumped Brick, his directorial debut, up to the top of my Netflix queue, and I'm glad I did. The whole film impressed me, all the more so because it was clearly made on a limited budget, yet achieved surprisingly good production values. I highly recommend it to any of my friends with filmmaking aspirations. The key to what made its "high school film noir" conceit work was that though the characters spoke in a decidedly stylized lingo, everyone played it completely straight. There was another influence at work here also, that of David Lynch, particularly Twin Peaks. Brick shared many story elements in common with Twin Peaks, which itself was heavily influenced by film noir. In a way, Rian Johnson managed to transcend Lynch, producing something that felt both... well, Lynchian, yet decidedly more grounded, making it somehow stronger. There's yet a final visual allusion I didn't understand and will have to Google: Why exactly did Lukas Haas' character "The Pin" wear an outfit that made him look so much like Jonathan Frid as Dark Shadows' Barnabas Collins? What connection or purpose did that serve?
Parenthood, Season 4 (1/23/13) NBC (2012-2013 ***1/2) Series created by Series developed by Jason Katims, based on the characters created by Ron Howard, starring Peter Krause, Lauren Graham, Dax Shepard, Monica Potter and Erika Christensen. 15 episodes, originally aired 9/11/12 - 1/22/13. For a fourth year, the growing San Francisco area Braverman clan continues to endure the challenges of being parents, children, siblings or all of the above. Season 4 was possibly the best season yet, offering a terrific balance of humor and pathos. Storylines this season included Max's ascent to middle school presidency, Kristina's cancer diagnosis and treatment, Drew & Amy's pregnancy and abortion, Sarah's romantic love triangle with Mark & Hank, and Julia and Joel's difficulties with their tentatively adopted son Victor. This television season, Parenthood has proven itself to be the drama we most look forward to, and in a strange way it occupies the same entertainment "slot" that was for years occupied by the ensemble drama E.R. Though the season's cancer storyline could have proven to be a tremendous downer, it was handled with a surprisingly deft touch without diminishing the reality of the subject. I only hope it didn't scare away too many viewers. As of this writing, it's still unknown whether or not NBC will renew Parenthood for a fifth season. Given that fact, its final, highly-satisfying episode was written to work as either a season or series finale. But, of course, I certainly hope it returns.
Uncanny X-Force: The Apocalypse Solution (1/27/13) Comics (2011 **1/2) Written by Rick Remender, illustrated by Jerome Opena and Leonardo Manco. Originally published in Uncanny X-Force #1-4 and Wolverine: Road to Hell. Mutants Wolverine, Deadpool, Archangel, Psylocke and Fantomex aren't afraid to get their hands... bloody. They travel to the moon to fight The Final Horsemen and to kill the reborn villain Apocalypse... who for some reason is now a small child baring an eerie resemblance to a young Bruce Wayne. This book proudly carried a "Parental Advisory" label, and contained plenty of violent imagery and situations. My favorite of which was a scene in which Deadpool (or was it the nearly identically-attired Fantomex?) fed an emaciated Archangel using chunks of meat cut from Deadpool/Fantomex's own flesh. Ultimately, this book was a long slugfest culminating in a conclusion that may have been inevitable but wasn't entirely satisfying. The underlying theme of the book was whether or not the true definition of a superhero was someone willing to take down a bad guy no matter what the personal cost or moral jeopardy required.
Hysteria (1/28/13) Netflix (2011 **1/2) Directed by Tanya Wexler, screenplay by Stephen Dyer and Jona Lisa Dyer, starring Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jonathan Pryce, Felicity Jones and Rupert Everett. In 1880s England, Mortimer Granville and Edmund St. John-Smythe invent a therapeutic electric device designed to give women relief from their... "hysteria." This was a sweet little film, and its subject matter certainly provided ample opportunities for orgasm-based humor as well as a historical discourse on the evolving roles or women since the Victorian era. Unfortunately, though there was nothing specifically wrong with Hysteria, the film never managed to elevate itself beyond the level of competent, perfunctory filmmaking, and it was ultimately disappointing.
Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb (1/30/13) Graphic Novel (2012 **1/2) Written and illustrated by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm. This illustrated nonfiction book describes the science, engineering and personalities behind America's Manhattan Project as well as its atomic aftermath. This was Fetter-Vorm's first graphic novel project and at 150 pages it was a worthy effort. The content of the book was fine and clearly well-researched, and I appreciated the scope of the book and how the author was able to use the graphic novel format to dive in and shed some light on the scientific aspects involved. The presentation of the story's narrative was a bit dry, and while there was some sense of the personalities involved, they weren't explored with the depth I had expected. Oppenheimer was described early in the book as enigmatic and he remained so throughout. Reading the book made me want to re-watch the 1989 Paul Newman film Fat Man and Little Boy (named after the two bomb designs), which I don't recall being a particularly great film. Reading Trinity, I became curious about how the 1989 film had handled the dramatization of real-world characters including Oppenheimer and General Groves. The weakest part of Fetter-Vorm's book, unfortunately, was his artwork, which was at times so amateurish to be distracting. While I applaud his effort in executing a 150-page graphic novel project in the first place, I'm frankly more impressed that he was able to find a publisher..
Across the Universe (1/31/13) FXM (2007 **1/2) Directed by Julie Taymor, starring Evan Rachel-Wood, Jim Sturgess and Joe Anderson, with cameos by Joe Cocker, Bono, Eddie Izzard and Salma Hayek. Set in the 1960s, a young Liverpool artist befriends a Vietnam-bound student and falls for his all-American sister. Imagine the musical Hair, re-envisioned with music by The Beatles, and you'd get something pretty similar to Across the Universe. I've never hidden the fact that I've been a pretty big Beatles fan my entire life, so I looked forward to this film. I loved the use of some of my favorite songs, in particular a lot of the more esoteric ones from the Fab Four's catalog. With so many "expensive" songs on the soundtrack, I kept wondering what kind of music licensing arrangement the film's producers had, and what fraction of the film's budget went straight toward music rights. However, as much as I liked the use of Beatles tunes, the presentation of those songs seemed a bit repetitious. I lost count of how many were staged as slowed-down renditions sung wistfully while the camera orbited the singer. In other words, the songs kept hitting the same notes (pun intended) over and over. There also seemed to be a general problem of story pacing, and I question whether back-to-back psychedelic renditions of "I Am the Walrus" and "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" was the best idea. On the other hand, the use in "Happiness is a Warm Gun" of multiple Salma Hayek's in a sexy nurse's uniform was definitely a highlight.
30 Rock, Season 7 (1/31/13) NBC (2012-2013 ***) Series created by Tina Fey, starring Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan and Jane Krakowski. 13 episodes, originally aired 10/4/12 - 1/31/13. When TGS (The Girlie Show) gets canceled thanks to Tracy and Jenna's antics, Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy must accept the inevitable change and move onto the next chapter in their lives. Has it really been seven years? My wife and I have been loyal viewers of 30 Rock since it premiered way back in 2006 in the shadow of Aaron Sorkin's similarly-premised apparent juggernaut Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Wisely, 30 Rock never allowed itself to get bogged down with the messy reality of what life backstage at a show like Saturday Night Live might really be like, other than on a very abstract level. For instance, the fictional TGS didn't have guest hosts (at least none that I recall), and with only a few exceptions early on, Tracy Jordan and Jenna Maroney were its only two regular players. In other words, 30 Rock's reality took place in a fanciful, unrealistic world filled with witty banter, a world where studio pages might just turn out to be immortal. So, now that it's over, will I miss 30 Rock? Not really. Don't get me wrong. It was certainly a pleasant enough diversion these past seven years, but I can't say I got all that much enrichment in exchange for the time spent watching each and every single one of the show's 139 episodes.

February

The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists (2/1/13) Graphic Novel (2011 ***) Written and illustrated by Seth. An unseen guide takes you on a tour of the Winnipeg branch of the G. N. B. Double C. and fills you in on the organization's illustrious history and personalities amongst its membership along the way. This book is set in the same universe as Seth's previously-published Wimbledon Green (2005) and as one Amazon reviewer commented, can be seen as a companion piece to that book. As graphic novels go, it's an odd little book, though frequently charming. The book has no real narrative, and I can't help but wonder what the reading experience might have been had Seth provided one. In fact, I must admit I got to the end and wondered what had been the point of creating the book in the first place. Seth explained in his introduction that the book had begun as an exercise of sorts, one he kept returning to. In a way, I can see it as a window into an alternate reality, but was that enough to justify 136 pages? However, if you're a fan of Seth's work, I can still recommend it on that level, and I absolutely love his illustration style, which is appealing but surprisingly economical. I only wish he'd applied that style to a story more worth telling.
Pitch Perfect (2/2/13) Netflix (2012 ***) Directed by Jason Moore, based on the book by Mickey Rapkin, starring Anna Kendrick, Brittany Snow, Skylar Astin and Rebel Wilson. Barden University freshman Beca joins The Bellas, a highly competitive a Capella singing group with sights at winning a national title. I'd heard good things about this film, but in all honesty I think it was overhyped. Either that or the reviewers had never bothered to watch an episode of Glee. Because, let me be perfectly honest: This movie was basically a feature-film version of Glee. And in a lot of ways Glee (though it's not without its faults) has consistently done it better. This film, with its PG-13 rating, couldn't even compete in terms of being more risque. Still, comparisons aside, Pitch Perfect was enjoyable enough, though ultimately forgettable. It should come as no surprise after her appearance in Bridesmaids (2011) that Rebel Wilson's supporting role as Fat Amy was one of the film's highlights.
An Idiot Abroad, Season 3: The Short Way Round (2/3/13) SCI (2012 ***) Series created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, starring Karl Pilkington and Warwick Davis. Evil genius Ricky Gervais sends Karl Pilkington on a journey to follow Marco Polo's historical path, but this time he gives him a companion in the form of a diminutive actor named Warwick. Warwick has been a working actor for decades and has appeared most notably as Wicket the Ewok in The Return of the Jedi and also as Professor Flitwick in the Harry Potter series. According to the internet, he also starred in a recent British series he created with Gervais & Merchant, Life's Too Short. And so this "season" represents a bit of a cross-over, I suppose. But "season" may be stretching it a bit. My wife and I have enjoyed the first two seasons of An Idiot Abroad, seen here in the U.S. on The Science Channel. And so when this season wrapped things up after only three episodes, our reaction was "What the hell?" While all three episodes were enjoyable enough, on par with the other two seasons, I didn't quite get it. Does this mark the end of An Idiot Abroad? I hope not, and I can't help but wonder what future indignities Gervais and Merchant might have planned for Pilkington.
Tales from the Warner Bros. Lot (2/3/13) TCM (2013 ***1/2) Produced by Jon Barbour, directed (uncredited) by Gary Khammar, featuring an impressive set of interviewees, including Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Joel Silver, Martin Sheen, Christopher Nolan, Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood. Amazingly, according to the show's entry on IMDB.com, there were even more stars and bigwigs attached to the project that never made it through the final cut! This was a very well-produced documentary that managed to balance two disparate goals surprisingly well: On one hand it was a loving history of Warner Brothers, but at the same time it was a backstage tour of the current studio itself. The history was mostly delivered in the form of personal anecdotes, which could have gone terribly off the rails but somehow didn't. The backstage tour included several sound stages and other locations (like the props department) that I visited several years ago when a group of my co-workers and I went on the Warner Bros. V.I.P. Tour. (That's just what they call it -- it's open to the general public.) Though not as well known as the Universal Studios Tour, this documentary definitely made me want to go on that tour again!
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2/3/13) TCM (1947 ***1/2) Directed by Norman Z. McLeod, based on the story by James Thurber, starring Danny Kaye, Virginia Mayo, Ann Rutherford and Boris Karloff. A pulp fiction editor daydreams his way right into an honest-to-goodness spy adventure. This film was broadcast as part of TCM's tribute to what would have been Danny Kaye's 100th birthday. As someone who has been known to lose himself in his elaborate daydreams, I have ever right to identify with Walter Mitty, a name that has become as associated with woolgathering as Kleenex has with nose-blowing. I hadn't watched The Secret Life of Walter Mitty in at least two decades, and watching it again I was given a new respect for Danny Kaye's incredibly crisp comic timing. The truly don't make 'em like that anymore. I also found it interesting (thanks to TCM's Ben Mankiewicz's introduction) that the two intricate, tongue-twisting songs Kaye sang in this film were written by his wife, Sylvia Fine.
Live from New York: The First Five Years of Saturday Night Live (2/4/13) NBC (2005 ***1/4) Written and directed by Kenneth Bowser, featuring interviews with Lorne Michaels, Dan Aykroyd, Steve Martin, Lorraine Newman and many, many others, who had been either behind or in front of the camera (or both) during SNL's "golden era." I've written before about how I've been watching SNL almost continuously since it debuted on October 11, 1975 when I was just two days away from my 11th birthday. I'd actually watched this special when it was originally aired, nearly eight years ago. As documentaries go, this one only went so far, and even with its mention of casual sex and drug use in the show's early years, I got the distinct impression that it still offered a somewhat sanitized rendition of events. The list of interviewees was impressive, and I'm glad so many of the show's writers were featured. Conspicuous by their absences, however, were cast members Jane Curtin and Bill Murray. On another front, I very much enjoyed the way the footage of the show's musical guests was used throughout as punctuation. Currently in the middle of its 38th season, there may well come a day when SNL goes off the air, and it's hard to imagine what would happen if Lorne Michaels were to leave (again). Thanks to the emergence of Youtube and social media, the show has recently found new role as a means of generating digital shorts and other bite-sized media. So hopefully it will be around for a long time to come.
Me and Orson Welles (2/6/13) Sundance (2008 ***) Directed by Richard Linklater, based on the novel by Robert Kaplow, starring Zac Efron, Claire Danes and Christian McKay. A 17-year-old actor in 1937 gets to learn about love, passion and ukelele-playing by standing in the shadow of egomaniac and genius Orson Welles. I stumbled upon this film while scanning for movies and decided to record and watch it. Orson Welles during his wunderkind years has always fascinated me in the way that he's fascinated thousands of would-be directors and creative individuals in their mid-twenties. Years ago I watched and enjoyed the 1999 film RKO 281: The Battle Over Citizen Kane, which told the story of the conflict between Welles and William Randolph Hearst. I had no idea until I had already started watching Me and Orson Welles that Richard Linklater was the film's director. The movie was surprisingly solid, including all its 1937 period piece touches, though it did feel at times like it had been produced as a star vehicle for Zac Efron. I also appreciated that Welles wasn't portrayed as either a genius saint or a despicably cruel despot, but as a complex character with qualities of both.
Hans Christian Andersen (2/7/13) TCM (1952 ***) Directed by Charles Vidor, starring Danny Kaye, Farley Granger, Zizi Jeanmaire and Joey Walsh. A cobbler with a talent for storytelling travels to Copenhagen and falls in love with a Ballerina who's in an abusive, apparently codependent relationship. It's no surprise to me that this is one of Danny Kaye's most memorable and endearing roles. He played the beloved writer of children's stories as a lovesick clown in the true Chaplin tradition. Unfortunately, this was one of those movies that has suffered due to shifting values that come with the passage of time, particularly with the modern audience's acceptance of the tempestuous relationship between the Ballerina and her director husband. Question: What's it called when you adore your husband even though he beats you? Uh... "stupid," I think. I also must admit that the movie's soundtrack was okay but the only song that truly resonated with me was the all-too-short "Inchworm." On a totally different note, Joey Walsh, the young actor who played the cobbler's apprentice Peter, had a very distinctive voice, and as I watched the movie I swore I'd heard it before, possibly in an animated Disney film or something. But when I looked him up on IMDB.com I found no evidence of that. I did, however, discover that Walsh went on to write and produce the Robert Altman film California Split (1974) as well as appearing as one of the parapsychologists in Poltergeist (1982).
Juliet of the Spirits (2/8/13) TCM (1965 ***) Directed by Federico Fellini, starring Giulietta Masina, Mario Pisu, Sandra Milo and Valentina Cortese. Middle-aged Italian housewife Juliet is told by a psychic that her happiness lies in sexual liberation. Meanwhile, Juliet's husband Giorgio is cheating on her with a gorgeous model named Gabriella. While it would be easy to dismiss this film as just a cinematic "mindf*ck," that would be selling it short. To be fair, though, the film does incorporate a great deal of dream and surrealistic imagery. Fellini's use of that technique built slowly from the beginning of the film and its intensity was a reflection of Juliet's increasingly agitated mental state. According to the film's introduction on TCM, this was Fellini's first film in color, and he used it to great effect. Giulietta Masina did a wonderful job in the title role, though much of her acting throughout was reactive, as Juliet responded to the situations, personalities and frequently bizarre imagery around her. Masina was, by the way, Fellini's wife.
Zero Dark Thirty (2/10/13) La Canada AMC (2012 ****) Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, written by Mark Boal, starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler and Jennifer Ehle. Dedicated C.I.A. agent Maya devotes her life to tracking down and killing Osama bin Laden. This was a fantastic film and well-deserving of its Oscar nomination. It's interesting to note that two Best Picture nominees this year are based on CIA operations, with the other being Ben Affleck's Argo. Kathryn Bigelow demonstrated a skill for telling this type of international / life-on-the-front-line story with her Best Picture-winner The Hurt Locker (2008), and she has continued that tradition with this film. Much has been made in the press about the depiction of torture in Zero Dark Thirty, so much so that I must admit I was a little reluctant to see it and was dreading that aspect of the film. I was relieved to see that while "enhanced interrogation techniques" played a significant part of the film's story, it didn't constitute the entirety of it. It's always a little tricky making a film based on historical events interesting to the audience. After all, we all know what happened to Osama bin Laden. Still, the most compelling part of this film was its third act, which presented a totally engrossing, real-time depiction of the raid on Bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Saturday Night Live in the '80s: Lost and Found (2/11/13) NBC (2005 **1/2) Written and directed by Kenneth Bowser, featuring interviews with Lorne Michaels, Billy Crystal, Al Franken, James Belushi and many, many more. Following SNL's first five "golden" years came a decade of dramatic ups and downs. Kenneth Bowser followed his first "documentary" (quotes deliberate), Live from New York: The First Five Years of Saturday Night Live, with this considerably weaker look at the decade that followed. While the material was interesting to me, my overall sense was that it just wasn't as well executed as the first program, and on several fronts: The clips selected were far from the best Bowser could have chosen. I mean, what was up with continually cutting back to Kevin Nealon's map sketch? That just smacked of editing room laziness. Though nominally chronological, the musical clips (which I'd very much enjoyed in the first show) appeared to have been ordered randomly. Given the decade-long time period, it was jarring to see musical guests from the end of the 80s appearing when early-80s seasons were being discussed. There were lots of other examples of clips being shown out of logical sequence as well. The result was a narrative that was disjointed, one that ultimately painted an unclear picture of SNL through those years. All in all, it was a missed opportunity. It also makes me wonder why NBC is airing these programs again? Looking at IMDB.com, Bowser went on to direct shows about SNL in the '90s and 2000s, and it appears NBC will be re-airing them in the coming weeks. Hopefully they'll get better.
Breaking Bad, Season 2 (2/13/13) Netflix/AMC (2009 ***1/4) Series created by Vince Gilligan, starring Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul and Dean Norris. 13 episodes, originally aired 3/8/09 - 5/31/09. Walter White and his partner in crime Jesse Pinkman experience some serious highs and lows in their lives as the makers and purveyors of a chemically-pure crystal meth called "Blue Sky." This season began with a glimpse of its end, with an image of a charred Teddy Bear being fished from Walter's swimming pool by men in hazmat suits. The meaning of that image isn't revealed until the very end of the second season. I've got to be honest: There was a stretch in the middle of this season where the show's storyline had become such a downer that my wife considered not watching it further. For what it's worth, the show pulled out of that tailspin in the final two episodes. As for myself, I'm still struggling against some pretty unrealistic expectations set by friends and the media about the quality of this show. I think Breaking Bad has been a tad over-hyped, at least from a story standpoint. Sure, there have been some pretty dramatic twists and turns, and the show definitely has played with its audience in terms of sympathy for the central character. Though his motives for becoming a drug peddler began with the purest intentions, Walter White's moral descent into hell seems to be taking place one fated decision at a time. And that is nowhere more evident than when the meaning of the scorched Teddy Bear imagery is revealed.
Girls, Season 1 (2/14/13) Netflix/HBO (2012? ****) Series created by Lena Dunham, starring Lena Dunham, Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, Zosia Mamet and Adam Driver. 10 episodes, originally aired 4/15/12 - 6/17/12. Michigan transplant and aspiring writer Hannah Horvath and her likewise alliteratively-named 20-something girlfriends survive and occasionally grow, living and loving in New York City. I had a hint from all the critical attention Girls has been getting that this was a terrific show, but I had no idea just how good it was. The amazingly talented Lena Dunham, who recently won a Golden Globe for her acting on this series, wrote or co-wrote all the episodes in Season 1 and also directed half of them. Though she is a protégé of Judd Apatow, and it's unclear how much of an influence he's had, I particularly loved the craft Dunham displayed as she established multiple interesting characters who had depth and occasionally surprising complexity. Hannah's boyfriend Adam Sackler, played by Adam Driver, was a particular delight, as he displayed character facet after facet over the course of the season. Especially given that HBO is its home network, it's easy to compare Girls to Sex and the City, but it would be a mistake. The pilot episode made it very clear that despite superficial similarities, Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna should under no circumstances be confused with Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda.
The Spirit of the Beehive (El espíritu de la colmena) (2/21/13) TCM (1973 **) Directed by Victor Erice, starring Fernando Fernán Gómez, Teresa Gimpera, Ana Torrent and Isabel Tellería. Ana, the seven-year-old daughter of a beekeeper, is profoundly moved by the movie Frankenstein and subsequently discovers a mystery hidden in a barn. This film was introduced by TCM's guest programmer Bill Paxton as a masterpiece of Spanish filmmaking. Well, intrigued by the Frankenstein angle, I gave it a shot, but I must reluctantly admit that I just didn't get it. The Spirit of the Beehive was quite beautiful at times, but had incredibly sluggish pacing and it contained several story elements and character actions that never actually came together before the film's end. Or perhaps they connected in ways too subtle for me to understand. Call me a thickheaded dunce, but I'll be damned if I could figure out what meaning I was supposed to take away from it.
Abbott and Costello in Hollywood (2/21/13) TCM (1945 **) Directed by S. Sylvan Simon, starring Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Frances Rafferty and Bob Haymes, with cameo appearances by Rags Ragland and Lucille Ball. Two barbers decide the path to riches and easy living in Hollywood is to become talent agents. This was one of of Abbott and Costello's few movies made while at MGM. I'm not sure what the circumstances were surrounding the production, but it was the kind of setup that would have been helped significantly by appearances by bigger stars, of which MGM was not exactly in short supply. It was a little embarrassing when big stars like Clark Gable and Greta Garbo were mentioned but didn't later appear. While it was great seeing a young Lucille Ball, she wasn't exactly a huge star at the time. My main beef with this film was that it was really just a series of overlong comedy bits -- like one involving insomnia -- that did nothing to advance the plot. While you might reasonably say the same about most of Abbott and Costello's films, it was particularly apparent in this one.
Smokey and the Bandit (2/27/13) TCM (1977 **1/2) Directed by Hal Needham, starring Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, Jerry Reed and Jackie Gleason. A Trans Am-driving charmer whose C.B. handle is "The Bandit," escorts an 18-wheeler full of Coors beer because, as the song says, "the boys are thirsty in Atlanta, and there's beer in Texarkana." I'm not quite sure what inspired me to record and watch this film, but it may have been Seth MacFarlane's sketch with Sally Field on The Oscars. Watching it again after so very many years, I have to say it doesn't particularly hold up, though it is definitely "of its time." Yes, it was a simpler time, a time when you could tell a woman you just met that she "has a great ass," and she would actually take it pretty well. My biggest problem with Smokey and the Bandit was that its premise asked you to suspend disbelief to a pretty outrageous level: Am I to understand that Coors beer was unavailable in the state of Georgia in 1977? And even if that were the case, surely there had to be a reasonable substitute available. In addition, it drove me crazy that even though The Bandit and Cledus (Reed) were engaged in this wacky race (twice 665 miles, according to Google Maps), they still kept stopping to get food, get beaten up and (SPOILER ALERT) engage in hatless sex. On a personal note, this is one of three films I remember seeing while on a Caribbean cruise when I was thirteen, along with The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training and the Robby Benson / Annette O'Toole film One on One.
Coffee and Cigarettes (2/27/13) Sundance (2003 **) Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, starring Bill Murray, Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni, Iggy Pop, Cate Blanchett and many more. A series of eleven short vignettes, all featuring characters smoking and drinking coffee... or in one case, tea. According to Wikipedia (the source of all that is truthful), the first three vignettes began as independent shorts, with the one featuring Tom Waits and Iggy Pop ("Somewhere in California") winning the Short Film Palme d'Or at The Cannes Film Festival. "Strange to Meet You," the first vignette (which also happened to be Jarmusch's original short) featured Benigni and Steven Wright and was maddeningly paced, The setup was completely artificial and the dialogue was so meaningless as to border on Dada. As the film progressed, ideas and phrases that had been voiced in earlier vignettes were repeated, often with quirky twists in meaning. As I watched the film, I did so perpetually on the cusp of wanting to throw in the towel, yet someting kept me watching. I'm not completely sorry I did, though most of the vignettes failed to grab me, with one exception: The highlight by far was "Cousins" in which Cate Blanchett played both herself and her lookalike cousin Shelly. It may well have been Blanchett's acting skill that elevated that sequence above all the rest.
(NEW) The Croods (2/28/13) Crew Screening -- L.A. Live Regal Cinema (2013 ****) Directed by Kirk De Micco and Chris Sanders, featuring the voices of Nicolas Cage, Ryan Reynolds, Emma Stone, Catherine Keener, Clark Duke and Cloris Leachman. A family of cavemen face extinction and must learn to trust a slightly-more-evolved homeo sapien named Guy. The action-packed opening sequence establishes within the first few minutes that the The Croods ain't no "stone age family" like their Hannah Barbera animated cousins. You know what? I've been in this position a few times before. How can I objectively review a film I worked on for eighty-one weeks? The simple truth is, I can't. But I will say that for most of the "grunts" in production, we rarely know whether the film we're working on is really any good. After we leave the production, as I did in September of 2011, most of us deliberately avoid watching too much of the film, so that we can better enjoy the finished result. And so, I honestly did watch the film with a pair of fresh eyes, and I was very happy with that result and am sincerely proud of the small role I played. Following the screening, my wife and I drove to the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History for a swingin' stone age wrap party, complete with custom cocktails, rock candy and temporary tattoos (I got the Tripgerbil). At the party I saw most of my fellow Dreamworkers who'd worked on the film and there was a definite sense of pride. I only hope this film finds the audience it deserves. While I loved last year's Rise of the Guardians (which I did not work on, though many of my friends did), it didn't get nearly the critical praise I felt it deserved and its box office was disappointing. Hopefully Croods will fare far better on both fronts.

March

Inhumans (3/1/13) Graphic Novel (2001 **) Written by Paul Jenkins, illustrated by Jae Lee. Originally published in Inhumans, Vol. 2, issues #1-12. The Inhumans' leader Blue Bolt remains maddeningly stoic as his imprisoned brother Maximus allows the humans to attack their protected city Attilan. Will Atlantis once again return to the sea? Oh, what I'd give for a really enjoyable graphic novel about superheroes, but those seem to be few and far between. To begin with, Jae Lee's illustration style, which I only liked up to a point, was completely appropriate for Jenkins' writing. Having said that, I had two major problems with the story: (1) Without giving anything away, the entire story hinged on a reveal at the end that felt completely arbitrary and artificial; (2) The pacing was slow and there was a general sense that Jenkins had a story originally appropriate to a six-issue series, but for whatever reason had been stretched to twice that length.
Dance With Me, Henry (3/5/13) TCM (1956 **1/2) Directed by Charles Barton, starring Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Gigi Perreau, Rusty Hammer and Mary Wickes. The owner of an amusement park tries to get his pal out of a jam but winds up as the suspect in a District Attorney's murder. This film was made a few years after Abbott and Costello's TV show, which ran for two seasons from 1952 through 1953. The reason I mention that is there was something about the look of this film that made it feel like a well-executed 1950s TV show. Sadly, this was also the last film Bud and Lou made together, and it's appropriate that they played characters named Bud Flick and Lou Henry. But if you think about it, the fact that Henry was Costello's character's surname makes the title (taken from a song that appears in the film) a little nonsensical. Anyway, after this final pairing of the beloved comedy duo, Lou Costello made only one more film, The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock (1959), which was released six months after his death in March of that year.
Wreck-It Ralph (3/6/13) Netflix (2012 ****) Directed by Rich Moore, featuring the voices of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch and Alan Tudyk as King Candy. An 8-bit video game villain from the 1980s leaves his game ("Fix-It Felix, Jr.") to discover if he has what it takes to be a hero. I'd heard great things about this Disney film from my friends and co-workers. After finally getting around to seeing its eye-popping visuals -- on Blu-Ray, no less -- I regret not making more of an effort to see it in the theater, and in 3-D. Though I work at a rival studio, I have a great deal of respect for Disney Animation, and have enjoyed seeing the progression in quality over their first CG films: Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons, Tangled, and now, Wreck-It Ralph. I was a teenager when Pac Man and Donkey Kong and their sequels were enjoying their video arcade heyday. This film did a nice job of paying tribute to that era, even going so far as to feature many Roger Rabbit-like cameos of classic video game stars like Qbert. The world and characters were also superb and easy to identify with, and my wife and I were both taken completely by surprise by Wreck-It Ralph's third act reveal. Well done, Disney!
Wings (3/7/13) TCM (1927 ***1/4) Directed by William A. Wellman, starring Clara Bow, Charles "Buddy" Rogers, Richard Arlen and Jobyna Ralston, with Gary Cooper. Jack and David are two WWI flyboys in love with the same girl back home. This silent film's claim to fame is that it won the very first Best Picture Oscar, and after all these years, it's still surprisingly entertaining. In my experience, most of the feature-length silent films I've seen (and granted, there haven't been that many) suffered from pacing problems when viewed by twenty-first centrury eyes. However, Wings seemed to have been shot and edited for a much more modern sensibility. On the trivia front, in addition to its first Oscar status, Wings also included an brief appearance by a young Gary Cooper as the painfully obviously doomed Cadet White.
(NEW -- NEEDS REPAIR) Saturday Night Live in the '90s: Pop Culture Nation (3/7/13) NBC (2007 ***1/2) Directed by Kenneth Bowser, featuring interviews with Mike Meyers, Al Franken, Chris Rock, Dana Carvey and many more of the performers and writers of SNL during the 1990s. In this third installment of Kenneth Bowser's documentary series about the history of Saturday Night Live, the seasons running from 1989 to 1999 are covered. After the disappointing (SNL in the 1980s), I was relieved that this show was as good as it was. Though we think of it now as an institution, the 1990s were a pretty turbulent time for SNL, and it wasn't a foregone conclusion that the show would last the decade. There were plenty of highs and lows, from the bump in the ratings with the success of recurring favorites like Wayne's World to dangerously declining ratings and poison press that led to the network's firing of Norm MacDonald. The decade also included the meteoric rise of performers like Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler. In the previous installment, we saw what happened when the show went south in a big way. (FIX THIS SHIT) After a disastrous season in which the entire (1985-1986) cast -- one that included Robert Downey Jr., Joan Cusak and Anthony Michael Hall -- was axed except for Jon Lovitz, Lorne Michaels was determined never to have to replace the entire cast again and so he added featured performers to the show's cast. That way performers are able to grow into their sketch comedy chops, while eventually departing, hopefully for bigger and better things. Interestingly, while the documentary was presented in generally chronological order, many of its segments focused on individual performers. There was also clearly an editorial hand at work, and one can't help but wonder how involved Lorne Michaels was in that decision-making. For instance, the tragic murder of Phil Hartman by his wife was barely mentioned but Belushi-like death of Chris Farley was given a full segment.
Homeland, Season 1 (3/8/13) Showtime / Netflix (2011 ****) Series developed by Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, based on the Israeli series Hatufim (Prisoners of War), created by Gideon Raff, starring Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, Mandy Patinkin and Morena Baccarin. 12 episodes, originally aired 10/2/11 - 12/18/11. Brilliant but bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison believes a returning Marine -- held captive for eight years -- is working for Al Quaida, and she'll go to any lengths to prove it. This Showtime series swept the Emmy Awards and the Golden Globes, and with good reason. The acting overall was fantastic and Claire Danes gave an evolving and wide-ranging performance like nothing I've ever seen on television. Though Homeland felt at times a little bit like 24 (2001-2010), the build-up of tension toward the end of the season was both agonizing and delicious. Without giving anything away, Season 1 ended in a way I never would have expected. Will we keep watching? You better believe it! Only problem is, we don't subscribe to Showtime and the second season isn't available yet on Netflix. (Feel free to insert "sad trombone" sting right here.)
(NEW) Oz the Great and Powerful (3/10/13) La Canada AMC (2013 ***) Directed by Sam Raimi, starring James Franco, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis. A smooth-talking carnival magician climbs into a hot air balloon to evade a jealous boyfriend and gets whisked away to a Technicolor land where he must fulfill a prophecy. How exactly do you make a prequel to one of the best-loved movies of all time? While Oz the Great and Powerful wasn't an abject failure, it was far from a home run. The part of the titular "wizard" was originally going to be played by Robert Downey, Jr. However, when he stepped out, he was replaced by James Franco, who had worked with director Sam Raimi on the Spider-Man films. Sadly, James Franco, multi-talented as he is, did not have the A-List gravitas to step into Downey's shoes. On a different note, with this film I noticed a definite trend, in which tentpole films like this often reach a dramatic climax that involves characters flying through the air, shooting energy beams and/or lightning bolts and/or power blasts at each other. Will this trend continue? I imagine so. At any rate, I look forward to seeing the amusing edited montage on some upcoming Oscar night.
X Saturday Night Live in the 2000s: Time and Again (3/10/13) NBC (2010 ***1/4) Directed by Kenneth Bowser, featuring interviews with
The Dead Zone (3/11/13) Sundance (1983 ***) Directed by David Cronenberg, based on the novel by Stephen King, starring Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Tom Skerritt, Herbert Lom and Martin Sheen. A comatose schoolteacher wakes up from his five-year nap with the ability to see the future. This film wasn't exactly a masterpiece, but it was surprisingly entertaining, especially considering the protagonist's ultimately purpose and physical goal wasn't revealed until late in the second act. But that odd story structure didn't really bother me much. Let's face it, stories about people with psychic powers are just plain interesting. And that's an inkwell Stephen King has dipped his pen into many, many times. Adding to the mix was Christopher Walken, who's always entertaining to watch, even in this pre-Pulp Fiction (1994) (and pre-SNL "cowbells") role. As for Cronenberg's directing, it was effective but controlled and didn't feel like a "1980s Cronenberg film" like Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986) or Dead Ringers (1988). On the trivia front, given the film's third act, it's somewhat ironic that Martin Sheen went on to play president Bartlet on The West Wing. Also, prior to going into his 5-year coma, Walken's character told his class to read "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," written by Washington Irving, who also wrote about a guy named "Rip Van Winkle."
Real Women Have Curves (3/14/13) Netflix (2002 ***1/4) Directed by Patricia Cardoso, based on the play by Josefina Lopez, starring America Ferrera, Lupe Ontiveros, Ingrid Oliu and George Lopez. New high school graduate Ana Garcia and her mother Carmen definitely do not see eye-to-eye about Ana's future. It's little wonder this little East L.A. indie film made such a splash. Real Women Have Curves is a real celebration of womanhood and the importance (and beauty) of a woman taking responsibility for her own sexuality. The film had a great "feel-good" spirit running throughout, and the "dancing in underwear" scene toward the end was an absolute gem. Having said all that, Ferrera's performance, though charming, was occasionally a bit amateurish. Also, the screenplay frequently felt like a prize-winning student work instead of the work of a professional writer. In particular, its story left a lot of questions unanswered: What did Ana write in her college essay? What happened to her red dress? And just how the hell was she going to pay for room & board?
Mommie Dearest (3/14/13) IFC (1981 **1/2) Directed by Frank Perry, based on the book by Christina Crawford, starring Faye Dunaway, Diana Scarwid, Mara Hobel and Steve Forrest. This is the movie that made any famous person's child screaming "I'm gonna write a book someday!" a genuine threat. Though I remember seeing this film in the theaters, I hadn't seen it in many years, but I vaguely remember it playing almost constantly on cable. Seeing it again, I couldn't get over how the movie would occasionally veer into territory so over-the-top as to be hilarious. Its infamous "No wire hangers ever!" scene still held up as a true batshit crazy monster-fest, and I admire Faye Dunaway's willingness to go as far as she did. It's not hard to imagine Mommie Dearest shown in a theater at midnight, MST3K or Rocky Horror-style. And lo-and-behold, a quick Google search shows it's been played in that kind of venue more than a few times. As for the film's content, even before the film version was made, I recall the press related to Christina Crawford's book about her abusive, alcoholic mother. Back in those days, writing a "tell-all" book "just wasn't done," and it was certainly sensational. While I have no strong opinion either way, I can certainly understand why some fans of Crawford (and her impressive body of work) might be angry about this movie and the book on which it was based forever after coloring the public's impression of Joan Crawford.
Edward Scissorhands (3/15/13) IFC (1990 ***1/4) Directed by Tim Burton, screenplay by Caroline Thompson, based on a story by Burton & Thompson, starring Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder, Dianne Wiest, Anthony Michael Hall and Alan Arkin, with Vincent Price. A well-meaning but nonetheless mad scientist dies before replacing Johnny's scissor appendages with real (and far more practical) hands. A couple years back, my wife and I went to a Tim Burton exhibit at LACMA (The Los Angeles County Museum of Art). My impression after seeing that show was that Tim Burton had probably peaked creatively around age 23. His visual style is certainly distinctive, and Edward Scissorhands presents his vision in as close to an undiluted form as can be found in any of his films. There's a lot to love about this film, including Johnny Depp's highly stylized but effective performance, and it's no wonder Burton has continued to work with Depp so many times subsequently. However, with the third act, some of the wonder that had been built began to fall apart. The resolution of the dramatic climax (I don't want to give it away) seemed wrong and unwarranted, both logically and tonally, to me from the first time I saw it during its original release. Sadly it's clear from this early film that Burton has always suffered from some real deficiencies as a storyteller, a recurring pattern that has continued to plague his films ever since.
(NEW) The Croods (3/16/13) L.A. Live -- Friends & Family Screening (2013 ****) Directed by Kirk De Micco and Chris Sanders, featuring the voices of Nicolas Cage, Ryan Reynolds, Emma Stone, Catherine Keener, Clark Duke and Cloris Leachman. A family of cavemen face extinction and must learn to trust a slightly-more-evolved homo sapien named Guy. This was my second viewing of this film, and after seeing it again, I was even more moved by its emotional notes. I was also doubly proud of the work that I and my colleagues did on it. I genuinely hope it finds an audience that appreciates its depiction of Grug and Eep's father/daughter relationship. It would be a wonderful film to watch on Father's Day.
Say Anything (3/16/13) IFC (1989 ***1/2) Written and directed by Cameron Crowe, starring John Cusack, Ione Sky and John Mahoney. A kickboxing dude with a boombox falls for a valedictorian with a doting father. You're not going to believe this, but this is the first time I've seen this movie. I thought I'd seen it, but I was actually confusing it with the Rob Reiner-directed The Sure Thing (1985), which also starred John Cusack. This was Crowe's directorial debut, though he'd previously written screenplays for Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) and The Wild Life (1984). His talent in this film, both as a writer and director was evident. I especially appreciated his willingness to make some interesting story choices (related to the father) in what could have just been another disposable teen romance flick. From this film, it was clear he had a distinctive voice as a writer, as well as a vision as a director. He was already on a trajectory that would take him on to some great films like Jerry Maguire (1996) and one of my personal favorites, Almost Famous (2000).
Inherit the Wind (3/17/13) TCM (1960 ***1/4) Directed by Stanley Kramer, based on the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, starring Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, Gene Kelly and Dick York. In this fictionalized version of the famous 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, a small southern town serves as the backdrop for a showdown between fundamentalism and evolution. The film (and the play before it) took its title from Proverbs 11:29: "He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind / and the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart." It's altogether shocking to me that in 2013 the teaching of Darwin's theory evolution remains as controversial as it is, nearly 90 years after the original trial. That undoubtedly represents a universal truth about mankind and its capacity for reactionary thinking. But aside from that editorial comment, Inherit the Wind is a damned fine movie but not necessarily a personal favorite. Its strength lay in its elegantly-crafted and brilliantly delivered dialogue. However, the dramatic climax of the film felt a little unsatisfying in the exactly the same way as Aaron Sorkin's iconic "You can't handle the truth!" scene in A Few Good Men.
Grand Hotel (3/17/13) TCM (1932 ***1/2) Directed by Edmund Goulding, based on the play by William A. Drake, starring Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Lionel Barrymore and Wallace Beery. To paraphrase the song, you can check into Berlin's Grand Hotel, but you can never leave. This Best Picture Oscar winner was apparently a real novelty at the time. The idea of populating a film with FIVE stars engaged in interlocking storylines was quite a sensation. And it's worked ever since, in classic masterpieces like The Towering Inferno and Airport '77. Hell, these days five movie stars is sometimes the minimum required to get a film green-lit in Hollywood. It was a kick to watch this film on TCM as part of its Essentials series, especially since Robert Osborne's co-host was Drew Barrymore. She spoke with great affection for the movie, her great uncle Lionel and her grandfather John. On an unrelated note, I can never think of this film without remembering the classic scene in Billy Wilder's The Apartment in which Jack Lemmon sits down to eat his TV dinner and watch Grand Hotel... along with its numerous commercial interruptions.
Downton Abbey, Season 1 (3/19/13) Netflix / PBS (2010 ***1/2) Series created by Julian Fellowes, starring Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Jim Carter and Maggie Smith. Seven episodes, originally aired 9/26/10 - 11/7/10. This first season was neatly sandwiched between the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and Great Britain's 1914 entry into World War I in 1914. As has often been the case with certain TV shows, my wife and I were relative latecomers to Downton Abbey. I never watched Upstairs Downstairs (1971-1975), which was a pretty big deal when I was growing up, and I could never understand what the fuss was, though. So, flashing forward nearly forty years, I felt the same sense of puzzlement when seemingly ALL my friends started getting excited about Downton Abbey. I was frankly skeptical about whether or not an early 20th Century British costume drama could gain and keep my interest. I've always considered myself a middle class American and while I loved The Beatles and Monty Python and the suburban trevails of Tom and Barbara Good, watching snooty upper-class Brits sipping their tea and eating their crumpets was another thing altogether. But... good writing has a way of grabbing your starched shirt collar and not letting go. And so, after the first episode my wife and I were completely hooked into the tribulations of Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham and the twenty or thirty other characters that make up this fine program.
Creature From the Black Lagoon (3/20/13) TCM (1954 **1/2) Directed by Jack Arnold, starring Richard Carlson, Julie Adams and Richard Denning. A group of scientists discover a scaly, prehistoric "missing link" in the Amazon, but it wants their woman to keep him company in his grotto! When you think about Universal's pantheon of classic movie monsters, it's interesting to note that this film's titular "creature" was the most recent addition. The credit for that definitely lies not with this decidedly B-movie's less-than-superb storytelling, but with the distinctive design of its... well, creature. At a time when Roger Corman and his peers were knocking out less-than-believable rubber monsters on a weekly basis, the gilled humanoid "Creature" really stood out from the pack. At least five minutes of exhaustive internet research reveals some controversy over whether designer Millicent Patrick or makeup artist Bud Westmore really deserved credit for the design. Still, whoever was responsible created a character worthy of standing alongside Dracula, The Wolfman, The Mummy and Frankenstein's monster.
It Came From Outer Space (3/20/13) TCM (1953 **) Directed by Jack Arnold, based on a story by Ray Bradbury, starring Richard Carlson, Barbara Rush, Charles Drake, Joe Sawyer and Russell Johnson. An apparent meteor crash in the Arizona desert turns out to be shape-shifting visitors from another world. The premise of aliens assuming the form of specific humans was a common one in the 1950s, most memorably in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). In this film, however, since the original humans weren't destroyed (hopefully that's not considered a spoiler), there was an opportunity in the third act for some fun split-screen "twin" effects. As cheesy as that was, it was probably my favorite part of the film. Some day they ought to hold a twin-themed film festival and play classic films in which actors played multiple roles onscreen at the same time. At the very least, it would make for a fun documentary. But now, back to our review, already in progress. Though I watched if "flat," It Came From Outer Space was originally released by Universal Pictures in 3-D and it would be fun to watch it in that form. Finally, It's always a little weird (but a treat nonetheless) to see Gilligan's Island's "Professor," Russell Johnson, in one of his early roles.
The Incredible Shrinking Man (3/22/13) TCM (1957 ***1/4) Directed by Jack Arnold, based on the novel by Richard Matheson, starring Grant Williams, Randy Stuart, April Kent and Paul Langton. Radiation and insecticide exposure cause a man to shrink and force him to come to terms with his place in the universe. Plus, he battles a tarantula to the death! This is one of those rare "classic" Sci-Fi movies that began as just another B-movie but then grew (pun intended) into something far more compelling and even mildly satisfying intellectually. Looking at the film's credits, it's not hard to figure that screenwriter Richard Matheson is to thank for that. I remember watching this film as a youngster (on Creature Feature, naturally) and being thrilled by Scott Carey's miniature battle for survival but not really "getting" the film's overtly philosophical conclusion at all. Watching it again, years later, I'm able to appreciate some of the adult subtext at work, such as knowing looks exchanged between Carey and his wife when he tells her "there's a limit" to what she should have to accept, a reference to his diminishing capability to satisfy her sexually. There was also a strange subplot in which he falls into a somewhat suspicious "friendship" with equally diminutive (but downright gorgeous) blonde "dwarf" who's clearly a potential romantic rival for his wife. But that storyline was killed before it had a chance to develop. I wonder whether this "emotional infidelity" subplot appeared more prominently in Matheson's original book.
The Machine That Kills Bad People (La macchina ammazzacattivi) (3/23/13) TCM (1952 **) Directed by Roberto Rossellini, starring Gennaro Pisano, Giovanni Amato and William Tubbs. In a small, corrupt Italian seaside town, a photographer is granted the power to kill with his camera. This film was nominally a comedy, and certainly it was frequently apparent that its goal was a darkish humor, but I didn't find it especially funny. I must confess there were cultural aspects of the story I didn't really "get," like a running gag about a visiting American and his family having to change their accomodations over and over due to sudden and unexpected deaths. This movie has apparently gained something of a cult following due to its auspicious director, its audacious title and the fact that it was considered "lost" for so many years. Part of the story behind this film is that Rossellini more or less lost interest in the production and so it was finished by another filmmaker before originally distributing it to lukewarm reviews and box office.
Michael Nesmith (3/24/13) The Canyon Club, Agoura Hills (2013 ****) First, a word about The Canyon Club: On Facebook, my wife described this venue as "Roadhouse meets House of Blues meets dinner theater in a bordello." That description was amazingingly accurate. Having said that, I'd definitely go to another show there in the future. I've written before that Mike Nesmith was not only my favorite Monkee when I was a kid (he was my wife's favorite too), but his pioneering video album Elephant Parts, which intercut SNL-ish sketches with music videos, was a huge influence on my own TV productions while in college. As a consequence, I was reasonably familiar with Nesmith's post-Monkees solo work. I knew going in that Nesmith was not planning to play much if anything from his "wool hat" years and I was concerned that the crowd would turn against him. I shouldn't have worried. "Papa Nez" opened with one of the Monkees' songs he wrote and is well associated with, "Papa Genes Blues," and the crowd just ate it up. Though he's gained a reputation over the years as an egotist and a bit of a... well, asshole, his persona for the evening was entirely affable and warm. He proceeded more or less chronologically through his FIFTY YEARS of songwriting, hitting upon some of my personal favorites like "Joanne," "Rio" and "Cruisin' (Lucy and Ramona)." From Nesmith's Facebook posts, I was also used to his idiosyncratic writing voice, which he used to great effect in his song introductions. Each song was prefaced with a little framing story, creating a narrative context. It's a technique I've never seen used before (at least to this extent) in a concert, and it seemed to be well-received. In all, I'm very glad to have gone. I had been frankly disappointed by the Nesmith/Dolenz/Tork Monkees show I'd seen at the Greek Theater in November, and it was nice to see one of my heroes in a much more intimate setting.
For All Mankind (3/25/13) TCM (1989 ***) Directed by Al Reinert, featuring narration by Jim Lovell, Michael Collins, Alan Bean and many other Apollo astronauts, with original music by Brian Eno. Culled from 6 million feet (!) of NASA footage, this documentary takes viewers along on an amalgam of Apollo lunar missions 8 through 17. If you consider yourself a "space geek," this film is probably a must-see. Though some of the footage Reinert chose was familiar, the majority was not, and some of that "fresh footage" was utterly thrilling. Instead of aiming for a straight informative documentary about the history of the Apollo space program, Reinert created instead a mood piece that aimed to capture the awesome wonder of the fact that we once had the audacity to put men on the tip of a rocket and blast them to the moon. The voice-over soundtrack fully supported this, featuring no real "information," but just the sounds of communication between mission control and the astronauts as well as narration in which the Apollo astronauts attempted to describe what they were feeling during their missions. Brian Eno's original music played throughout, effectively underscoring the overall mood. It's worth noting that director Al Reinert went on to co-write the screenplay for the 1995 film Apollo 13, and For All Mankind clearly influenced the superb HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon (1998), for which Reinert wrote one episode and contributed to the writing of a second.
Skyfall (3/26/13) Netflix (2012 ***1/4) Directed by Sam Mendes, starring Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney. When a former agent targets M (Dench) and MI-6 for revenge, Agent 007 must return... from the dead. It's hard to believe it's been fifty years since Sean Connery first appeared as James Bond in Dr. No (1962). The makers of Skyfall were quite aware of that fact and sprinkled a few choice references to Bond's golden anniversary throughout the film. But while celebrating Bond's past, the film made a point of setting up the franchise's future as well. Growing up, I always saw films in the James Bond franchise as big-budget action movies that were as satisfying (and nourishing) as popcorn and didn't require much thought. This, the 23rd "official" Bond film, certainly was satisfying on that level. Javier Bardem was amazing as Silva, Skyfall's villain. And the groundskeeper Kincade, who appeared in the film's final act, looked very familiar, but I didn't realize until looking at the credits that he was played by none other than Albert Finney! All in all, Skyfall was a jolly good show (and addition to the franchise) and worth renting. Now, if only I could find a way to get Adele's Oscar-winning song out of my freakin' head!
Ghost World (3/27/13) Sundance (2001 ***) Directed by Terry Zwigoff, based on the comic stories by Daniel Clowes, starring Thora Birch, Steve Buscemi and Scarlett Johansson. Recent high school graduate and lifelong oddball Enid befriends a middle-aged blues fan and tries to figure out her place in a world filled with people she despises. It's always a little sad when you have fond memories of a movie and you watch it again and it doesn't hold up. Such was the case for me with Ghost World, which I once considered a personal favorite. Watching it again for the first time in a decade, I was incredibly bothered by Thora Birch's acting, which was frequently awkward and amateurish. However, at least some of the blame for that clearly was due to Zwigoff's less-than-great directing. Perhaps I'm the one who's changed, though. Instead of finding Enid as endearing and sympathetic as I once did, I found her off-putting and hard to relate to. However, the film still had its occasional moments, such as the film's opening scene, which found Enid dancing to the Bollywood musical Gumnaam (1965). I also felt that unlike many films that start out strong then peter out, Ghost World actually improved as it went along.
1600 Penn, Season 1 (3/30/13) NBC (2012-2013 ***1/4) Created by Josh Gad, Jon Lovett and Jason Winer, starring Josh Gad, Jenna Elfman, Bill Pullman and Martha MacIsaac. 12 episodes, originally aired 12/17/12 - 3/28/13. President Dale Gilchrist has his hands full with a strong-willed first lady and an eldest son who is an incurable romantic with his head in the clouds. In spite of myself, this show grew on me. Though the writing was a little uneven at first, it seemed to find itself about halfway through it's short run. I can't help but wonder if some of that enjoyment didn't come from missing The West Wing. In many ways this show could be seen as a sit-com version of Aaron Sokin's award-winning show. It's a shame that the ratings were as poor as they were and that the show won't be back in the fall. I look forward to seeing what Josh Gad (Book of Mormon, The Daily Show) does in the future. On a minor note, there's one thing that has bugged me from the first episode: I swear that 1600 Penn's opening theme music was lifted directly from NBC's geneology show, Who Do You Think You Are?
The Walking Dead, Season 3 (3/31/13) AMC (2012-2013 ****) Series created by Frank Darabont, based on the comic by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard, starring Andrew Lincoln, Jon Bernthal and Sarah Wayne Callies. 16 episodes, originally aired 10/14/12 - 3/31/13. Rick and company learn that their safe prison home is threatened by Woodbury, a town led by a man called The Governor. I can't believe there are some people who think this series is dull. I enjoyed every single episode and it ranked high on my "shows I can't wait to watch" list. As a reader of Kirkman's comics as well, it's been interesting to see the TV show continue to diverge from the original source material, though elements from the comics occasionally show up, as in the case of some of the characters (like Tyrell) or a certain prison telephone. Without giving anything way, I know some people were disappointed by the season's end, but I appreciated that it was not the ending I would have predicted. I very much look forward to the next season, which I presume will start in October, and wonder if the season length will continue to expand? With its ratings, it must surely be AMC's most prized cash cow, even though it hasn't received much in the way of critical acclaim, like AMC's Mad Men or Breaking Bad.
Talking Dead, Season 2 (3/31/13 ***1/2) Each episode of AMC's The Walking Dead is followed immediately by high energy comedian Chris Hardwick and his guests, including Walking Dead co-creator Robert Kirkman, Andrew Lincoln, Michael Rooker and Kevin Smith. 16 episodes, originally aired 7/8/12 - 3/31/13. I still love the audacity of this show. The fact that it even exists is a kick. Hardwick continued to exude a borderline manic enthusiasm which was perfectly in keeping with heated fan discussions of the latest Walking Dead episode. The show was extended to a full hour this season, as well as stretching it to match the 16 episodes of its parent show. While there were a few instances where the show felt a little "padded," the discussion was still a great deal of fun, and I wonder if other TV shows will follow suit. It was especially entertaining when this show's "special surprise guests" turned out to be the actors who had just been killed off in that week's episode of The Walking Dead.
Bell Book and Candle (3/31/13) TCM (1958 **) Directed by Richard Quine, based on the play by John Van Druten, starring James Stewart, Kim Novak, Jack Lemmon, Hermione Gingold and Ernie Kovacs. A New York City practitioner of magic "bewitches" a book publisher into falling madly in love with her. (Before moving on, I want to point out that the official title of the film does not contain a comma between 'Bell' and 'Book.' I have no idea why.) I watched this film about twenty years ago, largely because of my hero worship of TV genius / legend Ernie Kovacs. Watching it again after all these years, it hadn't improved much with age. There seemed to be a lot of "phoning it in" class of acting, with Jack Lemmon giving what seemed to be the most apparent effort. It was hard not to think of the characters Gillian and Shep as prototypes for TV's Samantha and Darrin. Clearly the TV show Bewitched, which ran from 1964-1972) took a great deal of its inspiration from Bell Book and Candle. The film's backstory may actually be the most interesting thing about it: Stewart and Novak had appeared earlier the same year in a slightly better-remembered film called Vertigo. Their re-pairing was no coincidence: Novak had been loaned out by Columbia to Paramount for Vertigo in direct exchange for Stewart's appearance in this film. By the way, this comedy's title comes from a somewhat somber source: a Catholic excommunication ceremony that begins with ringing a bell, opening a (holy) book and lighting a candle, but ends with ringing the bell, closing the book and blowing the candle out.

April

The Sessions (4/4/13) Netflix (2012 ***1/2) Directed by Ben Lewin, starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H. Macy, based Mark O'Brien's essay, "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate." An invalid poet, who must spend most of his day in an iron lung to survive, decides to lose his virginity with the help of a sex surrogate. This film was based on the true story of polio victim Mark O'Brien and his sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Green. O'Brien's story was a captivating one and the film's frank discussion about sex was pretty refreshing, though it may not be the film you want to watch with your grandmother or your in-laws. In that respect, it reminded me of other sex-themed films, Kinsey (2004) and Hysteria (2011). The promoters of The Sessions made no secret that it includes several daring and indisputably plot-motivated nude scenes. In return for her full-frontal courage, Helen Hunt was nominated for (but did not receive) a Best Actress Oscar. Given the film's constraints (modest budget, real life basis), it was exceptionally well-executed and well-deserving of its nomination for Best Picture. However, as very good as it was, The Sessions still missed being "great," though by a decidedly slim margin. Interestingly enough, this was not the only film made based on O'Brien's experiences. He was also the focus of Jessica Yu's 1996 Oscar-winning short documentary, Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien.
Makers: Women Who Make America (4/7/13) PBS (2013 ***1/2) Directed by Barak Goodman, Narrated by Meryl Streep, featuring interviews with Gloria Steinem, Marlo Thomas, Billie Jean King, Barbara Walters and many more. Originally aired as three one-hour parts, on 2/26/13. This miniseries documentary examines the history of the women's movement, including the personalities and conflicts that shaped it. Have woman in America really "come a long way, baby?" Considering recent political rumblings, like forces looking to overturn "Roe v. Wade," it's definitely a question open for debate. As a man raised by a single mother, I'm proud of growing up free of any misconception that women are somehow second-class citizens. Equality of the sexes has always been a given for me, and I'm glad I don't carry around much in the way of male chauvinist / sexist baggage. Having said that, I've never honestly given feminism or the origins of the women's movement much thought. This documentary was very informative and it gave me a greater appreciation for the courageous women (and some men) who were willing to stand up against the status quo and fight the righteous fight when it was pretty damned dangerous to do so. The documentary also provided a good understanding of context, particularly how the women's movement came about in large part thanks to the civil rights movement. It also examined various factions within the movement who were often not in alignment as to what their goals were. The position of Betty Friedan, ground-breaking author of The Feminine Mystique, was decidedly different from that of Gloria Steinem, founder of Ms. Magazine.
Game of Thrones, Season 1 (4/8/13) Netflix / HBO (2011 ****) Series created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, based on the book series A Song of Ice and Fire by George Martin, starring Sean Bean, Michelle Fairley, Lena Heady and Peter Dinklage. Ten episodes, originally aired 4/17/11 - 6/19/11. In spite of time playing AD&D in high school and college, I don't consider myself much of a "swords and sorcery" kinda guy. Well, my wife and I finally jumped onto the dirty, bloody, full-frontal myriad-character-filled world of HBO's Game of Thrones. And an amazing world it is, too, with lots of action, plot twists and well-drawn and varied characters. Given the scope of the show, it's impressive that it only occasionally drifted into melodrama. And God bless you, HBO for including copious helpings of nudity motivated just enough by situations to avoid calling it gratuitous. I have to say, though, that I kept flashing back to an SNL sketch from last season in which Andy Samberg played the show's 14 year-old "consultant."
The Walking Dead, Vol. 17: Something to Fear (4/14/13) Comics (2012 ***1/2) Written by Robert Kirkman, illustrated by Charlie Adlard. Originally published in The Walking Dead #97-102. Rick Grimes and company are forced to deal with the fallout from becoming the protectors of "The Hilltop" from some dude named Negan, who may or may not even exist. As you can tell by my three and a half star rating, this was one of the better volumes, and without giving anything away, it contains one of the more memorable scenes (and indelible images) in the entire 100-issue-plus series. The take-away of this volume was that there are bad-asses and there are bad-asses. And I can't wait to find out what happens next!
Invincible, Vol. 17: What's Happening? (4/17/13) Comics (2013 **1/2) Written by Robert Kirkman, illustrated by Ryan Ottley and Cory Walker. Originally published in Invincible #91-96. After being infected by the Viltrumite virus, "invincible" teen Mark Grayson is sidelined (possibly permanently) while the series focus shifts to second-string characters, particularly Monster Girl and Robot Rex. Bluntly put, this was my least favorite of all the Invincible volumes I've read. In my reviews of Kirkman's Walking Dead comics, I've often been a bit of an apologist for volumes that were... well, boring. And this was a pretty damned lame volume. I've never given a flying damn about Monster Girl or Robot Rex, and so finding them occupying roughly half the book's pages was disappointing. I suspect it may have been done largely so that penciling duties between Ottley and Walker could be creatively split, with Walker penciling the extended "Monster / Rex" 700-year storyline. Will I continue reading? Yes, I suppose so. After all, I've been borrowing the books from a friend, so it's not like it's costing me anything more than the time it takes to read them. I only hope Robert Kirkman will find a way to make the series as captivating again as it once was. Given his track record, he may well surprise me. It would be nice if that happens sooner than later.
Downton Abbey, Season 2 (4/19/13) Netflix (2011 ***1/2) Series created by Julian Fellowes, starring Hugh Bonneville, Jim Carter, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern and Maggie Smith. Eight episodes plus a Christmas special, originally aired 9/18/11 - 12/25/11. "The Great War" comes to Downton Abbey, and the Crawley's must "make do" when their home is turned into a recovery center for injured WWI officers. I'm still bewildered by how a period costume drama slash soap opera about people we have no basis for identifying with has been do damned engaging for my wife and myself. I suppose if I did a lot of searching I could find something universal in the situations in both high and low worlds. In many ways, it simply boils down to loving the characters, particularly the romantic relationship between John Bates and Anna Smith. I admit to being somewhat less interested in the other three or four romantic entanglements, however. As much as I enjoyed the show, I had occasional frustrations with some of the storytelling. It seemed like the slowly-evolving romance between the Crawley's youngest daughter Sybil and the family chauffer, Tom Branson, played out as virtually the same exact scene repeated four or five times. I was also occasionally aware of certain unabashed soap opera conventions sneaking in, such as a facially disfigured veteran who claimed to have suffered from a nasty bout of amnesia. I mean, seriously. A disfigured amnesiac?
Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story (4/23/13) TCM (2007 ***) Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, featuring interviews with Roger Corman, Joe Dante, John Landis, Leonard Maltin, John Waters and many others. The life and career of movie schlockmeister extraordinaire William Castle is presented in demented Documentar-O! This was a fairly well executed documentary, with plenty of great interviewees. The film's subject was fascinating, particularly the accounts of how Castle repeated a pattern of spending as much time looking for the right gimmick than making his low-budget films themselves. Growing up, I saw most of William Castle's films, with The Tingler and House on Haunted Hill leaving definite impressions on me. Of course I saw those films on Creature Feature, so I missed out on all the in-theater gadgets and shenanigans. Sadly, Castle's personal story wasn't an especially happy nor interesting one. The end of his career was all about a desperate (it would be easy to say "pathetic") search for artistic respect. But he was thwarted at every turn, either by his own creative limitations or by circumstances beyond his control. This was nowhere more apparent than when he acquired the rights to the book Rosemary's Baby, only to be forced to turn directing reins over to Roman Polanski.
Hitchcock (4/25/13) Netflix (2012 ***) Directed by Sacha Gervasi, based on the book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello, starring Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Toni Collette and Danny Huston. In the late 1950s, Alfred Hitchcock turned his back on his tried and true suspense formula and gambled everything to make a horror film named Psycho. While this film wasn't exactly terrible, it felt throughout as though it had been a half-hearted effort, with much to like but also a lot that could have been so very much better. Anthony Hopkins spent the entire film in prosthetic makeup that looked to me less like Hitchcock and more like Danny DeVito's Penguin had been disfigured in a car accident. It was a real odd mix of a film: Toni Collette was sadly underutilized as Hitchcock's secretary, but James D'Arcy delivered an eerie performance as Anthony Perkins. My wife was particularly distracted and bothered by fantasy sequences in which "Hitch" spoke with Ed Gein, the mass murderer on which Robert Bloch's novel was based. All in all, I was intrigued by the actual "making of Psycho" material and far less so by the speculative drama between the world's best-known director and his wife. By strange coincidence, I watched this film two days after watching the documentary Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story (2007), especially considering that Hitchcock's promotional strategy for Psycho ("Do not reveal the ending!") was lifted directly from Castle's big bag o' ballyhoo.
The Last Detail (4/29/13) TCM (1973 ****) Directed by Hal Ashby, screenplay by Robert Towne, based on the novel by Darryl Ponicsan, starring Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid, Otis Young and Carol Kane. Two Navy men transport a young kleptomaniac to the prison where he'll spend the next eight years of his life. A few years back I read and loved (and reviewed) Towne's screenplay for this film in a writing class-assigned book that paired it with his Chinatown script. I'd watched this film years ago, as a young man, but its subtlety and poetry didn't touch me then like it did now, later in my life. Having lived through a lot of the experiences "the human condition" inevitably throws at you, I could sincerely respect Mulhall's: "I hate this detail. I hate this fucking chickenshit detail!" line far more now. I've been a fan of Hal Ashby since first seeing Harold and Maude when I was age 16, and his deft direction was both invisible and perfect. In addition, if you ever encounter anyone who doesn't think Jack Nicholson can act, showing them this film will quickly shut them up. His raw energy in this film rivaled a young Marlon Brando. In my review of the screenplay, I wrote that it was "a subtle character study, with barely enough plot to constitute a movie." It's true that on face value there's not much of a story, though seeing it in film form made the trio's journey more palpable. While The Last Detail may not be for everyone, and I can see why some might not appreciate it for what it is, I highly, highly, highly recommend it.

May

Dawn of the Dead (5/2/13) Netflix (1978 ***) Written and directed by George Romero, starring David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger and Gaylen Ross. As infected swarms of the recently-risen dead take over the planet, four people steal a helicopter and take refuge in a zombie-infested shopping mall. I've recently been working on an experimental video project based on Romero's original Night of the Living Dead. Consequentely, I've fallen into what could charitably be called a "zombie phase." In addition to this film, I've been reading a behind-the-scenes book about the first film and all the films that followed, and the description of Romero's first follow-up was particularly interesting. Though not perfect by any stretch, Dawn of the Dead worked nicely as both a zombie film and also as a commentary on consumer culture. While it wouldn't be considered a comedy by anyone in his or her right mind, humor definitely played a part in the film. Shot in "living dead" color, it is pretty gory at times, so I wouldn't necessarily recommend it for Thanksgiving with the family, though I suppose it might depend on the family.
About Time (5/5/13) Short Fiction (1986 ***1/2) Written by Jack Finney. This short story collection contains twelve science fiction stories, most of them about time travel in some form, originally published between 1957 and 1962. I had been looking for something to read that would be a pleasant diversion, and I happened to run across this book amongst my collection. This was the second time reading About Time, which I first read more than a decade ago. I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed Finney's writing, though with this reading I became aware that some of the stories were decidedly stronger than others. It's odd to think that the man who write the book on which The Invasion of the Body Snatchers was based was also capable of such a perfect marriage of science fiction and nostalgia. The reason Jack Finney's stories worked as well as they did was that they all had heart. Each and every one had a strong emotional component. I may have to pay a visit to our storage unit and try to dig out a copy of his other time travel story collection, Time and Again.
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print (2nd Edition) (5/5/13) Nonfiction (2010 ***1/4) Written by Renni Browne and Dave King. Experienced editors Renni Browne and Dave King break the revision process into several bite-sized chunks, providing plenty of examples taken from their clients as well as well-known works. This was actually a pretty quick read, and I read most of it while flying from St. Louis to Los Angeles. There was a time whenit seemed I read a different book on writing technique on a daily basis, and so I have a great deal of familiarity with the genre. This one was written in a particularly clear and light manner. While I knew much of the information presented in the book, review on the basics of editing is always helpful, and I found the section on dialogue mechanics to be especially informative. My only wish was that the chapters had given just a tad more depth. According to the Introduction, the authors' stated goal was to create a book that could sit on a shelf with The Elements of Style without embarrassing itself. Though it's not quite on par with that book, I feel they accomplished their mission. Its structure also lends itself to being used as the textbook for an introductory editing class.
Game of Thrones, Season 2 (5/7/13) Netflix / HBO (2012 ***1/2) Series created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, based on the books by George Martin, starring Sean Bean, Michelle Fairley, Lena Heady and Peter Dinklage. Ten episodes, originally aired 4/1/12 - 6/3/12. Following the death of a central character and the coronation of young (sadist) Joffrey, Tyrion Lannister takes over as Hand of the King. Also... everything else happens. This season is characterized by two main factors: (1) War and (2) Multiple storylines taking place all over George Martin's medieval fantasy world. It's all very well done, of course, and quite entertaining, with interesting characters, situations and borderline-gratuitous nudity. Highlights of the second season included Tyrian demonstrating his skills as a military strategist while his nephew demonstrates his capacity for sadism. Also, Daenerys, the mother of dragons, discovers her fire-breathing offspring need more protection than she realized.
Key Largo (5/10/13) TCM (1948 ****) Directed by John Huston, based on the play by Maxwell Anderson, starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Edward G. Robinson and Lionel Barrymore. Once-great racketeer Johnny Rocco kicks off his comeback by taking over a Florida Keys hotel in the middle of a hurricane. I knew John Huston was an important director, and I've seen plenty of his movies, but I don't think I realized just how truly masterful he was before seeing this film. His deft hand in Key Largo is absolutely flawless, and there isn't an imperfect shot in the whole damned thing. Not only that, he didn't call attention to himself once. The performance Huston got from Edward G. Robinson was especially effective, though the script (by Huston and Richard Brooks) may have had something to do with it. As villains go, Johnny Rocco was well-drawn and multi-layered, exhibiting at times intelligence, pragmatism, insecurity and cruelty. What a master class in characterization! Incidentally, this was the last of the four films Bogie and Bacall made together, but of course their off-screen story was far from over.
Iron Man 3 (5/11/13) Glendale Pacific 18 (2013 ****) Directed by Shane Black, starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Rebecca hall and Sir Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin. Following the events of last summer's The Avengers, Tony Stark deals with PTSD by challenging a wannabe Osama Bin Laden to a showdown at Stark's Malibu home. I loved the first Iron Man film, but after the disappointment of the second one and Jon Favreau handing over his directing reins, I didn't expect much from Iron Man 3. Besides, after the awesomeness of last summer's The Avengers (2012), how could any other Marvel Universe movie compete? Well, there were two things I hadn't counted on: (1) Not every director shift is a bad one, and Shane Black really brought his A-Game and (2) Robert Downey Jr. Downey's Tony Stark truly is a wonderfully-drawn character, with more than enough coolness to carry a film. Iron Man 3 was really just an opportunity for Downey to shine, with some great lines, great delivery, great action and plenty of unexpected humor. By the way, I'm giving this film 4 stars because I loved it just that much, but I want you to know I'm not blind; I estimate there was one plot hole introduced for every ten shots, which with an approximate shot count of 1,500 would mean 150 plot holes. I know that's a rough figure, but it sounds about right. In other words: It's summer. It's Iron Man 3. Leave your brain at home, Poindexter.
The Outlaw (5/11/13) TCM (1943 *1/2) Directed by Howard Hughes, screenplay by Jules Furthman, starring Jack Buetel, Jane Russell, Thomas Mitchell and Walter Huston. Sheriff Pat Garrett tracks down Billy the Kid and Doc Holliday. Also, Jane Russell's boobs! This movie offers a master class in how not to make a film. This may well have been the movie that inspired Ed Wood to go in to film production. In fact, if I ever find myself teaching a class on learning filmmaking by a series of negative examples, The Outlaw is a must-see, because it contains so many individual missteps. Let's face it: as directors go, Howard Hughes was an amazing eccentric billionaire recluse. As Bill Hader's Stefon would say, this film has it all: Obtrusive "Mickey Mouse" music, terrible editing, character motivations that defy credulity and a range of incompatible acting styles, with excruciatingly bad performances by Walter Huston and the terribly miscast lead, Jack Buetel. I had never given much thought to character actor Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy in It's a Wonderful Life), but compared to the other actors, he was freakin' Laurence Olivier! Watching the film, I wondered seriously if it couldn't be improved substantially with a new edit. It might even make an interesting project to see if Buetel's performance might be improved marginally by digitally enhancing his generally monotonic voice. Finally, I remember reading that there was a great deal of publicity surrounding Jane Russell's impressive superstructure, and that Hughes' had his aerospace engineers design some kind of special brassiere. Now, having watched the actual film, while Russell's chest was impressive, I suspect the ballyhoo was all part of a publicity effort to pull attention away from Hughes' less-than-stellar directing skills.
Next (5/11/13) FXM (2007 **) Directed by Lee Tamahori, based on the story "The Golden Man" as Phillip K. Dick, starring Nicolas Cage, Julianne Moore and Jessica Biel. A low-rent Vegas magician with the ability to see up to two minutes in the future gets recruited by Federal agents to help stop a nuclear terrorist. I was looking for a mindless film and this fit the bill to perfection, as so many of the movies on FXM seem to do. I've always gotten kind of a "guilty pleasure" kick out of Nicholas Cage, and he seemed well suited for his role as, well, a "low-rent Vegas magician with the ability to see up to two minutes into the future." However, if you choose to watch Next, it would be best to leave your higher brain function disengaged; if you took a moment to actually think about the story, the film frequently violated the logic inherent in its premise. In a surprising choice, it's worth noting that this film didn't offer anything resembling a memorable "boss villain," but instead provided an ensemble of generally anonymous vaguely European henchmen. Without giving anything away, I also must say that the film ended in a weird, highly-unusual fashion. Though I acknowledge it flowed logically from the film's premise, it was also pretty darn unsatisfying.
Twice Blessed (5/12/13) TCM (1945 **1/2) Directed by Harry Beaumont, starring Preston Foster, Gail Patrick and Lee and Lyn Wilde. Stephanie and Terry are two identical twins who swap places in an effort to reunite their divorced parents. Reading the description for this film, I imagined it might be the original film on which Hayley Mills' The Parent Trap (1961) was based, but while Twice Blessed shared some story elements, it had a different actual storyline. Still, it was clearly the inspiration for both The Parent Trap and The Patty Duke Show, which begs the question: Would a hot dog make either or both of the Twice Blessed sisters lose control? The sisters, by the way, were played by actual twins, Lee and Lyn Wilde, who each bore an uncanny resemblance to a young Christina Applegate. Twin antics aside, this was not a great film by any stretch, but still enjoyable. That is, if you could get past the film's blatantly chauvenist message and one unfortunate scene in which the twins disguised themselves in blackface to pass as hotel maids. Yeah... those are some big obstacles to get over, aren't they? But still, twins!
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (5/13/13) IFC (1964 ****) Directed by Stanley Kubrick, screenplay by Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George, based on the book Red Alert by Peter George, starring Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden and Slim Pickens. A general obsessed with the adverse effects of fluoridation on his "precious bodily fluids" exceeds his authority and launches an atomic attack on the Soviet Union. Simply put, this is an amazing film, and with each scene I marveled at the brilliant and gutsy choices Kubrick made. The combination of cinema verite with black comedy was incredibly powerful, and this film is a direct descendant of Robert Altman's M*A*S*H (1970). Given this approach, it was an especially daring choice to cast Peter Sellers in three roles: Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley and the titular Dr. Strangelove. This multi-casting in comedies had been done before, even as far back as Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). It shouldn't have worked in the context of a comedy about nuclear holocaust, and yet it did. There's a reason this film is on so many "must see" lists, and even though we're no longer living under the same threat of atomic annihilation, somehow we can still relate. And of course, there's still the issue of fluoridation...
Above and Beyond (5/17/13) TCM (1952 ***) Directed by Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, starring Robert Taylor, Eleanor Parker, James Whitmore and Larry Keating. A brave pilot named Paul Tibbets is recruited to lead the mission to drop the first atomic bomb, but accepting this assignment comes at great personal cost. This film was gripping due to its subject matter, particularly because it was released a mere seven years after the bombing of Hiroshima. However, the film's main dramatic focus was the effect of atomic stress on a marriage: Because of the extraordinary security involved, Tibbets couldn't even tell his wife what he was working on and why he was coming home every night so stressed out. Unfortunately, the scenes of marital disintegration frequently lapsed into melodrama as well as becoming repetitive. I was also aware that the writers had to walk a careful line, considering that the two main characters were based on real, still-living people. The film's upbeat ending for the couple was a bit ironic: In real live, Paul and Lucey Tibbets divorced a few years after the film's release. I imagine having a feature film that centered on their strained marriage (as well as connecting it to the beginning of the atomic age) probably didn't help things much.
Star Trek (5/18/13) Blu-Ray (2009 ****) Directed by J.J. Abrams, written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Leonard Nimoy and Eric Bana. Recent starfleet academy graduate James Kirk gets his first shot at commanding a starship in a battle of wits against a Romulan from the future named Nero. With the release of Star Trek Into Darkness, I wanted to re-watch the first film (well, the 11th, technically) as a kind of preparation. Four years is a long time, but I was delighted to see my enjoyment of this film hadn't diminished one iota. I've read a lot of snarky comments about J.J. Abrams and his predilection for lens flares, to which I say: So what? I loved this film from start to finish, especially enjoying that the film took the iconic characters I spent many childhood hours watching and made them feel fresh and relevant again. In addition, I have a great appreciation for the fact that while the film is clearly a reboot, it actually managed to serve that purpose as well as it did while still not invalidating the prior series. That was one clever bit of narrative acrobatics, and made me love the film all the more.
Glory (5/18/13) Sundance (1989 ***1/2) Directed by Edward Zwick, based on the book by Lincoln Kirstein, starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes, Morgan Freeman and Andre Braugher. Civil War Union Colonel Robert Shaw trains a historic company of black soldiers and leads them into battle. This is one of those films I've been aware of since its original release, but never quite got around to watching until now. I'm glad I finally did: It's a good and extraordinarily moving film, though it's also a bloody one, with several unflinching and brutal battle sequences. In another of my "fantasy double feature series," it would make an interesting pairing with either The Longest Day (1962) or Saving Private Ryan (1998). Every single component of the film (script, directing, acting, cinematography) was rock-solid, and though I don't often give a shout-out to music in my reviews, I was aware several times (often with tears in my eyes) that James Horner's score contributed significantly to Glory's cinematic power.
Avengers Vs. X-Men (5/18/13) Graphic Novel (2012 ***1/2) Written by Brian Michael Bendis, Ed Brubaker and various, illustrated by Ed McGuinness, John Romita, Jr. and various. Originally published in Point One #1, Avengers vs. X-Men #0-12, AVX: VS #1-6 and Infinite Comics #1, #6 and #10. The Phoenix is back, and this time its target is a young mutant named Hope. The question of whether she's mankind's savior or its greatest threat launches an extended battle royale, with (as the title suggests) the X-Men on one side and The Avengers on the other. Though impressive in scope (the list price on the hardback was $75), this book was much easier to follow than most of the "event" series I've read recently. And yes, I'm looking at you, Blackest Night. I very much appreciated that, and being able to know what was was going on most of the time increased my level of enjoyment, believe it or not. The book's consistency was even more impressive, considering the collaborative work of the number of writers and artists involved. It was apparent that a great deal of well-designed comic production "handshaking" was going on. As for the story itself, it was solid, but I have to admit it didn't completely engage me either emotionally or intellectually. Though there was some complexity in the motivations of the various super-powered individuals involved, some of the "us versus them" side-taking seemed a tad arbitrary.
Star Trek Into Darkness (3-D) (5/20/13) Glendale Pacific 18 (2013 ***1/2) Directed by J.J. Abrams, starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg and Benedict Cumberbatch. James Tiberious Kirk breaks every rule in the book as he takes The U.S.S. Enterprise and its intrepid crew to hunt down a super-powered terrorist. With the long overdue release of the new Star Trek film, I had deliberately re-watched the previous one. There used to be a common joke about the relative quality of even versus odd-numbered films in Paramount's "Trek" franchise. Officially, Star Trek Into Darkness, though it's the second film in the "reboot," is the 12th film. One of the film's hallmarks is that it has a number of callbacks to the actual second film, The Wrath of Kahn, one of the best in the series, if not the best. Into Darkness, though generally well-received, has had a fairly polarized response, and I knew that going in. The fact that the film had a fairly convoluted script didn't help, and yes, there are a number of plot-holes for those inclined to look for them. For myself, I settled into my seat with my brain largely disengaged, and I had a pretty good ride, though I didn't like it quite as much as the previous film. I also probably could have skipped seeing it in 3-D. One final note: I really enjoyed Pine's interpretation of James Kirk, though there were one or two times when I was reminded of John Belushi's impression of William Shatner in the classic SNL "cancellation of Star Trek" sketch.
Carry On Spying (5/23/13) TCM (1964 **1/2) Directed by Gerald Thomas, starring Kenneth Williams, Barbara Windsor, Bernard Cribbins and Charles Hawtrey. British secret agent Desmond Simkins leads a band of well-meaning misfits on an international adventure to recover a secret formula. After James Bond exploded on the screen in 1963 with Dr. No, the 1960s experienced a wave of spy spoofs, of which Carry On Spying may well have been the first. It was the ninth in the series of 31 films in the "Carry On" series, and the fifth one I've watched personally. As spy spoofs go, this 50-year-old film was decidedly on the light side. Modern audiences will likely either accept the "Carry On" style of humor or find it cringe-worthy, but I tend to be open-minded about that kind of thing. However, one thing most straight males (as well as un-straight females) will undoubtedly agree on: An (ahem) apex of the film was Barbara Windsor's impressive... er, measurements.
Modern Family, Season 4 (5/26/13) ABC (2012-2013 ***1/2) Series created by Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, starring Ed O'Neill, Sofia Vergara, Eric Stonestreet and Julie Bowen. 24 episodes, originally aired 9/26/12 - 5/22/13. Jay Pritchett's extended family continues to thrive, including a new addition. Highlights of this season included (a) Haley going to college, getting arrested and returning home; (b) Gloria giving birth to the newest Pritchett; and (c) Cameron and Claire becoming house-flippers. While the fourth season of Modern Family was consistently entertaining, it would seem the show has lost some of its magic, and this season was somewhat less fresh than seasons past. In particular, the characters have been so well-established that they've become a little predictable. Still, Modern Family is easily one of the best shows on television and we'll keep watching as long as they'll have us.
New Girl, Season 2 (5/26/13) FOX (2012-2013 **1/2) Series created by Elizabeth Meriweather, starring Zooey Deschanel, Jake M. Johnson, Max Greenfield, Hannah Simone and Lamome Morris. 25 episodes originally aired 9/25/12 - 5/14/13. In this second season, the titular "new girl" Jess and her roommate Nick continue their inevitable dance into the bedroom. I'm afraid this show has become something of a disappointment. While there was some energy in the "will they or won't they?" question that lingered through the season, it wasn't enough to save it from a lot of other problems. And I think the number one problem this show has had since its beginning has been not knowing what to do with its characters. Take Lamorne Morris 's Winston, for example. The show's writers have had two years to figure out how to make that character work, and they've tried what seems like a dozen approaches, but still, even in the very last episode of Season 2, it was painfully apparent that they still hadn't figured it out. That problem was true to various extents with all the show's characters. Will we continue watching in the fall? I don't know for certain, but I anticipate an upcoming conversation with my wife on that very topic. And I know what side I'm going to be on.
The Mindy Project, Season 1 (5/27/13) FOX (2012-2013 ***1/4) Series created by Mindy Kaling, starring Mindy Kaling, Chris Messina, Ed Weeks, Zoe Jarman and Ike Barinholtz. 24 episodes, originally aired 9/25/12 - 5/14/13. Obstetrician Mindy Lahiri works, laughs and loves (and loves, and loves...) in The Big Apple. This show took a few episodes to find its footing, but once it did, it became a staple in hour household TV watching. While most of the supporting characters felt at first like they were generated by a "random supporting sit-com characters generator" app, they began to grow on me over this first season. On a recent appearance on The Daily Show, Mindy Kaling made a comment about how she was one of a small group of individuals with their own TV shows named after them. My feeling is she deserves to be in that small set. She really is the star of the show and our primary reason for watching. In her role as show producer, Kaling clearly had no compunction about calling in favors from famous friends, and it was nice to see the guest appearances over the season by Bill Hader, Ed Helms, and B.J. Novak. It was also somewhat refreshing to see her go through several boyfriends (and near-boyfriends) over the course of the season, and while the final episode indicates she's committing to one of them, it's equally obvious that she still has more to go through before she finds "the one."
(START HERE) Booster Gold: Reality Lost (5/27/13) Comics (2009 ***1/4) Written by Chuck Dixon and Dan Jurgens, illustrated by Dan Jurgens and Norm Rapmund. Originally published in Booster Gold #11,12,15-19. Fame-seeker Booster Gold accepts obscurity in order to ride Rip Hunter's time bubble back and forth in the time stream, "setting right what once went wrong." Yep, you guessed it: Booster's pretty much become Sam Becket in Quantum Leap. But you know what? I didn't mind one bit, though it helps that I was was a big fan of the TV show. I enjoyed the premise, and as DC Universe second bananas go, Booster Gold was a good choice for the series' protagonist, both tonally and in terms of his established backstory. It was nice to see time travel represented as a pretty messy business, one in which Booster's time continuum "repairs" didn't necessarily get things right the first time, and in some cases made things worse. This volume contained two story arcs: "Vicious Cycle" and "Reality Lost." The first (written by Dixon) involved Booster Gold returning to the same event (Batman and Robin foiling a robbery by Killer Moth) multiple times, repeatedly attempting to "fix" time. The second touched on the first storyline and involved a mysterious knife artifact, taking Booster on an adventure in which he meets Leonardo DiVinci, Enemy Ace, The Elongated Man and... himself. All in all, it was a pretty fun read, with plenty of empty calories. Just right for a Sunday summer afternoon.
Water (5/27/13) Netflix (2005 ***1/4) Directed by Deepa Mehta, starring Sarala Kariyawasam, Lisa Ray, Seema Biswas and John Abraham. Set in 1938 India, Chuyia is a seven year-old widow forced by the teachings of Krishna to live in a widows' ashram. This is one of those movies I had very little interest in watching, yet I was hooked within the first five minutes. The film was incredibly well made, the characters and their situations were interesting and the cinematography was fantastic. However, as much as I appreciated its filmmaking, and as sympathetic as I was to the plight of the various characters, Water falls soundly into the category of "awesome films I never need to see again." This is due primarily to its subject matter and many of its plot elements. I know that makes me a small person, but for what it's worth, it also puts Water into the same category with a lot of other terrific films. And who knows? There's always a chance I'll grow up some day...
The Good Life (AKA Good Neighbors), Series 2 (5/29/13) DVD (1975-1976 ***1/2) Series produced and directed by John Howard Davies, written by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey, starring Richard Briers, Felicity Kendal, Paul Eddington and Penelope Keith. Seven episodes, originally aired 12/5/75 - 1/23/76. Suburbanite self-sufficiency followers Tom and Barbara Good have made it past their first harvest, but each day brings a new challenge. Highlights of the second series included Tom going to jail for shooting a leek thief and Margo's disasterous turn as Maria in a decidedly amateur production of The Sound of Music. It's clear that part of my enjoyment of this show stems from sentimentality from having watched the episodes when they aired on PBS, back when I was in my teens. The lingering effects of my teenage crush on Felicity Kendal may have something to do with how much I love this show, even after all these years. However, nostalgia aside, it was also extremely well done, with an interesting premise and well-drawn characters. With this second series the show had really hit its stride. If you've never watched the show before, I highly recommend giving it a try. And if you are familiar with it, don't you think it's high time for a revisit?
The Office, Season 9 (5/29/13) NBC (2012-2013 ***1/4) Series created by Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant and Greg Daniels, starring Rainn Wilson, John Krasinski, Jenna Fischer and Ed Helms. 23 episodes, originaly aired 9/20/12 - 5/16/23. The paper pushers at Scranton, Pennsylvania's Dunder Mifflin wrap up their days as documentary subjects. Highlights of this, the ninth and final season, included: The intrusion into the show by the documentary crew, Jim and Pam's rough patch and subsequent renewed marital bond, Andy's departure for a show business life and the disintegration of Angela's sham marriage to the senator and her marriage to her destiny (minor spoiler ahead), a beet farmer named Dwight Schrute. Though I've watched it from the beginning, the American version of The Office is one of those shows that I loved at one point, but then somewhere along the way its charms had definitely faded. After Jim and Pam's wedding and Steve Carell (SP), it definitely floundered, never regaining what it once was. With "stunt casting" like James Spader and Kathy Bates, it became painfully apparent the writers were trying everything they could think of to pump vitality into the show, but nothing seemed to stick. It was well-publicized either before the ninth season began or shortly thereafter that it would be the show's last. In fact, it was because it was to be the final season that I didn't abandon it after season eight. Since I'd been there from the beginning, it seemed only right that I should see it through to the end. And for what it's worth, I have to give the writer's credit: With the end in sight, there was a bump in the energy of the show, and it was also apparent they wanted to end the show with dignity. For the most part, I thought it ended well, with a satisfying, bittersweet note, though it didn't come close to matching the more memorable series finales from my childhood, like M*A*S*H (1972-1983) or The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977). Then again, how could it? Prior to The Office's final episode, NBC aired a one-hour retrospective special, which was nice to put the run of the show into better perspective. It also was a nice reminder that many of the actors had very little experience when the show began. I also found it quite surprising that Ricky Gervais got such a short segment, considering it had been his award-winning British version that had been the inspiration for the American show in the first place. Then again, you are talking about a difference between 14 episodes and 187.
The Simpsons, Season 24 (5/30/13) FOX (2012-2013 ***) Series created by Matt Groening, featuring the voices of Dan Castellaneta, Nancy Cartwright, Julie Kavner, Yeardly Smith, Harry Shearer and Hank Azaria. 22 Episodes, originally aired 9/30/12 - 5/19/13. Homer Simpson and his jaundiced cartoon family experience the kinds of wacky weekly adventures their sort generally do, invariably in interleaved dual-story installments. It's hard to believe The Simpsons is coming up on a quarter century, not counting their early appearances on The Tracey Ullman Show (1987-1990). Highlights of the season included: "Treehouse of Horror XXIII" (which included a Back to the Future parody), Springfield becoming cool, with the help of Portlandia's Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein; Millhouse passing for an adult; an in-depth look at Carl Carlson's Icelandic heritage and Marge teetering dangerously close to marital infidelity with... Seth MacFarlane? After 24 seasons, what can I really say about The Simpsons, other than it's become a television staple? The show continues to entertain, but only up to a point, and I'd be lying if I said this season was particularly memorable. The level of writing was solid, though I wouldn't go so far as to say it was inspired. Will we keep watching? Sure, why not?
Family Guy, Season 11 (5/30/13) FOX (2012-2013 ***) Series created by Seth MacFarlane, featuring the voices of Seth MacFarlane, Alex Borstein, Seth Green and Mila Kunis. 22 episodes, originally aired 9/30/12 - 5/19/12. The adventures of Maine's Peter Griffin and his family of borderline sociopaths attempt to avoid repeating themselves or any of the storylines on The Simpsons. Highlights of this season included: Stewie's obsession with Anne Murray; Mayor Adam West's murder trial and Stewie and Brian (and Stewie and Brian) in Las Vegas. It's interesting that Seth MacFarlane's animated family sit-com with an edge has become such a mainstream institution. It's perhaps worth noting that this season took place in the same year that Seth MacFarlane made his feature directorial debut with R-rated talking Teddy bear comedy Ted (2012), then hosted The 85th Annual Academy Awards. I can't help but wonder if Family Guy's creator's creative attention was split. There was a sense of the show running more or less on automatic pilot, and the level of writing seemed more tired than in years past. Of course, it's also possible that in my advanced years I've outgrown this crass, adolescent show, and that I've matured as a human being and have reached an elevated level of enlightenment and sophistication... Nope, I don't think that's it.
The Trials of SHAZAM!, Vol. 2 (5/30/13) Comics (2008 **) Written by Judd Winick, illustrated by Howard Porter and Mauro Cascioli. Originally published in Trials of SHAZAM! #7-12. Freddy Freeman competes with evil sorceress Sabina de la Croix for the various powers that add up to the letters in... a certain magic word that Freddy must be very selective in speaking aloud. You may be wondering why I'm writing a review of the second volume without having read the first. Well, this is one of those comics I picked up at my favorite used book store, a place I hadn't visited for a long time. Funny thing about used comics and graphic novels: A lot of them are there for a reason, and this is one of those. In all honesty, I don't think my appraisal would be any higher if I had read the first half of the story. I've been out of the loop comic-wise for awhile, at least with regards to The Marvel Family. Evidently something had happened to Billy Batson and his sister Mary, but it wasn't covered explicitly in this book. I suspect that whatever happened, it was a far more engaging story than the one I read.

June

Project Superpowers, Vol. 1 (6/1/13) Comics (2008 ***1/4) Written by Alex Ross and Jim Krueger, illustrated by Carlos Paul, with additional artwork by Alex Ross. Originally published in Dynamite Entertainment's Project Superpowers #0-7. Former WWII-era superhero The Fighting Yank retrieves a secret urn that's filled with secrets (and the spirits of superheroes). This was another of my famous "take a chance on me" used book store purchases. I was attracted to it because I knew that it was a modern graphic novel populated with super characters who are now in the public domain. Anyone who's ever had any experience with the multitude of public domain comic books, knows about the Nedor Publishing characters. Among these characters were the aforementioned Fighting Yank, as well as Black Terror, Green Lama, Pyroman, Scarab and Mask. If you ever get a chance to read some of these stories (many of which are available on the web), I highly recommend it. However, they (like their renewed-copyright contemporaries) were products of the times. I was intrigued by how these "quaint" characters might be handled in a modern story. I was reasonably satisfied by the matter in which it was done (The Fighting Yank trapped his fellow crimefighters in Pandora's box/urn). This provided instant conflict and also introduced an opportunity for adding character complexity while still remaining true to the spirit of their original incarnations.
American Dad!, Season 8 (6/2/13) FOX (2012-2013 **1/2) Series created by Seth MacFarlane, Mike Barker and Matt Weitzman, featuring the voices of Seth MacFarlane, Wendy Schaal, Scott Grimes and Rachael MacFarlane. 19 episodes, originally aired 9/30/12 - 5/12/13. Highlights of this season included Jeff's abduction by aliens and... uh... it'll come to me, I swear... Oh, forget it! Good God, why have I continued to watch this show? Didn't I promise in my review of Season 7 that I'd had enough? I had every intention of not watching it, but somehow I never quite got around to deleting the show from our DVR's recording schedule. And there's something about Fox's Sunday night "Animation Domination" that just wouldn't be the same without it. Look, this show to me has always been a pale shadow of Family Guy: It's a show about a family of unlikable, sometimes despicable, characters. But I'll be perfectly honest, I think I've continued to watch this show out of laziness more than anything. When I want something with bright colors that's easy to watch and doesn't challenge my mental faculties one iota, it's the perfect show. So, will I keep watching? I know it's hard to justify, but yeah, probably. On the other hand, maybe this is where I should draw the line! Not counting the time it takes to fast-forward through commercials, 19 shows at 22 minutes per comes out to be 418 minutes! That's nearly SEVEN hours! Just think: I could have watched the original 210-minute version of Lawrence of Arabia TWICE! Good God, what the hell is wrong with me??? Cut me off, somebody!!
Saturday Night Live, Season 38 (6/2/13) NBC (2012-2013 ***) Series created by Lorne Michaels, starring: Fred Armisen, Abby Elliott, Bill Hader, Seth Meyers, Bobby Moynihan, Nasim Pedrad, Jason Sudeikis and Kenan Thompson. 38 episodes, originally aired 9/15/12 - 5/18/13. Lorne Michaels' long-running sketch comedy and music show keeps on ticking. I've been watching SNL since the very beginning, and so long as it maintains a certain level of quality, I'll keep right on watching. I will admit to utilizing the DVR and frequently fast-forwarding through musical acts I'm not familiar with (which at this point is most of them) and sketches I know I'm not going to enjoy after the first couple of minutes. Still, there was plenty to like in season number 38, and highlights included: Seth MacFarlane's season opener, which demonstrated he had the right stuff to host The Oscars, return visits from former cast members Martin Short and Kristen Wiig, strong second hostings by Melissa McCarthy and Zach Galifianakis and the season's best host by far, Justin Timberlake, who entered the highly-coveted 5-Timer's Club, while Ben Affleck, who hosted just a few weeks later, did not.
Glee, Season 4 (6/4/13) FOX (2012-2013 **1/2) Series created by Ian Brennan, Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy, starring Matthew Morrison, Cory Monteith, Lea Michele, Chris Colfer and Jane Lynch. 22 episodes, originally aired 9/13/12 - 5/9/13. Following the season 3 graduation of half its members and most of its strongest voices, McKinley High's New Directions must recruit and embrace a whole new crop of glee club hopefuls. I continue to find the individual episodes of this show oddly satisfying while I'm watching them, yet afterwards I realize the entertainment calories they contained were completely devoid of any nutritional value. On the other hand, there are often evenings after a hard day's work when you want to put your brain in neutral and let your TV do all the work. The decision to let major characters Rachel, Kurt, and (later) Santana move to NYC, as well as the hoops needed to keep bringing graduated students back to McKinley High had a somewhat splintering effect. However, I very much enjoyed Kate Hudson's limited run on the show as Rachel's cruel dance instructor. I strongly suspect the explosion of new and "graduated" actors stretched the show's budget to its breaking point, as it became increasingly obvious that characters kept "disappearing" for episodes with either no explanation or very thin explanations. Will my wife and I return in the fall? Given its solid stature as purely mindless entertainment, it may well be on the chopping block come the fall.
The Little Vampire (6/7/13) Comics (2008 ***1/4) Written and illustrated by Joann Sfar. A mortal orphan named Michael befriends a vampire who's also a little kid, even though he's hundreds of years old. This volume contains three stories, which were originally published separately in 2003. Thanks to a friend, I've become a fan of Sfar's, while still recognizing his idiosyncrasies as a storyteller. Every indication is that he prefers not to work from a preconceived plot, but instead allows his stories to unfold in an organic fashion. All in all, I think I enjoyed his Vampire Loves stories more, mainly because they were more age-appropriate for me. It's hard to pinpoint what Sfar's target audience was for his Little Vampire series of stories. It was perhaps a little too weird for little kids, but not quite weird enough for adults.
Once Upon a Time, Season 2 (6/9/13) ABC (2012-2013 ***) Series created by Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, starring Ginnifer Goodwin, Jennifer Morrison, Lana Mills and Robert Carlyle. 22 episodes, originally aired 9/30/12-5/12/13. When Regina's curse over the residents of Storybrooke is broken, a town full of story tale characters must learn to live in the real world. This season I asked my wife about five times: "Did they just jump the shark?" As the season progressed, the show began to remind me more and more of the original Dark Shadows, no more so than with a storyline late in the season in which Belle was bewitched into becoming her darker self (her evil twin in a sense), Lacey. (Short sidebar: In the history of storytelling, has it ever worked to take a beloved character and make them evil?) The show seemed to repeat a definite pattern in which villains were introduced as no good, rotten... well, villains, then later shown to have a softer, sympathetic side. However, sometimes their villainy was so atrocious it was a challenge to find any good in them, as in a flashback in which Regina (the evil queen) ordered an entire village killed because they wouldn't help her find Snow White. In general, I found the second season of the show to be inferior to the first, and for me it hovered near the "time to throw in the towel" line all year.
Drawing (Creative Techniques) (6/15/13) nonfiction (2009 **) Written and illustrated by Josep Asuncion and Gemma Guasch. Fourteen different approaches to drawing and rendering are presented by two artists. The purpose of this book was to expand the horizons of artists and students by offering them alternative approaches to drawing. However, I found the range of styles presented in this book was disappointingly narrow, even with two different contributing artists. It didn't help that the majority of the styles didn't particularly appeal to me or represent directions I was ever interested in pursuing. A much wider gamut would have been appreciated, and an alternative approach to the book might have been to use a different artist for each style presented. Still, even with its limitations, there were some useful ideas in the book and some artists might find it inspiring, even if it wasn't much help for me.
Life Without Dick (6/18/13) Netflix (2002 ***1/4) Written and directed by Bix Skahill, starring Sarah Jessica Parker, Harry Connick Jr., Johnny Knoxville, Craig Ferguson and Teri Garr. A painter accidentally kills her boyfriend, then hooks up with an art dealer who turns out to be a reluctant hit man for the Irish mob. I enjoyed this movie far more than I ever thought I would. It started out goofy (the shooting happens within the first couple of minutes) and over time the film's stylized dialogue (and the characters from whose mouths it emerged) grew on me. Life Without Dick was clearly intended as a black comedy, and fits nicely into that subgenre, but I also appreciated that it never went so dark that it made me squirm. That's a misstep that could very easily have been made. I was particularly impressed by how strong the screenplay was structurally. Skahill clearly knew his stuff. I've often found with other films that a deliberately "quirky" tone was employed in part to camouflage story or character problems, but that was not the case here.
Hollywood Canteen (6/19/13) TCM (1944 ***1/4) Written and directed by Delmer Daves, starring Robert Hutton and Dane Clark, featuring appearances by Joan Leslie, Bette Davis, John Garfield, Joan Crawford, Jack Benny and many, many more. Two wounded G.I.s pay a visit to the famous Hollywood Canteen, where one of them gets a kiss from the object of his affection, Joan Leslie. This film started out strong and the first forty-five minutes were terrific, but then some of the non-plot-advancing musical and comedy numbers started to seem a little long. It was also somewhat awkward that the film featured two back-to-back versions of Cole Porter's "Don't Fence Me In," performed first by Roy Rogers, then a few minutes later by The Andrews Sisters. I'm sure there's a production backstory there, but I don't know what it is. The film was clearly All-American WWII propaganda from beginning to end, but it was still highly effective and moving. In fact, for reasons I don't fully understand, my eyes teared up off and on throughout the film. I guess I'm just a sucker for a story about G.I.'s doing their part for their country. To say this film was star-studded would be understating the obvious. The opening credits crawl, in which the featured stars were listed alphabetically, seemed to last three minutes! I felt the various stars were nicely integrated, allowing them to deliver their cameos without them feeling too much like cameos. It was, however, a little weird to see John Garfield and Jack Carson busing tables while Joan Crawford and Patty Anderson danced with G.I.'s.
Turbo (6/20/13) Crew Screening (2013 ***1/2) Directed by David Soren, featuring the voices of Ryan Reynolds, Paul Giamatti, Michael Pena, Luis Guzman and Bill Hader. A Van Nuys, California garden snail with exceptionally big dreams races in the Indianapolis 500. Once again I find myself in the position of reviewing a film produced by my studio, but on which I did not contribute. The concept of a snail wanting to race at Indy was one I'd been skeptical about in the extreme since the first day I heard it. And yet, somehow the damned thing worked. It's also one of the most family-friendly films Dreamworks has produced, along the lines of Over the Hedge (2006) and Kung Fu Panda (2008). Turbo's story was somewhat simple, but rock solid. I'll admit I didn't find myself connecting with Turbo on an emotional level nearly as much as I did with my studio's previous film, The Croods, but I loved the simple "dream big" message, and the Indy 500 race action was exciting and superbly animated, thanks to Soren's direction and head of character animation David Burgess' talented team. In a summer cram-packed with other animated theater fare, I hope this little film with a big heart manages to find the audience it deserves and do big box office.
Life Drawing in Charcoal (6/22/13) Nonfiction (1971, 1994 ****) Written and illustrated by Douglas R. Graves. Master illustrator Douglas Graves walks aspiring students through his charcoal illustration technique, one step at a time. I very much appreciated this book and found it to be one of the strongest art instruction books I've read. It helped that Graves was working in a realist style, and his mastery of the medium was apparent to even the most casual observer. My favorite aspect of the book was Graves' "director's commentary" approach, in which his thought process was articulated in incremental drawings. He wrote clearly -- but without skimping on details -- about all the incremental additions and changes made along the way and his reasoning for each one. His text was also a source of occasional unintended amusement: Keeping in mind the original version of his book was written in 1971, it was entertaining to read occasional editorial comments related to the increasing length of men's hairstyles and the apparent androgyny of today's young men and women.
Man of Steel (6/23/13) Manhattan Beach Arclight (2013 ***1/2) Directed by Zack Snyder, starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe. When Kryptonian despot General Zod threatens earth, a secret undercover alien do-gooder named Clark Kent must come out of the shadows and put on a cape. The well-known production backstory of this film is that after the disappointing critical reception to Bryan Singer's 2006 Superman Returns, the keys to the Kryptonian kingdom were handed over to Christopher Nolan, who had produced and directed the money-making Dark Knight series. Many reviewers have called Man of Steel darker, and I think that's true only in contrast to the original Christopher Reeve films, of which Singer's version was intended as a continuation. Zack Snyder's film was certainly far more realistic, and his directing more modern. Overall, I very much enjoyed the film. Cavill was perfectly cast, matching well with my own personal image of Superman. Man of Steel was entertaining on a big-budget f/x-heavy action film level, while also delivering emotionally. Special care in the script was devoted to establishing clear and plausible character motivations, a crucial element that gets lost in so many of these kinds of big budget action-focused films, and something I especially appreciated.
Mad Men, Season 6 (6/23/13) TV-AMC (2012 ***1/4) Series created by Matthew Weiner, starring Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, Christina Hendricks and John Slattery. 13 episodes, originally aired 4/7/13 - 6/23/13. Madison Avenue ad man Don Draper just can't seem to keep a drink out of his hand or his Dick Whitman in his pants. Even though I discovered it relatively late (we watched seasons 1-4 on Netflix), I've become a big fan of Mad Men. Season 6, even though it was set against the backdrop of the turbulent year 1968, began on a slow note, something widely discussed both in our home as well as in the myriad crannies and nooks of the Internet. However, the season ended on an exceptionally strong note in a way that surprised and delighted me. I very much hope that power will continue through its seventh and final season. It's also worth noting that the gradual emotional fall of Don Draper though the course of 13 episodes resonated nicely with the show's enigmatic title sequence of a silhouetted ad man falling from a great height. Highlights of season 6 included: the introduction of the mysterious Bob Benson; Pete Campbell running into his father-in-law in a whorehouse; Ken Cosgrove getting shot in the face with a shotgun; Peggy accidentally stabbing her increasingly-annoying boyfriend in the abdomen and just enough twin imagery to remind me of Twin Peaks.
House of M (6/25/13) Comics (2012 ***) Written by Brian Michael Bendis, illustrated by Olivier Coipel. Originally published in House of M #1-8 and The Pulse: House of M Special Edition. When Wanda Maximoff (The Scarlet Witch) grants her father Magneto's wish by altering reality so that Mutants are the dominant species, members of The Avengers and The X-Men must work together to put things back the way they were... regardless of the emotional toll. I probably should have read this before Avengers vs. X-Men, as it set up some of the X-Men and Avengers tensions that came into play in the later story. Besides, House of M was -- as described so humbly by the blurb on the back of the book -- the "blockbuster Marvel Comics event of 2005!" I guess that's what I get for ignoring Marvel continuity for nearly a decade, then spot-reading trade paperbacks in a random order. The premise of this book was interesting enough and the storytelling was clear, though I was never fully engaged.
Bride and Prejudice (6/28/13) IFC (2004 ***) Directed by Gurinder Chadha, based on the novel by Jane Austen, starring Aishwarya Rai, Martin Henderson, Nadira Babbar, Chaman Bakshi and Naveen Andrews. Lalita's prejudice gets in her way of appreciating a wealthy American arrival to her small town, the prideful William Darcy. Though I've watched Indian films before (including Chadha's 2002 Bend It Like Beckham), it's quite possible that this was the first "Bollywood musical" I've ever seen. I've been meaning to watch one for some time, but had just never gotten around to it. With Bride and Prejudice, I'm still unconvinced I've seen one, actually. My sense is that this film didn't really qualify as authentic, considering its source material, several scenes set in America and England and the fact that the male lead was an American. Though it started out a bit clunky, this little film grew on me as it went along, and I'm not sure if that's because I gradually grew to like the characters or because the film's quality actually improved. I suspect it was a combination of both. Of course I was well-acquainted with the original classic story, which I'd most recently experienced in the form of Seth Grahame-Smith's 2009 book, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
The Walking Dead, Vol. 18: What Comes After (6/29/13) Comics (2013 ***1/2) Written by Robert Kirkman, illustrated by Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn. Natural leader Rick Grimes plays it close to his vest, giving his intrepid group the impression that he's submitted to Negan's control while working clandestinely to find their oppressor's weaknesses; meanwhile, his one-eyed son Carl has other ideas about how to handle the man who killed his friend. The preceding volume, Something to Fear (which contained the comic series' 100th issue) was a hard act to follow, but this one did a great job, and it was one of the stronger volumes in the series. The recently-introduced mega-bully Negan had a nice complexity (especially after his actions in Volume 17). His fuckity-fuck-fuck-fuck dialogue interacting with Carl was both chilling and also often quite funny. Negan's "reasonableness" made him all the better as a villain, because of the built-in uncertainty in the reader's mind of what he was going to decide was "reasonable."
Night of the Living Dead: Reanimated (6/30/13) Netflix (2009 *) Directed / curated by Mike Schneider, based on the original film directed by George Romero. More than 150 animators and animators combine their ghoulish forces to create an alternate video to accompany the classic film's soundtrack. Due to a copyright irregularity/loophole, the original Night of the Living Dead (1968) is in the public domain, which means that pretty much anyone can make copies of it and sell it or (as in the case of NOTLD:R) create alternate original works based upon it. Earlier this year I decided on a whim to download Romero's film and more or less have my way with it, doing my own "remix," if you will. I thought it was a fairly clever idea, and I was well along the way toward executing it when I learned that Schneider had broken into my house, stolen my idea, then time-traveled back to 2009 and produced it. In the words of Doc Brown, "Great Scott!" When I first discovered my "brilliantly original" idea had already been done four years ago, it was only a small consolation to see what terrible reviews it had received on Netflix and elsewhere. I kindly attributed the poor reception to the anijam / "exquisite corpse" nature of the concept. When I rented and watched Mike Schneider's film, I was further surprised to see it begin with an introduction by Washington DC's resident Creature Feature host, Count Gore De Vol. Gadzooks! One of MY ideas was to have MY version of the film introduced by a horror host as well! Well, as they say, "great minds think alike." I was resigned to the fact that my idea was not an original one, and so I settled in to see exactly what Schneider had "curated." Only a few minutes into NOTLD:R I began to understand why it hadn't exactly stunned the critics with its awesomeness. The animation, what there was of it, was mostly (and this is being kind) spectacularly crappy. It was so bad there were stretches that were virtually unwatchable. Much of the "animated" consisted of camera pans on storyboard artwork, not exactly the same thing as animation. I also couldn't understand why Schneider had decided to do the whole remix in black and white, a constraint I hadn't even considered, because I knew it would be so visually limiting. My only guess is that he thought color would change the film's tone, which I suppose it would have. After I'd watched the whole thing (fast-forwarding though those "unwatchable" stretches after the halfway mark), I played one of the DVD's bonus features, a trailer for the film. To my great surprise, the "official" trailer was excellently edited, using only the crème de la crème. You know what? That's an art film I'd want to watch! It's only too bad Schneider's talent pool hadn't allowed him to execute the entire movie at that level of quality. As for my own remix, after watching NOTLD:R, I realized my approach may still have some merit, and so, quite appropriately, I'm not declaring it dead quite yet.

July

56 Up (7/7/13) Netflix (2012 ***1/4) Directed by Michael Apted (7 Up material directed by Paul Almond), featuring Bruce, Jackie, Symon, Andrew, John, Beter, Suzy, Nick, Neil, Lynn, Paul, Sue and Tony. In this, the latest "seven years later" installment of Apted's long-running series, we learn what his long-suffering subjects have been up to, as well as their feelings about being subjects in the documentary Roger Ebert once called "an inspired, even noble, use of the film medium." As much as I've enjoyed this series since I was first introduced to it, 56 Up didn't seem to have as much heart in it as past chapters. In what was perhaps a running theme in this edition, several of the subjects discussed the documentary series' impact on them and whether or not their lives had truly been captured. They generally indicated that the versions of themselves seen in 15-minute segments on the television broadcasts were an inadequate representation. That may well point to a degree of universal complexity to be found in 56-year-olds. If that's the case, I suppose I'll find out for myself in another seven years.
Downton Abbey, Series 3 (7/11/13) Netflix (2012 ***1/4) Series created by Julian Fellowes, starring Hugh Bonneville, Jim Carter, Phyllis Logan, Elizabeth McGovern and Maggie Smith. 8 episodes, plus a Christmas special, originally aired 9/12/12 - 12/25/12. Following the end of the first world war, Earl of Grantham Robert Crawley and his family alternatingly endure great sorrow and experience tremendous joy; meanwhile, the staff of Downton Abbey have stories of their own, stories occasionally intersecting those of the family they serve. I've come to the conclusion that creator Julian Fellowes, who was credited with writing all of the episodes in this season, may not be the world's greatest storyteller. While Downton Abbey has certainly been "TV worth watching", with compelling characters living in a fascinating world, Fellowes steered his AC sports convertible into soap opera-level drama on several occasions. But even with that observation, there's still more than enough to recommend Downton Abbey. Highlights of the third season included a grave threat to the continuation of Downton Abbey itself and the arrival of Cora's thoroughly American mother, Martha, played with great verve by Shirley MacLaine. Watching her engaged in the dialogue equivalent of a ping-pong match with Maggie Smith's Violet was a true delight. This season also included the unexpected death of a beloved character that had become my wife's favorite. I won't reveal who it was, but it wasn't Maggie Smith, honest!
Gidget (7/14/13) TCM (1959 **1/2) Directed by Paul Wendkos, based on the novel by Frederick Kohner, starring Sandra Dee, James Darren, Cliff Robertson and Yvonne Craig. When diminutive, less-than-endowed Francie Lawrence is rescued from evil seaweed by a handsome surfer boy named Moondoggie, she decides to become a little surfer girl. I watched this film eight years ago and at the time I gave it a one-star rating and wrote it off as one of the creepiest films I'd ever seen. I'm not sure what's changed within my soul in the interim, but this time around I was able to watch Gidget through considerably less jaded eyes and appreciate it as a fairly sweet, well-intentioned film. Even my interpretation of Cliff Robertson's beach bum character's motives with respect to Gidget's virginity were completely different this time around. One possible explanation for my change of heart is that I previously watched it in pan-and-scan form and this time I watched it letterboxed, which may have changed some of the nuance. However, the scenes of Gidget learning to surf with her instructor's faces planted firmly in her cute little tush remained fairly eyebrow-raising.
Where the Boys Are (7/14/13) TCM (1960 **1/2) Directed by Henry Levin, based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout, starring Dolores Hart, George Hamilton, Yvette Mimieux, Jim Hutton, Paula Prentiss, Frank Gorshin and Connie Francis. Four Midwestern co-eds spend spring break in Fort Lauderdale, where one of them puts her theories of human sexuality into practice. This was a fun and relatable film, with a relatively solid cast. Connie Francis (in addition to singing the film's now-classic theme song) did a surprisingly effective job as the bubbly, man-hungry Angie. It's always hard to watch movies from fifty years ago without judging the prevailing moral code of the times, and the film was tainted somewhat by its heavy-handed early-1960s "good girls wait until after marriage" message. Interestingly, the film seemed to want to have it both ways, showing Dolores Hart's character as having progressive views, yet the film still offered up a cautionary tale that reinforced traditional values. I can't help but wonder how many parents saw this film and told their daughters: "There's no way in hell you're going to Florida for your spring break, young lady!"
Night of the Comet (7/15/13) TCM (1984 **1/2) Written and directed by Thom E. Eberhardt, starring Catherine Mary Stewart, Kelli Maroney, Robert Beltran and Mary Woronov. A comet wipes out nearly everyone on earth, leaving only a handful of survivors... and zombies! This movie shares some premise DNA with George Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978), in that it featured zombies and a sizable chunk of its action took place in a mall. In fact, I learned about this film from a book about the making of the original Night of the Living Dead and the zombie craze it inspired. With its awkward quasi-social commentary, Night of the Comet was amusing on a certain level, but I think I would have appreciated it more, had I first watched it in my twenties. As it was, the less-than-stellar dialogue and storytelling was distracting, and I was amused by the mid-1980s fashions and attitudes as much as anything in the actual story. Also, quite frankly, the film could have used a hell of a lot more zombies. But then you could say the same thing about most movies, couldn't you?
Godzilla: King of the Monsters! (7/15/13) TCM (1956 **) Directed by Ishiro Honda and Terry O. Morse, starring Raymond Burr, Takashi Shimura and Momoko Kochi. An American journalist finds himself smack dab in the middle of the destruction of Tokyo by a radioactive 300-foot monster. The backstory of this film warrants a film of its own: The rights to the original Japanese version were acquired by an American company who realized their audience would be limited by Godzilla's all-Asian cast. And so they snapped into action, retrofitting the film to include an American hook. And so, they brought in Raymond Burr to play an American journalist named... Steve Martin! That seemingly innocuous 1956 name choice actually provided a great deal of enjoyment, in that every time his name was mentioned in the film (and it was mentioned a surprising number of times), I found myself grinning. As for the retrofitted scenes, some worked better than others, though the majority were "reaction shots" inserts of Burr standing in a variety of locations, usually alongside four or five Japanese extras. Seriously, somebody has got to make a movie based on the making of this film.
Sherrybaby (7/19/13) Netflix (2006 **1/2) Written and Directed by Laurie Collyer, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Giancarlo Esposito, Danny Trejo and Sam Bottoms. Parolee/addict Sherry Swanson returns home and wants to put her life back together, especially her relationship with her daughter. Given the subject matter, it should come as no surprise that this was not an especially lighthearted, "fun" film to watch. That's true, but I was pleased (and frankly relieved) with its resolution. The cast was fine and their performances certainly gave a solid depiction of the facets of the human condition focused on in Collyer's screenplay. Normally wouldn't call attention to something like this, but Maggie Gyllenhaal (one of the film's producers) was surprisingly open to her body being used as a visual motif. Specifically, her nipples and/or breasts played such a prominent role in this film that they probably should have been given separate billing. Not that I minded, especially.
Bikini Beach (7/20/13) TCM (1964 **1/2) Directed by William Asher, starring Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, Keenan Wynn, Don Rickles and... Little Stevie Wonder? An eccentric millionare intent on closing down the beach plus a British hearthrob sensation named The Potato Bug invariably adds up to an exciting drag race. This was the third film in the Frankie & Annette Beach series, and the backstory is that the part of The Potato Bug was originally meant to be played by none other than The Beatles themselves! Can you imagine what that film might have been like? When the Beatles became too big for supporting roles (going on to star in A Hard Day's Night (1964)), they dropped out and Frankie Avalon wound up playing both "himself" and The Potato Bug. It's worth mentioning, however, that several shots employed an double named (according to Imdb) Ronnie Dayton. Today, the effect would have undoubtedly been executed using digital techniques. Finally, it's as clear as fine Waterford crystal that Avalon's "Bug" served as a key inspiration for Mike Myers' International Man of Mystery, Austin Powers.
For Those Who Think Young (7/20/13) TCM (1964 **) Directed by Leslie H. Martinson, starring James Darren, Pamela Tiffin, Woody Woodbury, Paul Lynde, Tina Louise, Bob Denver, Nancy Sinatra and Ellyn Burstyn. A young, rich playboy named Ding falls for a college girl whose Uncle Woody is a comedian at a local nightclub. This film had a bizarre story structure, with two rarely-intersecting stories running alongside one another. In fact, about fifteen minutes into the film, after the point-of-view character shifted, I said aloud "who the hell's story is this, anyhow?" It was an interesting choice in a film nominally aimed at a youthful audience, that one of the principal characters was a middle-aged man. Adding to the general sense that something was a little "off" was the film's title, which had nothing to do with either storyline. After finishing the film I learned that "For Those Who Think Young" was actually the slogan for Pepsi Cola at the time. Not surprisingly, Pepsi was the film's principal sponsor and their soft drink was mentioned several times throughout. Incidentally, the slogan was also used as the title of an episode of Mad Men. On another note, it's worth calling special attention to the movie's pre-Gilligan's Island (1964-1967) castings of Tina Louise and Bob Denver, though their shared screen time was limited.
California Suite (7/21/13) TCM (1978 ***) Directed by Herbert Ross, written by Neil Simon, starring Jane Fonda, Alan Alda, Maggie Smith, Michael Caine, Walter Matthau, Elane May, Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby. Four groups of people check into the Beverly Hills hotel... but can they ever leave? Normally I wouldn't list so many actors in the heading of my little capsule reviews, but in an ensemble film like this it's impossible to leave anyof the eight principles out. And if you look on the internet for the film's original poster, you'll see it features the faces of all eight. I hadn't watched the film since sometime in the early 1980s, and what I found the most interesting this time around was the tonal spectrum of the four stories presented: In the original stage version, the stories were presented sequentially, rather than cross-cutting between them as in the film. The first, most drama-heavy story featuring Fonda and Alda was told pretty much in its entirety early in the film. A pattern slowly progressed with each short sketch being a shade lighter in tone than the one preceding it. The final Cosby / Pryor story playing practically as slapstick, and I found the last story the least engaging of them all. As a bonus, here's one interesting bit of trivia, one that may win you a trivia championship someday: In this movie, Maggie Smith won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing an Oscar loser.
Once (7/21/13) Sundance (2006 ***1/2) Written and Directed by John Carney, starring Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova and Hugh Walsh. In Dublin, a "broken-hearted Hoover fixer sucker guy" street musician falls for a married Czech immigrant pianist, and together they make beautiful music together. I've loved this film since time I first saw it, and I've continued to enjoy its soundtrack on my iPod over the intervening years. Seeing it again for the first time in five years, I was slightly less impressed by its micro-budget filmmaking technique, mostly because that has become the norm in modern independent films and technological advances have really raised the bar for indie film cinematic production values. The simple story still remains sweet, however, even if the film's lyrical conclusion may be unsatisfying to some.
Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyon (7/23/13) SyFy (2013 **1/2) Directed by Gary Jones, screenplay by Jeffrey Miller, Gary Jones and Jason Ancona, starring Joe Estevez, Dan Haggerty, Amber Conner and Tim Lovelace. A first-offender's boot camp turns into a horror-fest, thanks to a giant mutant named... Paul Bunyon. I recorded and watched this film solely because my friend Phil Garrett served as the film's Co-Producer. I'm actually quite glad I did. I really admire the brass balls it commit to making this film. On paper, this screenplay must have seemed unfilmable on a small budget, but somehow they found the courage to go ahead and do it. While the F/X may not have been executed at the standards of ILM or Weta, it was obvious they were crafted with as much care as the clearly micro-level budget allowed. And for that I say, "Bravo!"
The Blob (7/25/13) TCM (1958 **1/2) Directed by Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr., starring Steve McQueen, Aneta Corsaut and Earl Rowe. A meteor lands in a field and its gooey center/inhabitant starts snacking on the residents of a small town. I watched this film many years ago and was surprised at the time just how weak the screenplay was. The casting of Steve McQueen (in his first starring role) is the main reason the film remains a classic. For the most part, it was standard teenage B-movie drive-in fare with a less-than-subtle message about how teenagers and adults should appreciate one another and work together. Given its low-budget roots, I wonder how the producers got the money to shoot the film in color. I was surprised to learn (via the TCM introduction) that the cringe-worthy title theme was composed by none other than Burt Bacharach! Now, here's something from the Bureau of Weird Film Connections: Not long ago, I re-watched the Stephen King-penned Creepshow (1982) and while watching this film I realized how much Creepshow's "Jordy Verrill" episode had been based on the opening minutes of The Blob. One final note: I really shouldn't be too hard on this movie. After all, it was responsible for inspiring a certain animated alien-fighting monster that provided me with some of the most interesting and satisfying work of my professional career.
The Newsroom, Season 1 (7/29/13) Netflix / HBO (2012 ***1/4) Created and written by Aaron Sorkin, starring Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer, John Gallagher Jr., Alison Pill, Olivia Munn, Dev Patel and Sam Waterston. 10 episodes, aired 6/24/12 - 8/26/12. Network anchorman Will McAvoy is convinced by executive producer MacKenzie McHale (who just happens to be his ex-girlfriend) to give reporting the news in a way that would make Edward R. Murrow proud a shot. Oh, Aaron Sorkin, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways... Let me get this out of the way right away: While this first season had its moments, The Newsroom never reached the same heights as The West Wing, which ranks high on the list of best TV shows of all time. Sorkin's latest offering has a lot in common with his best-respected show, however, and perhaps the best way to compare them is that while The West Wing represented Sorkin's ifantasy of what an American presidency could be, The Newsroom is his idealized vision of network news. As with all of Sorkin's series, series (including Sports Night and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), this one struck a balance between the lives of its characters and the goings on of the world in which they lived. The grand conceit of The Newsroom was the use of real news stories taken from the recent past. Each episode occurred in chronological sequence, punctuated by historic events from roughly the year before the episode was broadcast. In the case of this first season, it featured the BP Gulf oil spill, Casey Anthony, Anthony Weiner (who was ironically back in the news as my wife and I watched Season 1) and the 2012 Republican primary. As for the actors? Jeff Daniels and Sam Waterston definitely brought their A-games to the show. Based on only ten episodes, it's a little hard to judge the rest of the cast, but they've started to grow on me. Still, I do miss Jed, Josh, Donna, C.J., Toby and the rest.
The Gazebo (7/31/13) TCM (1959 **1/2) Directed by George Marshall, based on the play by Alec Coppel, starring Glenn Ford, Debbie Reynolds, Carl Reiner and Martin Landau. Backed into a corner, a blackmailed TV writer/director decides to kill his blackmailer and bury him in the backyard under a recently-purchased gazebo. From the opening title sequence of this film, I felt it shared a certain kinship with Alfred Hitchcock's The Trouble With Harry (1955). That affinity was reinforced with several references to Hitchcock throughout, and at one point Glenn Ford's character actually turned to Hitch himself to figure out how to bury his victim without a shovel. Unfortunately, The Gazebo never quite worked for me, and I'm embarassed to admit it, but I'm not entirely sure what the core reason was for the near-miss. The script could have been stronger, but I don't believe that's the culprit. Many of the right ingredients were there, and in particular Debbie Reynolds, as Glen Ford's wife, was bubbly and delightful as always.

August

The Talk of the Town (8/1/13) TCM (1942 ***) Directed by George Stevens, starring Cary Grant, Jean Arthur and Ronald Coleman. A wrongfully accused fugitive hides out in his childhood friend's house, which just happens to be occupied by a Harvard law professor. Director George Stevens was best known for more serious fare like A Place in the Sun (1951), Shane (1953) Giant (1956) and The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), the latter two of which won him Best Director Oscars. This earlier screwball comedy may not have been the best match for him. As a matter of fact, the first five minutes were played so dramatically straight that I imagined 1942 audiences seeking laughs may have wondered if the projectionist had loaded the wrong film. The "romantic comedy" dimension of the story was clearly a classic love triangle, and I appreciated it was one that wasn't resolved until the final moments of the film. But there was another dimension playing out as well:. To my and my wife's modern eyes, there was an undeniable gay attraction between Coleman and Grant's characters, and I can't help but wonder just how much of that was intentional, even back in 1942. If nothing else, it provided and extra source of entertainment.
Pirate Radio (8/2/13) Netflix (2009 **1/2) Written and directed by Richard Curtis, starring Tom Sturridge, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Chris O'Dowd and Kenneth Branagh. Set in the mid-1960s, off the coast of England, a young man embarks on a voyage of self discovery... aboard the "boat that rocked." The Boat That Rocked was in fact Pirate Radio's original title, and I think it was probably a good decision to change it. This film certainly had its moments, with a terrific wall-to-wall soundtrack that's sure to please. However, it also suffered from one teensy-weensy fundamental story flaw: The film's two-dimensional villain (played by Branagh) spends most of the film ineffectually trying to thwart the radio pirates, gaining traction only in the last half hour. In other words, the movie's antagonist and protagonists don't actually come into conflict until the third act! In addition to that thorny script defect, I never got enough of a sense of Carl, the film's point-of-view character, to give a damn about anything that happened to him.
Excavating the 2,000 Year Old Man (8/3/13) TCM (2012 **1/2) Written and directed by Matthew Buzzell and Kel Symons, narrated by Chris Parnell, featuring archival footage of and/or interviews with: Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Richard Lewis, Bob Newhart, Garry Shandling and many more. What began as an improvisational skit performed in celebrities' living rooms became one of the best-known comedy acts of all time. I think this documentary was well-intentioned, but it's clear that it didn't come close to capturing the essence of Brooks and Reiner's enduring creation. This was painfully evident to me because immediately preceding this film I watched an interview between Dick Cavett and Mel Brooks which captured far more of Brooks' manic genius. As for the documentary, it came across as self-serving, and some of the love heaped on the series of sketches by Newhart, Lewis and Shandling seemed more effusive than sincere.
The Adventures of Bob & Doug McKenzie: Strange Brew (8/4/13) Sundance (1983 **1/2) Directed by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, starring Rick Moranis, Dave Thomas, Max von Sydow, Paul Dooley and Lynne Griffin. Two bumbling employees at Elsinore Brewery stumble upon a fiendish plot for mind control. As a teenager I watched SCTV regularly and have fond memories of the McKenzie Brothers sketches. When the feature film was originally released I saw it in the theater, then a handful of other times on VHS and/or cable. Seeing it again after all these years, it holds up surprisingly well, for the type of film it is, though I should add my wife had absolutely no interest in watching it. It just occurred to me that there's a definite kinship between Bob and Doug and two teenagers from Aurora, Illinois named Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar. Consequently, pairing Strange Brew with Wayne's World might make for a fun double feature.
Outward Bound (8/4/13) TCM (1930 **) Directed by Robert Milton, based on the play by Sutton Vane, starring Leslie Howard, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Dudley Digges. A suicide pact puts two lovers on a boat ride to the beyond. Some films use the plays on which they're based as a jumping-off point, while others -- like this one -- feel more like photographed stage plays than actual motion pictures. It's decidedly hard to recommend a film like this, as it seems so old-fashioned. I have a difficult time imagining anyone really enjoying it, other than as a curiosity. The premise is intriguing, though. While there are a number of films made with "heavenly" overtones, most of them have tended toward the comedic. Outward Bound plays out as a purely dramatic offering, with a bit of propagandist philosophy thrown in. The film was remade fourteen years later as Between Two Worlds, a film I reviewed back in 2011. In my review of that 1944 version, I mentioned a possible connection between it and Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone, though I didn't feel that same similarity with the original.
Satan Met a Lady (8/4/13) TCM (1936 ***) Directed by William Dieterle, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett, starring Bette Davis, Warren William, Marie Wilson and Arthur Treacher. When private eye Ted Shane's partner Milton Ames is killed, he seems more interested in "having a lot of fun" than finding the killer. If the storyline of this film seems a tad familiar, it's because it was one of several versions of The Maltese Falcon, most famously remade five years later in 1941 and starring Humphrey Bogart. This version substituted a jewel-stuffed French horn for a jewel-encrusted bird. The main character, played by Warren William, was established from the beginning as an unlikable shyster willing to bilk old widows out of their inheritance with little conscience. My favorite part or this movie was the not-so covert flirtation. When Shane said to a number of ladies, "You and I could have a lot of fun," you knew exactly what he was talking about. That "running gag" of sorts was paid off deliciously with an implied sex scene at the end of the film between between Shane and Bette Davis' character.
The Green Hornet (8/6/13) FXM (2011 ***) Directed by Michael Gondry, starring Seth Rogen, Jay Chou, Cameron Diaz and Christoph Waltz. Following the death of his father, drunk playboy Britt Reid joins forces with his dad's chauffeur and embarks on a secret life of gadget-rich crime-fighting. In response to the recent announcement of the upcoming Superman / Batman film, Seth Rogen made a comment about how the recent dismal performance of The Lone Ranger meant there probably was not going to be a Lone Ranger / Green Hornet team-up. The joke behind the joke was that both characters came from the same creative source. But trivia aside, I've found that FXM has consistently played arguably mediocre films that I still somehow wanted to watch, this one included. My expectations for the film (co-written by Seth Rogen himself) were quite low, and as is often the case I was able to relax and enjoy it for what it was, not for what it was not. Overall, the film was mildly amusing, which fun action set pieces and a nice romantic triangle thrown in between Reid, Kato and Lenore Case, played by Cameron Diaz. Christoph Waltz may have stolen the show, however with his quirky mob boss, Chudnofsky.
The Man with Two Brains (8/8/13) Sundance (1983 **) Directed by Carl Reiner, starring Steve Martin, Kathleen Turner and David Warner. A brain surgeon married to a sexy gold-digger falls in love with a disembodied brain in a jar, then hatches a plot to have the best of both worlds. I wish I could recommend this film, but it was just so uneven and frequently so dumb it made -- ironically enough -- my brain hurt. Martin seemed to be phoning it in and I was frequently embarrassed for Kathleen Turner, though I must say she was at the height of her cinematic hotness in this film. Having recently watched the documentary Excavating the 2,000 Year Old Man, I highly suspect Carl Reiner wanted very much to follow in his friend Mel Brooks' comedic footsteps.
Quinceañera (8/9/13) Netflix (2006 ***1/2) Written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, starring Araceli Guzman-Rico, Jesse Garcia, Chalo Gonzalez (Tomas) and J.R. Cruz. Months shy of her 15th birthday, Magdelena discovers she's pregnant, even though she hasn't actually had sex with her boyfriend. This is one of those films that snuck up on me. It's the epitome of what indie films can be: Simple stories told in ordinary settings and situations with interesting, real characters. No one in the film was portrayed as a saint or a devil, just as a flawed human being. Even the premise of a pregnant virgin was interesting and handled deftly. I appreciated the film's L.A. setting and Hispanic cultural aspects and Quinceañera might make a nice double feature with Real Women Have Curves (2002).
Harper (8/10/13) TCM (1966 ***1/4) Directed by Jack Smight, screenplay by William Goldman, based on the novel by Ross Macdonald, starring Paul Newman, Lauren Bacall, Janet Leigh, Robert Wagner and Shelley Winters. Deeply flawed private investigator Lew Harper follows a trail of human frailty in search of a kidnapped millionaire. Is there a film penned by William Goldman that's not worth watching? If there is, I haven't seen it. This film, with its decidedly downbeat "seedy underbelly" themes may not be for everyone, but it's good all the same. And you've got to love a film that ends with (and this isn't giving anything away, I promise) with two characters saying, "Aw, Hell." Harper was actually based on Ross Macdonald's series of books about a hard-boiled detective named Lew *Archer*, but Newman had enjoyed a string of hit movies starting with the letter 'H,' so, Hollywood being Hollywood, they changed the character's name. In what I suppose you could call a bit of ironic trivia, Macdonald took his famous character's last name from Sam Spade's murdered partner in The Maltese Falcon, Miles Archer.
The Bad and the Beautiful (8/11/13) TCM (1952 ****) Directed by Vincente Minnelli, starring Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner, Dick Powell, Barry Sullivan, Walter Pidgeon and Gloria Grahame. A director, actress and writer have varying love/hate relationships with a power-hungry Hollywood producer. This is a really strong film, with solid performances by Douglas, Turner and the others, and it's well worth watching by any fan of classic American cinema. It's also a joy to watch for anyone interested in the business of old Hollywood, though I suppose genius, ambition and backstabbing never go out of style. This would make a superb double-feature with All About Eve (1950). My wife and I were honestly surprised to learn Gloria Grahame won a best supporting actress Oscar for her role as Dick Powell's wife in this film. She was good enough, but she was also only onscreen for a total of about seven minutes. And it's not like she sang "I Dreamed a Dream" like Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables (2012).
Ziegfield Girl (8/11/13) TCM (1941 **1/2) Directed by Robert Z. Leonard and Busby Berkeley, starring Judy Garland, Hedy Lamarr, Lana Turner and James Stewart. When three Manhattan women are hand-picked for Ziegfield's Follies, their lives are forever altered... but not necessarily for the better. This was a likable enough film, though it's far from great. Even Busby Berkeley's musical numbers seemed a little pedestrian in comparison his stronger films. So, should you watch? Ziegfield Girl's main selling point is probably Lana Turner's breakout role, and this was the film that made her a star. There was one thing I had a real problem with, though: The film was based on an unsettling premise: Was it really the dream of every woman in New York City to become a showgirl in Flo Ziegfield's Follies?
Boy's Night Out (8/12/13) TCM (1962 *1/2) Directed by Michael Gordon, starring Kim Novak, James Garner and Tony Randall. Three married men and their single buddy split costs on a $200/month love nest in New York City, which comes completely furnished, with modern appliances, wall-to-wall carpeting and a gorgeous blonde graduate student in sociology! This film was decidedly creepy, and its lurid undertones made me want to take a shower after watching it. Still, it offered a time capsule of sorts, a look into the morality and sexual politics of the world fifty years ago. Is there anything in Boy's Night Out to recommend it? Not much, though some may find Kim Novak's wardrobe appealing enough to justify watching, and it might be of contextual interest for fans of AMC's Mad Men.
The Grifters (8/15/13) Sundance (1990 ***1/4) Directed by Stephen Frears, based on the novel by Jim Thompson, starring Anjelica Huston, John Cusack and Annette Bening. A young man, his girlfriend and his mother form a viscous triangle, but then that's the kind of life you lead on the grift. It had been a long time since I first saw this film, possibly in the theater upon initial release. I'm embarrassed to admit that one of the two scenes I remembered most vividly was the one in which Annette Bening appeared nude in the full-frontal variety. I also remembered the final scene between John Cusack and Anjelica Huston, though not the events leading up to it. Interestingly, this film was produced by Martin Scorsese, and it was successful as an example of classic film noir executed in a (then) contemporary time and setting.
The Wolverine (8/19/13) DWA Screening (2013 ***1/2) Directed by James Mangold, starring Hugh Jackman, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Hal Yamanouchi and Famke Janssen. An Adamantium-laced mutant travels to Japan to say goodbye to an old friend and finds himself embroiled in some serious shit. I didn't expect much from this film, and it wasn't high on my list of summer films I was dying to see. But when they offered it up as a Monday night screening at work I went with my wife. I enjoyed The Wolverine far more than I thought I would. It had plenty of well-executed action sequences, though one that took place on a bullet train stretched my suspension of disbelief to its limits. My wife and I also independently figured out the film's third act reveal before the first act was over. Hugh Jackman certainly did his work preparing himself physically for the role, though some of the scenes designed to reveal various aspects of his physique were distracting. My guess is the ladies (and some of the men) in the theater didn't mind, though. As a big fan of the first two Bryan Singer-directed X-Men movies, it was nice to see this film tied into X-Men films in the past (X-Men: The Last Stand was seven years ago) and the future. X-Men: Days of Future Past is slated for summer of 2014, and I guarantee it will be high on my list of films to see next year.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (8/20/13) Netflix (2013 ***1/4) Directed by Jay Olivia, screenplay by Bob Goodman, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson, featuring the voices of Peter Weller, Ariel Winter, David Selby, Michael Emerson and Mark Valley. Batman comes out of his ten-year retirement to rescue a dystopian Gotham City from itself. It took a lot of chutzpah for DC to green light an animated adaptation of one of the greatest (and revered) graphic novels of all time. And I'm one of those who holds it in high regard, having bought the original comic series in serial form when it was first released. I will understand fully if some will want to trash this 2-part direct-to-video animated film as a cheap rip-off. However, I respect the film's creators and believe they did the best they could within obvious budgetary constraints.
Black Swan (8/21/13) Sundance (2010 **1/2) Directed by Darren Aronofsky, starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder. A troubled and repressed Ballerina is selected as lead in Swan Lake by a director who is either a genius, a sadist or both. Natalie Portman won a Best Actress Oscar for this role, though her range of emotion in Black Swan ranged from looking constipated to looking like she had explosive diarrhea. In short, I was more impressed by the physical lengths (weight loss) she went to in preparing for the role than her actual performance. With its subjective "is it real or not" moments, this film fits comfortably just adjacent to superior "mindfuck" genre films like Jacob's Ladder (1990) and Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982). In general, I didn't find the film or any of its characters particularly deep or complex. Nothing in the film actually surprised me, not even the psychological pyrotechnics. My final takeaway lesson was this: Don't live at home.
Guys and Dolls (8/22/13) TCM (1955 ***) Written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, adapted from the musical by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, based on a story by Damon Runyon, starring Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, Frank Sinatra, Vivian Blaine and Stubby Kaye. An unrepentant gamblin' guy is tricked into making a sucker bet he can talk a Salvation Army doll into a trip to Cuba. I've seen this musical a handful of times, including a high school production that starred the first girl I ever dated. In spite of that fond association, Guys and Dolls has never been one of my favorite musicals. I consider it to be a second-tier musical, a pale shadow of superior mid-century offerings like Singin' in the Rain (1952) and West Side Story (1961). I honestly didn't find any of its songs memorable other than "Luck Be a Lady" and Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat." I've always been annoyed by "Sue Me" and was somewhat disturbed to learn my wife's father had taught her to sing "Take Back Your Mink" when she was four. Ultimately, this musical film's biggest problem was that of the four leads, only one of them had a good singing voice. Can you guess which one? I'm sure there's a great story behind how Brando agreed to play Sky Masterson, which was a definite departure from A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) or On the Waterfront (1954). Then again, maybe that was the point.
Batman: Gotham Knight (8/24/13) Netflix (2008 ***) Directed by Yasuhiro Aoki, Yuichiro Hayashi, Futoshi Higashide, Toshiyuki Kubooka, Hiroshi Morioka, Jong-Sik Nam and Shoujirou, Nishimi. The facets of Batman's splintered psyche are revealed in six related animated stories. The premise of this anthology was that Batman is such a mythic character, he appears to take different forms when encountered by different people, in this case a group of kids comparing notes in an abandoned swimming pool. That premise was, of course, just an excuse for presenting several animated shorts, directed and animated by several different talented Japanese artists. While I admired the film for accomplishing what it set out to do, I can't say I was entirely engaged by it emotionally.
Seance on a Wet Afternoon (8/25/13) TCM (1964 ***) Directed by Bryan Forbes, based on the novel by Mark McShane, starring Kim Stanley, Richard Attenborough and Judith Donner. A middle-aged couple kidnap a girl in a plot to solidify the wife's reputation as a professional psychic. The film presents a somber character study, not only of Myra Savage and her husband Billy, but of their dysfunctional relationship as a married couple with a secret in their past. Much of the tension throughout the film came from wondering what fate will befall the kidnap victim. The moral of the film was clear, though: If your wife tells you she wants you to help her with a plan, always ask her if it involves kidnapping.
A Family Affair (8/25/13) TCM (1937 ***) Directed by George B. Seitz, based on the play Skidding by Aurania Rouverol, starring Lionel Barrymore, Cecilia Parker, Julie Haydon and Mickey Rooney. Judge James K. Hardy's unpopular decision to block a job-creating engineering project leads to him being blackmailed over his daughter's apparent infidelity and impending divorce. This was the first entry in the long-running Andy Hardy film series, which had 16 features and one short film in all. It's not hard from this film to see why the series was such a beloved success or why Rooney went on to become the biggest box office star of 1939 and the focus of later films in the "Hardy" franchise. The world was a very different one three-quarters of a century ago, yet Judge Hardy's homespun wisdom and moral turpitude remain comforting. By the way, this was the only film in the series in which the Judge was played by Lionel Barrymore (Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life), who was replaced in the second installment by Lewis Stone.
Thank Your Lucky Stars (8/26/13) TCM (1943 **1/2) Directed by David Butler, starring Eddie Cantor, Humphrey Bogart, Bettle Davis, Olivia de Havilland and many other stars. Two producers attempt to put on a star-studded show to benefit the war effort, but the production is derailed by Eddie Cantor's massive ego. I can't honestly say I've ever seen a film starring Eddie Cantor, though I don't know if that's much of a selling point. For a classic film buff like me, it was fun seeing all the golden age era stars, and halfway through, my wife said this film was like the 1940s equivalent of Cannonball Run (1981). Despite its considerable star power, Thank Your Lucky Stars didn't have nearly the heart, plot or general oomph of the following year's Hollywood Canteen (1944) which I watched recently. However, the two films might make for a good double feature.
Born Yesterday (8/27/13) TCM (1950 ***1/2) Directed by George Cukor, based on the play by Garson Kanin, starring Judy Holliday, William Holden and Broderick Crawford. On a trip to Washington D.C., a corrupt business tycoon hires a handsome reporter to "Pygmalionize" his girlfriend into becoming less of an embarrassment. What could possibly go wrong with a plan like that? I'd seen this film many, many years ago, when I was in my twenties, but I didn't have a real appreciation then for Holliday's performance. Though a wonderful actress with a career that stretched for another decade, her role as Billie Dawn has become somewhat of the answer to a trivia question. Impressively, Judy Holliday won the Best Actress Oscar, beating Anne Baxter and Bette Davis from All About Eve and Gloria Swanson from Sunset Blvd. 1950 was one helluva year to be an actress.

 

September

The Good Life (AKA Good Neighbors), Series 3 (9/1/13) DVD (1976 ****) Series produced and directed by John Howard Davies, written by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey, starring Richard Briers, Felicity Kendal, Paul Eddington and Penelope Keith. Seven episodes, originally aired 9/10/76 - 10/22/76. The third (short) season of one of the best British TV shows of all time featured early birds, a wind-break, fleas and Barbara Good's last posh frock. Revisiting my teenage crush on Felicity Kendal (via PBS reruns in the early 1980s) continues, continuing at the same high level of quality established in the previous fourteen episodes, and possibly going one step better. Someday I'll have to ask someone to explain why American TV shows in the mid-1970s typically had 24 or more episodes, while British audiences were apparently content with a mere handful. On a slightly naughty note: The first episode of this season, "The Early Birds" contains what famously appears to be a peek at Felicity Kendal's right nipple, which somehow squeaked by the censors and was still present on the DVD copy I watched. All the more reason to watch this terrific show.
True Blood, Season 5 (9/1/13) Netflix / HBO (2012 ***) Series created by Alan Ball, based on the book series by Charlaine Harris, starring Anna Paquin, Stephen Moyer and Alexander Skarsgård. 12 episodes, originally aired 6/10/12 - 8/26/12. Bill and Eric agree to locate renegade vampire Russell Edgington while Tara takes vampire-in-training lessons from Pam. Plus: faeries. While not a terrible season, and for what it's worth there weren't as many "dead weight" storylines I've come to expect from Alan Ball, season 5's storylines seemed even more disconnected than in seasons past. I also wasn't thrilled with the direction Bill's character took, though I have to admit that if the intended goal was to get me interested in seeing what Season 7 has to offer... well, mission accomplished.
Girls, Season 2 (9/3/13) Netflix / HBO (2013 ***) Series created by Lena Dunham, starring Lena Dunham, Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, Zosia Mamet and Adam Driver. 10 episodes, originally aired 1/13/13 - 3/17/13. As pressures mount for her book deadline, Hannah's OCD gets the better of her. The fact that I gave the first season four stars and this season three is a pretty good indication of how far Lena Dunham's star has fallen in my eyes. While she has still accomplished a great deal for someone as young as she is, watching this season's episodes was mostly a drag, and not particularly entertaining. It's just no fun to watch characters you thought you cared about make bad decisions and/or act like assholes. At a certain point (possibly in the seventh or eighth episode), I seriously wondered if the second season was going to end on a downbeat emotional note equivalent to the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Did it? That'll just have to be my little secret.
The Aristocats (9/6/13) Netflix (1970 ***) Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman, featuring the voice talents of Phil Harris, Eva Gabor, Sterling Holloway, Scatman Crothers, Pat Buttram and George Lindsay. An evil butler plots to kill a beloved cat and her kittens in order to collect their inheritance. I remember seeing this film in the theater when it was originally released and absolutely loving it. Hell, I had the Aristocats Colorforms playset and everything! Seeing it again after so many years, I noticed several things: This was the film that followed The Jungle Book (1967), and I believe was the first one made without Walt Disney's personal involvement (Disney died in 1966). Band leader Phil Harris famously voiced Baloo in Jungle Book, one of the first times a "famous" voice was used in a Disney animated film. Since it had worked so well in the previous film, Harris was joined in Aristocats by plenty of familiar voices, with Eva (Green Acres) Gabor being the most recognizable. I noticed several places in the film where the story slowed down or completely stopped in order for Disney's brilliant animators to show their stuff, something that would be verboten in modern animation. On an even more technical note, the use of Xerox as a substitute for hand inking (which Disney began doing with -- understandably -- 101 Dalmations in 1961) was very much in evidence here.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (9/7/13) Netflix (2012 ****) Written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, based on his book, starring Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller and Mae Whitman, with Paul Rudd. Charlie is a shy high school freshman with a tragic past who becomes friends with a group of upperclassmen, who help him find acceptance and "come of age." I loved this film and found it to be entirely endearing. Even though I graduated high school thirty years ago, I still remember what it felt like to be an outsider and an oddball. Though there are some story elements toward the end of the film that I didn't relate to, it was so easy for me to imagine myself in Charlie's shoes. I have a hunch this film is one that will speak to a multitude of teenagers and will become a personal favorite for more than a few of them. Highly recommended.
Who Do You Think You Are?, Season 4 (9/10/13) TLC (2013 ***) Series created by Alex Graham, executive produced by Lisa Kudrow and others. Season 4 featured genealogical expeditions into the family histories of Kelly Clarkson, Christina Applegate, Chelsea Handler, Zooey Deschanel, Chris O'Donnell, Cindy Crawford, Trisha Yearwood and Jim Parsons. Ancestry.com's NBC show moved to The Learning Channel, largely intact. I did notice in the first few episodes of the fourth season some evidence that the budget may have suffered in the transition: I felt there was less travel in general and much more time spent sitting in libraries, sometimes for entire segments. Also, if I'm not mistaken, there may have been some rights issues with the show's theme song as well, using sound-alike music for the first few episodes, then returning to the familiar music later on. Still, it's still a great premise for a show and a reminder of how much we're all threads in humankind's giant tapestry. Of course we can't all have famous ancestors like Cindy Crawford. (Spoiler Alert: She's a decendant of Charlemagne!)
Musicals Great Musicals: The Arthur Freed Unit at MGM (9/10/13) TCM (1996 ***) Directed by David Thompson, featuring interview footage with Arthur Freed, Cyd Charisse, Stanley Donan and many others. Did you know that when you think of the great musicals produced by MGM during the golden age of classic cinema that it was really the output of one "Unit" within the studio? If this comes as a complete surprise, this is the documentary for you. This documentary was originally broadcast in 1996 as an episode of Great Performances. Having seen all the That's Entertainment films, I'm not sure that I learned much from watching, though it was interesting to see the curtain pulled back a bit more on Leo B. Mayer and Arthur Freed's musical sausage factory. One particularly juicy bit of trivia, however, was that "Make 'Em Laugh," the great Donald O'Connor number in Singin' in the Rain (1950) was an obscenely blatant rip-off of Cole Porter's "Be a Clown."
Night Shift (9/14/13) Sundance (1982 ***1/2) Directed by Ron Howard, written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, starring Henry Winkler, Michael Keaton, Shelly Long and Richard Belzer. Two colleagues working the... well, "night shift" at the city morgue decide to become pimps for a bunch of hookers. I realized about halfway through this film that it was actually one of the best comedies of the 1980s. Not quite at the same level as Tootsie, but it's up there. I guess I'd forgotten just how good it was. I did have a few minor criticisms/observations, however: (1) It was fairly obvious that Henry Winkler was doing his best to distance himself from his Fonzie persona by channeling Woody Allen; (2) It was also apparent that sometimes Ron Howard slipped into a very sit-com-ish directing style; and (3) The resolution of the story's main conflict was resolved via an equal mixture of coincidence and deux ex machima. Having said all that, it was still a fun film, and while I don't want to take anything away from Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel's script, much of the movie's juice came from Michael Keaton's breakout performance. Shortly after Keaton's Bill Blazejowski appeared onscreen, my wife said, "You know, there are times when I feel like I have that same energy." I nodded in agreement, recognizing the similarities. Then, about a half hour later I said aloud, "My God, I married Michael Keaton!"
Clue (9/15/13) Netflix (1985 ***) Directed by Jonathan Lynn, starring Tim Curry, Eileen Brennan, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean, Martin Mull, Lesley Ann Warren and Colleen Camp. A seemingly-random collection of strangers gather for dinner at a spooky mansion, where they confront their blackmailer and before long, as the kids say, one murder leads to another. Clue has apparenty become something of a minor cult classic in the fashion of Curry's Rocky Horror Picture Show. I learned this fact via an interesting article I read about the film's production, and that article is what inspired me to add the film to my Netflix queue. Clue didn't do particularly well at the box office when it was originally released, and it's not hard to figure out why. Even in the mid-1980s, its humor was decidedly corny and old-fashioned, more akin to the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s, but -- to be honest -- not nearly was well done. The film was helmed by first-time director Jonathan Lynn, and while the cast evidently had a good time, I wish the film had been stronger. A personal note: In addition to playing the board game a few times in my teens, I had a previous relationship with the source material: My former company produced two computer games based on the Milton Bradley property, and a good friend of mine provided the voice of Miss Scarlet.
Invincible, Vol. 18: The Death of Everyone (9/17/13) Comics (2013 ***) Written by Robert Kirkman, illustrated by Ryan Ottley. Original published in Invincible #97-102. Mark Grayson's powers return just in time to face a planetary menace he's partly responsible for unleashing. If you've been reading my reviews, you know I detested the previous volume, but this collection, which included the series' issue #100, was a definite improvement. Having said that, the volume was definitely front-loaded quality-wise, and after the halfway point, it began to sag once more. I remain a fan of the series, even if I'm not quite as effusive as I was at the beginning. Quite honestly, I just don't trust Kirkman to take the series in a direction I want to follow. On a lighter note, one of the highlights contained in this volume was Kirkman's self-deprecation in the form of a fictionalized version of himself when Mark Grayson attends a comic convention and meets the creator of Science Dog, only to learn his idol is kind of a dick.
FF by Jonathan Hickman: Vol. 3: All Hope Lies in Doom (9/18/13) Comics (2012 **1/2) Written by Jonathan Hickman, illustrated by Juan Bobillo and Nick Dragotta. Originally published in FF #12-16. Valeria Richards and the Future Foundation have teleported the top stories of the Baxter Building to Latveria, and then things get really confusing. I've got to be honest: It's been several months since I read the previous volume and reading this one I didn't really know what was going on most of the time. Hickman's writing still suffers from lots of dialogue that reads naturally on the page but is actually pretty oblique. This is punctuated by action scenes with supposedly high stakes but they don't feel like high stakes. To add to the confusion, most of this volume excluded the Fantastic Four, except at the end when they're return, bringing with them Johnny Storm, who (kinda sorta spoiler alert) I thought was supposed to be dead!
FF by Jonathan Hickman: Vol. 4: You Are Whatever You Want to Be (9/20/13) Comics (2012 **1/2) Written by Jonathan Hickman, illustrated by Nick Dragotta, Gabriel Hernandez Walta and Andre Araujo. Originally published in FF #17-23. This volume, which concludes Hickman's run in the series, begins with Spidey/Torch roommate squabbles and ends with a child being taught by his future self how to use his godlike powers. For the most part, the stories in this collection were stand-alones, though I found myself having the same complaint about Hickman's writing I've had for some time: It's sooo boring. My feeling is that at times he strived to create a narrative voice akin to Neil Gaiman, but he was apparently incapable of ascending to Gaiman's status. It was clear, however, in the last story in this volume, that he tried damned hard. Having said that, I'm sure Hickman has plenty of fans who will disagree with me vehemently, but I'll stand by my opinion. But then, why should you listen to me? My main two reasons for reading this book were A) it was loaned to me by a friend and B) I needed a pleasant, mindless diversion.
Heroes of Cosplay, Season 1 (9/22/13) SyFy (2013 **1/2) Unknown series creator, featuring Yaya Han, Riki LeCotey, Monika Lee, Victoria Schmidt, Chloe Dykstra, Jessica Merizan, Holly Conrad, Becky Young and Jesse Lagers. Six episodes, originally aired 8/13/13 - 9/16/13. In this reality series, eight female costume designers and one token dude travel to science fiction and comic conventions around the country, competing in the cutthroat world of... costume play. I started watching this series with the second episode, but that was a mistake. It made me feel very middle-aged, but, with the exception of the spectacularly-endowed Yaya Han, I had the damnedest time keeping the female participants straight. They all seemed to look, sound and act alike, and without exception, I found all of them highly annoying. But I stuck with the series, because, after all... cosplay. By the time I reached the final episode, I'd finally managed to tell them apart, though I also had become more than a little suspicious of the "reality" of the supposedly reality series. In real life, it seems unlikely that serious cosplay contestants would put off finishing their costumes until the night before the competition... every... single... week. Will the show return for a second season? Apparently (according to the internet), the first season has been lambasted for playing fast and loose with image copyrights. This may explain why I haven't been able to find any evidence of the show's creator(s) online.
Fantastic Four by Jonathan Hickman, Vol. 5: Forever (9/23/13) Comics (2012 **1/2) Written by Jonathan Hickman, illustrated by Steve Epting and Barry Kitson. Originally published in Fantastic Four #600-604. It's the end of the world as we know it, as the Fantastic Four teams up with damn near everybody to fight competing invasions by The Kree Army and Annihilus and his Negative Zone legions. This volume also includes the return of a teammate who had been thought dead, an appearance by Galactus, and a mysterious stranger who helps Franklin Richards learn how to be a god. According to Wikipedia, after FF #11, the Fantastic Four comic series resumed its original title and numbering with a 100-page "spectacular" #600. Rather than rehash my previously-espoused bitching about Hickman's writing, let me say that "Remember," his Farel Dalrymple-illustrated mini story about Franklin and his baby universes was really quite sweet.
The Lumineers (9/28/13) Greek Theater (2013 ***1/2) After an appearance by The Lumineers on SNL back in January 2013, they quickly became one of my wife's favorite new bands. They certainly have been getting a great deal of airplay. As a birthday present, I bought these tickets to see them live at The Greek. Though our seats weren't the best, the concert was great fun, including the opening acts, Nathaniel Rateliff and Dr. Dog. The Lumineers played "Ho Hey" and all their hits (I had familiarized myself with their album ahead of time) and a high point for me was when lead singer Wesley Schultz and the rest of the band took up locations in the middle of the audience for a couple of songs. Another favorite moment of mine came when they performed a cover of Bob Dylan's "Boots of Spanish Leather."
Homeland, Season 2 (9/29/13) Netflix / Showtime (2012 ***1/2) Series developed by Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, based on the Israeli series Hatufim (Prisoners of War), created by Gideon Raff, starring Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, Mandy Patinkin and Morena Baccarin. 12 episodes, originally aired 9/30/12 - 12/16/12. Hero turned secret terrorist Nicholas Brody is groomed for public service while Carrie is torn between her love for him and uncovering the truth of his true mission. Meanwhile, a mysterious agent named Quinn joins Saul's team and Brody's daughter Dana is involved in a hit-and-run accident. This series continues to impress me with its balance between interesting, complex characters, original dramatic situations and a real sense of high stakes on both a personal and mass scales. Claire Danes and Damian Lewis kept their winning streak of delivering the acting goods. I am still very impressed with Danes' willingness to show an unusual degree of vulnerability with her deeply flawed, yet still sympathetic lead character. Without giving anything away spoiler-wise, Homeland's first season ended on a highly surprising note, and the second season did as well. Nicely done.
Fantastic Four by Jonathan Hickman, Vol. 6: Foundation (9/30/13) Comics (2012 **1/2) Written by Jonathan Hickman, illustrated by Ron Garney and Mike Choi. Originally published as Fantastic Four #605.1 and #605-611. The Fantastic Four and their extended family travel to the past, the future, Africa, underground, alternate realities and even to a universe in which Doctor Doom is God. This "family trips" volume concludes Jonathan Hickman's run on Marvel's Fantastic Four titles, which began with issue #570 and continued through the strange bifurcation that was FF. The "Doom Universe" near the end of the collection felt more like reading Cliff's Notes than normal continuity, and there was a sense of Hickman trying to sketch out an abbreviated version of a planned storyline, knowing his time with the series was coming ton an end. As I've indicated in my previous reviews, Hickman's writing has never particularly thrilled me, as he spent more time introducing ideas than seeing them through or telling exciting stories. And, as I've mentioned before, I'm sure he has legions of fans who would be happy to disagree with me.

 

October

Stripes (10/7/13) Sundance (1981 ***1/2) Directed by Ivan Reitman, starring Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Warren Oates, John Candy and John Larroquette. New York cabbie John and his best friend Russell decide they want to "be all that they can be" in The U.S. Army, but boot camp drill instructor Sergeant Hulka has his doubts. This movie was played constantly during the early days of cable TV, but I hadn't watched it in many, many moons, possibly not since sometime in the 1980s. According to my wife, prior to this viewing, she had literally watched the movie 38 times. Maybe I'm a sentimentalist, but I loved seeing it again after all these years, and it represents a kind of anti-establishment film comedy that was very popular at the time it was made. It is also a great example of why Bill Murray (who wasn't exactly your typical matinee idol) had the charisma to be a movie star and box-office draw.
First Men in the Moon (10/8/13) TCM (1964 ***) Directed by Nathan Juran, based on the story by H.G. Wells, starring Edward Judd, Martha Hyer and Lionel Jeffries. When a team of 1960s astronauts land on the moon, they discover astonishing evidence that others had landed sixty-some years before! Though directed by Nathan Juran, the primary hand at work in this effects-heavy film shot in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) was Ray Harryhausen. Because the original novel was published by H.G. Wells in 1901, a "contemporary" framing story was added, along with changing many of the details. There are still plenty of scientific inaccuracies to make fun of, though, including anti-gravity paint (derived from "Cavorite," a material named after its inventor, Joseph Cavor) and astronauts running around on the surface of the moon with bare hands!
Game Change (10/12/13) HBO / Netflix (2012 ***1/2) Directed by Jay Roach, based on the book by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, starring Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson and Ed Harris. As Republican candidate John McCain struggles to defeat Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election, he selects as his running mate a "maverick" that appears to be everything his campaign needs to win. This excellent HBO film won multiple Emmy Awards and Golden Globes, including top honors. Ed Harris played McCain with sensitivity and respect and Julianne Moore was amazing in her role as one of the most polarizing public figures in 21st Century American politics. Given my own decidedly left-of-center political views, I'll refrain from commenting on Palin herself (as tempting as it is), other to say it takes real cojones to continue to remain in the public eye when people have made an award-winning film about what a Goddamn idiot you are.
Rollerball (10/14/13) TCM (1975 **) Directed by Norman Jewison, written by William Harrison, starring James Caan, John Houseman, John Beck and Maud Adams. When his corporate boss presses him to retire at the top of his game, champion athelete Jonathan E. resists and attempts to discover how the populace-controlling (metaphorical) sausage gets made in a world governed by a few multinational monopolies. As well-made and acted as it was, I found the plot of the presumably action-packed Rollerball to be painfully slow-paced. I struggled to find a level on which I could relate to this film, and I simply was unable to do it. Perhaps it's because the film's Kafkaesque / Orwellian message was something I found more boring than true. It's definitely a product of its Watergate-era times, and the world was a very different one forty years ago than it is today. At least that's what the powers that be would have you believe.
Real Genius (10/15/13) Netflix (1985 ***1/2) Directed by Martha Coolidge, starring Val Kilmer, Gabriel Jarret, Michelle Meyrink, William Atherton and Patti D'Arbanville. Wunderkind Mitch Taylor is accepted by a prestigious university, teamed up with slightly older wunderkind Chris Knight and put to work developing a high-powered laser that may or may not have military applications. Any 1980s-themed film festival would have to include this film, and it would be a real crowd pleaser. I hadn't seen this movie since sometime in the early 1990s, but it was a blast watching it again after all this time. Even though it's decidedly "of its time," it has aged reasonably well. The film features a couple of delightfully archetypal 1980s montages, one of which was parodied superbly a few years ago on one of the Star Wars installments of Seth McFarlane's Family Guy.
Mongol (10/17/13) Netflix (2007 ***1/4) Directed by Sergey Bodrov, starring Tadanobu Asano, Honglei Sun and Khulan Chuluun. Long before he founded the Mongol Empire and conquered much of the known world, Genghis Khan was a nine-year-old boy betrothed to a little girl. This was another one of those films from my wife's Netflix queue that I had little interest in watching, but it was surprisingly good and was in fact nominated for the best foreign language Oscar. Beautiful to watch, it told a gripping tale about a historical figure I knew almost nothing about. To be honest, my understanding of Genghis Khan prior to watching Mongol was based primarily on an episode of I Dream of Jeannie (or was it Bewitched?). Certainly I had no knowledge of his fascinating origin story, which played out like a historically-based, Mongolian version of Batman Begins.
This is the End (10/19/13) Netflix (2013 ***1/2) Directed by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, screenplay by Rogen, Goldberg and others, starring Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride. James Franco's house becomes a fortress as the rapture foretold in the Bible turns Hollywood into a post-apocalyptic wasteland. First off, this movie is rated R for a reason, so if you're thinking of watching it with your extended families over the holidays, don't. My wife and I loved it, even if some of the more outrageous scenes made us squirm just a little. It was great fun watching well-known young actors play themselves, either as exaggerations or completely against their public personas. The best example of this was Baruchel walking in on a coked-up Michael Cerra in the bathroom being serviced by two young women from both the front and the back while he sipped from a juice box. A film like this could have disintegrated into Cannonball Run territory, but it didn't. It held together surprisingly well, and the comic improvisation never derailed the pace or plot of the film. Though this movie is probably not everybody's cup of tea (or juice box), it was funny as hell (sorry) and ended on a surprisingly sweet note.
A Boy and His Dog (10/23/13) TCM (1975 *1/2) Directed by L.Q. Jones, based on the novel by Harlan Ellison, starring Don Johnson, Jason Robards, Susan Benton and the voice of Tim McIntire. In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, a man's telepathic dog helps him sniff out members of the opposite sex. Somebody back in college once recommended this movie and said it was a fun, sexy film. I'd like to go back in time and punch that guy in the face. Then again, maybe that would lead to my getting arrested for assault and battery, which would in turn start a domino effect, altering the course of history and resulting in a global nuclear bomb-fest like the one in the film. So no, I won't use my time machine for that particular purpose. I strongly disliked this film, in no small part because it was predicated on an audience sympathizing with a main character who's essentially a dull-witted rapist. No thanks. According to film critic Michael Phillips' introduction, James Cagney was considered as the voice of Blood, the telepathic dog, but I don't think that would have improved the film any. With its dystopian, morally bankrupt future setting, it felt a little like it was trying to be a Clockwork Orange (1971) copycat. Also, A Boy and His Dog may have paved part of the cinematic pavement for Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981). So there you go: There's two different films vastly superior to this one.
Pulp (10/29/13) TCM (1972 *1/2) Written and directed by Mike Hodges, starring Michael Caine, Mickey Rooney, Lionel Stander and Lizabeth Scott. A writer of disposable fiction is asked to assist a former writer with his autobiography and stumbles into multiple murders. Mickey Rooney got second billing for what amounted to five minutes of sometimes uncomfortable screen time. And by uncomfortable, I mean there's a strangely unmotivated scene of aging Rooney standing in front of a mirror in his underwear. And yet somehow even with his limited screen time, Rooney was able to demonstrate the talent and energy that had once made him "the biggest star in the world." As for Pulp itself, I didn't care much for it. It was offbeat in that early-1970s way and so confusing that I didn't actually understand the end of the film, even after watching it twice. I seriously wonder to what extent the making of the film was an excuse for its star, director and crew to spend some time in Malta.

 

November

A Writer's Time: Revised Edition (11/6/13) Nonfiction (1986, 1995 ***) Written by Kenneth Atchity. Occidental College professor-turned-Hollywood producer Kenneth Atchity instructs his readers not only how to write, but also how to manage their time while producing copy. While this book contained a lot of information I'd read previously in other books, I have to hand it to Atchity: He found an original angle on which to approach the business and artistry of writing. In particular, I enjoyed the various super-specific recipes he offered for writing nonfiction, novels and screenplays, and some of his suggestions may find their way into my writing regimen the next time I take on a book-length project. Also, I'm sure my wife would appreciate that a cornerstone of his time management approach was the taking of lots of vacations! Because it covers so much territory in a fairly concise fashion, including both the creative and business aspects of starting a writing career (subjects that are usually the topics of separate books), it might make for a good gift for an aspiring writer.
Kung Fu Panda 2 (11/6/13) DWA Screening (2011 ***1/2) Directed by Jennifer Yuh, featuring the voices of Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Duston Hoffman and Gary Oldman. Po, the Dragon Warrior, must take on a villainous peacock named Lord Shen, who's intent on taking over China, one fiery cannonball at a time. This was a special screening for the Kung Fu Panda 3 crew, of which I'm a part. Even though I've been working on the film series' next installment for 40+ weeks, it was a good reminder of the level of detail and artistry that went into the second film (on which I had also worked). I particularly marveled at the sheer quantity of high-speed Kung Fu action. The choreography, animation and camerawork of that was breathtaking. While I still felt a stronger emotional resonance in the first film, the second was a truly thrilling ride and a worthy successor.
Daredevil by Mark Waid, Vol. 1 (11/8/13) Comics (2012 ***1/2) Written by Mark Waid, illustrated by Paolo Rivera and Marcos Martin. Originally published in Daredevil #1-6. Blind attorney Matt Murdock returns to New York and attempts to resume his legal career in spite of his secret identity having been exposed. After decades of writers like Frank Miller piling truckloads of shit on Daredevil, Waid takes a much lighter approach to one of Marvel's classic characters. I was never much of a Daredevil fan growing up. There was just never anything particularly interesting to me about him. What I liked about Waid's stories in this volume was (besides the light touch), an emphasis on the limitations of Daredevil's blindness and how the world appears to his other heightened senses. That forced me to look at the character in a new way, and while I don't normally respond well to being forced to do things, in this case I was appreciative.
The Flash, Vol. 1: Move Forward (11/13/13) Comics (2013 ***1/4) Written by Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato, illustrated by Francis Manaapul. Originally published in The Flash #1-8. The fastest man alive takes on a multiplicity villain named Mob Rule and comes to grips with the negative side-effects of his tapping into the Speed Force. I believe this is the first "New 52" book I've read. I'm not completely clear on the concept, whether this is a reboot of Barry Allen's Flash or not. It was an enjoyable enough read, with plenty of action and a semi-interesting love triangle between Barry Allen, his girlfriend Patty and an intrepid reporter named Iris West. My one concern with the book was that several potentially cumbersome complications or questionable changes (like an enormous "cosmic" treadmill that can power the city and Captain Cold no longer needing a gun) are added to the Flash universe, and I can't help but wonder if they won't end up discarded later in the series.
Children of the Damned (11/13/13) TCM (1964 **1/2) Directed by Anton Leader, based on the novel by John Wyndham, starring Ian Hendry, Alan Badel, Barbara Ferris, Alfred Burke and Clive Powell. Six super-intelligent, super-creepy children barricade themselves inside an abandoned church and taunt the British Army. This film is a stand-alone sequel to Village of the Damned (1960), which I watched and reviewed two years ago. The film was quite well executed, except that it suffered from a painfully slow pace. The running time may have been only 90 minutes, but it seemed much longer.
Thor: The Dark World (11/14/13) Americana Pacific 18 (2013 ***1/2) Directed by Alan Taylor, starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Rene Russo and Anthony Hopkins. When his mortal object of affection Jane Foster becomes host for an ancient evil power, Thor must kick some serious ass in all of the nine realms. Reviews had been somewhat tepid for this followup to the 2011 Kenneth Branagh-directed film, so I didn't expect much. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. As my wife described the film, "It was everything a superhero movie should be." I agree. Thor: The Dark World was an action-packed roller coaster ride of a film, with some nice reversals, some I saw coming and a couple I didn't. There were also a surprising amount of humor, including a cameo by one of Thor's Avengers colleagues. It was also entertaining that one of the realms was named "Vanaheim," considering Marvel is now part of the Disney family (In case you didn't get it: Disneyland is in Anaheim, California). One thing I especially enjoyed (and a real risk on the part of the filmmakers) was that there were a lot of delightful "fun and games" in the third act, which in these kind of films is normally played straight.
Wonder Boys (11/15/13) Sundance (2000 ***1/2) Directed by Curtis Hanson, screenplay by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by Michael Chabon, starring Michael Doublas, Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand, Robert Downey Jr. and Katie Holmes. A cannibus-loving English professor becomes a mentor to a troubled young genius with a fanatical devotion to Marilyn Monroe. I remember loving this film when it was first released and can appreciate it even more now, having taken a dozen or more creative writing classes since I first saw it. It's not a perfect film, and did seem to lose itself during the second half of its second act. Still, the characters were without exception well-drawn (and acted) and while I have no intention of driving around with a dead dog in my trunk, I could relate to many of them on various levels. Seeing this film makes me want to re-read Chabon's second book (published in 1995, five years before his Pulitzer-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) to see how much it was transformed for the screen. There's something about the intimate scope of the story, with much of its action occurring within a 24-hour period, that makes it representative of the kind of novel (graphic or otherwise) I hope to write someday...
Somewhere in Time (11/16/13) Netflix (1980 ***1/2) Directed by Jeannot Szwarc, screenplay by Richard Matheson, based on his novel Bid Time Return, starring Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour and Christopher Plummer. A young playwright becomes obsessed with a portrait and travels back in time so he can be with its beautiful subject. There's no question: This is undoubtedly one of the most beloved time travel movies of all... well, time, and it has a pure romantic appeal that's undeniable. However, even when it was released, it was a film impossible to watch with cynical eyes, and it would be a mistake to even try. According to the DVD's "making of" featurette, it was a film that basically bombed at the box office and didn't truly find an audience until it was shown on cable and released on video, back when both were in their infancy. Though I'm a sucker for time travel films, particularly those with a strong romantic component, the contribution of John Barry's music cannot be underestimated. Even now as I write this review, the love theme is playing in my head, and I'm sure anyone who's ever seen the film knows exactly what I mean. Here's one minor inside note: I loved that Matheson's screenplay named the professor that Richard Collier seeks out to travel back in time Dr. Gerald Finney. Jack Finney was a writer who specialized in time travel fiction (much of which I've read) that was tonally very similar to Matheson's story. Finally, on a personal note, my maternal grandmother adored this film and it inspired my grandparents to take a trip to Mackinac Island, Michigan (where the film was shot), a year or so before my grandfather's death. That trip was a very happy one for them, and I hope someday my wife and I can travel there ourselves.
Diary of the Dead (11/19/13) IFC (2007 ***) Written and directed by George A. Romero, starring Michelle Morgan, Joshua Close, Shawn Roberts and Amy Lalonde. A group of college film students and their alcoholic professor find themselves shooting a documentary about the zombie apocalypse. In many ways, this film is a worthy and respectful modern take on Romero's original Night of the Living Dead (1968), while incorporating the "video verite" of modern horror like 2007's Paranormal Activity and its sequels. However, that still only elevated Diary of the Dead to the level of the well-made zombie cinema, of which there are now so many to choose from, including, of course, AMC's regular TV series, The Walking Dead.
Priceless (AKA Hors de prix) (11/19/13) Netflix (2006 ***) Directed by Pierre Salvadori, starring Audrey Tautou, Gad Elmaleh, Marie-Christine Adam and Vernon Dobtcheff. A hotel waiter is mistaken for a rich man and beds a gorgeous gold-digger. I absolutely loved Audrey Tautou in Amelie (2001), but there was a point in Priceless when I absolutely hated her character, and the film by association. However, from that dark, unsympathetic hole, the utterly unsympathetic character evolved and changed my feelings about her and the film by its satisfying conclusion. One bonus for some viewers is the fact that the entire film is set in the French Riviera, featuring a decadent, luxurious lifestyle that -- as the film makes very clear -- few can afford.
The Voyeurs (11/20/13) Comics (2012 ***) Written and illustrated by Gabrielle Bell. Firmly rooted in the autobiographical comics genre, The Voyeurs is presented as Gabrielle Bell's diary in comic book form. This was my first exposure to Bell's work, which has been featured in four volumes of Best American Comics. In addition to working as what appears to be a literal chronological telling of the events in her life, the book also serves as an opportunity for Bell to share her feelings about the human condition as well as her own introspection about herself and how she reacts to the world around her. This is best illustrated in an extended story about her visit to the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con, which made me far less interested in attending that convention. I'm saddened to say that Bell's stories in this collection didn't speak to me more. Examining why that is, I think it's mostly because I'm getting on in years and it's increasingly hard for me to listen to the (sorry) monotonic whining of people in their twenties and even thirties. Having said that, my 30-year-old self could relate to some of what she wrote, specifically her self-disappointment and feelings of detachment and borderline misanthropy. My inability to relate to it more as I am now is undoubtedly a reflection of who I've become in the past two decades, and I am actually kind of happy for that. In short, I respect the book for what it is and for Bell's skill in achieving her goal, but that didn't make The Voyeurs any less of a drag to read.
The Wrestler (11/23/13) IFC (2008 ***) Directed by Darren Aronofsky, written by Robert D. Siegel, starring Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood. Randy "The Ram Robinson" is an aging professional wrestler who's forced to leave the spotlight in exchange for a menial job at a supermarket. This is one of those films I'd been meaning to watch since it had originally been released. I had heard great things about it and of course it had received multiple award nominations. But the subject matter didn't appeal to me and the likely downbeat nature was off-putting. And besides, Mickey Rourke just looked so damned odd in the awards shows. After watching Aronofsky's Black Swan (2010), I decided to record The Wrestler and finally got around to watching it. It surprised me. Yes, it was a dirty, gritty character study about a guy whose sole talent can only be truly expressed inside a wrestling right. But it was also surprisingly funny at times and Rourke's fantastic performance lent a high degree of sympathy to the last guy on earth I would have expected to like. As an added bonus, the film takes its viewers inside the utterly fascinating world of professional wrestling, a world in which I wouldn't care to visit in real life.
Le Rêve (The Dream) (11/24/13) Wynn Casino, Las Vegas (2013 ****) Created by Franco Dragone. Le Rêve is a water-based show in the style of the Cirque du Soleil productions. According to Wikipedia, Le Rêve, which means "The Dream" in French, was actually the working name of The Wynn resort before it became The Wynn, and so the name of the show is intimately associated with its home, which was, incidentally, where we stayed during our Vegas Thanksgiving trip. Having seen many of the Cirque du Soleil shows, I didn't expect much from the production, but was interested in getting tickets. My wife and I gladly opted for second-row seats in the "splash zone," having had good luck with similar seats for O. I was blown away by how well-produced the show was, and opposed to the Cirque productions, it had one other nice feature: Cameras were allowed in the theater and audience members were allowed to take photographs! Next time you're in Las Vegas, I highly recommend checking out this show.
(11/26/13) MGM Grand, Las Vegas (2013 ***1/2) Created and directed by Robert Lepage. Two twins witness the deaths of their imperial parents, are separated and must endure great trials -- including combat and attacks by archers -- to be reunited. Each Cirque du Soleil show offers a different theme, but this particular show has far more of a story than any of the others, as opposed to a collection of what are essentially high-end French circus acts (not that there's anything wrong with that). The multi-million dollar custom-built theater is stunning, and it's almost worth the price of admission just to see it. The stage features a giant moving and rotating platform driven by hydraulics, which is featured throughout the show, often moving and tilted to varying degrees. This show is infamous for one of the darkest days in Cirque du Soleil history, the death of performer Sarah Guillot-Guyard on June 29, 2013. As a result of that tragedy, which occurred during the climactic battle scene in which the platform was nearly vertical, that sequence was altered significantly, showing projected animations on the surface instead of live humans. This change to the program lessened its impact monumentally, and while I appreciate the merits behind being respectful to the artist's death, this alteration really took the wind out of 's dramatic sails.
Gravity (11/27/13) Orleans Hotel, Las Vegas (2013 ****) Written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón, starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney and Ed Harris. After a catastrophic accident in space, a female astronaut faces the greatest challenge of her life as she struggles to get back to Earth. This film is amazing on a technical level and it's well deserving of my 4-star reviews as well as the awards it will surely receive. I only know a bit about the technical process involved in making the film as immersive an experience as it is. With the computer controlled lighting rigs and synchronized cameras, it may well represent a new frontier in filmmaking, or at least in the integration of effects. But the film isn't simply a technical feat. It's also essentially a one-woman show, with Sandra Bullock onscreen for 95% of the film. She does a wonderful and effective job, and there's certainly a strong emotional component to the film. I think that was overshadowed, however, by the strong series of action set pieces that make up a story that tug pretty hard at the boundaries of believability.
David Copperfield (11/27/13) MGM Grand, Las Vegas (2013 ***1/4) David Copperfield is a Las Vegas fixture, and was an appropriate choice for us, especially with half price tickets. Prior to the show, I was somewhat familiar with his work, and had been aware of (but don't specifically recall watching) his TV specials in which he made impossibly large objects disappear, but had never seen him live. I was surprised first of all, at how fairly scruffy he looked, wearing an untucked oversized shirt, rather than a traditional magician's tuxedo. The second surprise came with just how deliciously cheesy he was, playing the part of "David Copperfield" to the hilt. His audience the night we saw him was composed largely of Chinese tourists, and I suspected they were part of a large tour group. The reason I mention that is I appreciated how Copperfield tailored his performance to them, making them (and other foreign visitors) feel very welcome. Overall, the show was fun, with a wide variety of magic tricks, some of which (like a time-traveling emailed photograph) seemed unnecessarily complicated, but others of which were quite impressive. The most memorable trick for me involved wrist bands that had been distributed to the audience at the beginning of the show that later transformed, exhibiting an unusual quality. Hopefully the trick didn't require the theater to be flooded with gamma radiation.
Lifeboat (11/30/13) TCM (1944 ***) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, based on the story by John Steinbeck, starring Tallulah Bankhead, William Bendix, Hume Cronyn and Walter Slezak. When a German U-boat sinks a passenger ship a handful of survivors share their lifeboat with a German sailor. The central conceit of this film was whether or not it was possible to tell a compelling drama that takes place entirely in the confined space of a lifeboat. Well, if any director was up to that challenge, it was Alfred Hitchcock. After making his obligatory cameo in an ad on the back of a newspaper, Hitch proceeded to present a seamless story for a full hour and a half. Though not really a suspense, it does contain some suspenseful reveals, secrets and life-and-death conflicts. While much of Lifeboat's subtext about Germany's Aryan ideals is far less salient now than it was in 1944, and even though it's not one of Hitchcock's most memorable pictures, Lifeboat is still well worth watching, especially for students of his films.

 

December

Thief of Thieves, Vol. 1: I Quit (12/3/13) Comics (2012 ***1/4) Story by Robert Kirkman, written by Nick Spencer, illustrated by Shawn Martinbrough. Originally published in Thief of Thieves #1-7. In the world of high-stakes crime, there are rules, and master thief Conrad Paulson is willing to break almost any of them to get his son released from prison. The story contained lots of flashback sequences, and because there was little to no difference in how the main character was drawn between events twenty years in the past and the present day, it was often hard to follow the transitions. Compounding that was a family resemblance between the father and the son that was distracting. Still, Thief of Thieves presented a very well-told heist story, with multiple twists and turns and reversals of alliances. I also appreciated that the story was self-contained within the seven-issue volume, rather than feeling like reading a continuing series.
Thief of Thieves, Vol. 2: Help Me (12/4/13) Comics (2013 ***1/4) Story by Robert Kirkman, written by James Asmus, illustrated by Shawn Martinbrough. Originally published in Thief of Thieves #8-13. In the previous volume, master thief Conrad Paulson pulls a heist to get his son out of jail. In Volume 2, he teams up with his recently-freed son to rescue his son's girlfriend from a drug cartel. This second story in the series doesn't feel quite as self-contained as the first, but it continued the high-quality writing and illustration. The stakes were high and it was made clear that the bad guys were willing to go to sadistic extremes to get what they wanted. While I very much enjoyed the fresh take on the conventional heist story of "I Quit," the central "heist" of "Help Me" was a rescue mission. That said, it still contained enough twists to make it a satisfying read.
Monsters University (12/8/13) Netflix (2013 ***1/4) Directed by Dan Scanlon, featuring the voice talents of Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley and Helen Mirren. Before they were scarers at Monsters, Inc., Mike and Sully were fun-loving university students just like the ones you see in the news. Nowadays, it's a big risk to have a children's film set at college, but when I was a kid, I used to love Disney's Fred MacMurray and Kurt Russell films set at the fictitious Medfield college, and so I see Monsters University continuing that fine lineage. Given the premise, I imagine the writers and story team had to walk a fine line. It's a little hard to set a movie in the tradition of Animal House at a college and not show beer drinking, co-ed sex and other shenanigans. The story settled in pretty quickly to a competition between groups of potential scarers, and as soon as that happened the film became more than a bit formulaic. As Pixar films go, this was not one of their stronger entries (not even receiving a Best Animated Film nomination), though the animation and visuals were as good as ever. I'm also unsure how I felt about the film's resolution: (SPOILER ALERT) It seems to me that Mike & Sully getting kicked out of college violated something fundamental in the premise of the film. I also have to wonder if the message "you don't need to go to college to succeed" is the right one for a film aimed at young kids.
Joe the Barbarian (12/9/13) Graphic Novel (2011 ***) Written by Grant Morrison, illustrated by Sean Murphy. Originally published in serial form as Joe the Barbarian #1-8. When his blood sugar drops dangerously, an imaginative young diabetic hallucinates a magical and terrifying world, all within his own home. This was an interesting story, but only up to a point. For starters, though there were clues early on, Joe's diabetes and hypoglycemia wasn't clearly spelled out, and it took me awhile to realize what was actually going on. After that, it suffered from the same problem that any story set in the equivalent of a fever dream would: It was hard to feel any real sense of stakes when nothing in the fantastic world was actually real. It didn't help that Joe's central mission in the real world consisted of making the less-than-epic journey from his upstairs bedroom to a downstairs refrigerator and the life-saving soda it contained. If you've read any of my other reviews of his work, I've long had misgivings about Grant Morrison's writing, and Joe the Barbarian just added more fuel to that internal debate.
Road to Bali (12/12/13) TCM (1952 ***) Directed by Hal Walker, starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour. Entertainers George Cochran and Harold Gridley talk their way to Bali (and into trouble) by selling each other as pearl divers. This was the sixth and next-to-last of the Hope & Crosby "Road" movies. It was shot in color and I found it surprisingly entertaining, even sixty-some years after it was first released. One of the hallmarks of the series was the occasional fourth wall fracturing, which worked quite effectively with the "Road to..." style of comedy. It also came in quite handy when Hope's character Harold Gridley got himself out of a certain impossible deadly situation. Unlike the preceding four films, Road to Bali was shot in color, as was its successor, the final "Road" picture, The Road to Hong Kong, which wouldn't be released for another decade.
Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (12/14/13) IFC (1983 ***1/2) Directed by Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam, starring Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin. From birth to death and beyond, this film attempts to answer the eternal question: "What's it all about?" I remember very well when this film was released. I was already a Python fan, and what I remember most was that it contained no shortage of R-rated designed-to-shock moments, including a full-on musical production number about the sacredness of sperm, a gory sketch about live organ donation and a grotesque restaurant patron named Mr. Creosote. In short, it was not the kind of film you wanted to watch with your family during Thanksgiving break. It's also the only film, to my knowledge, that begins with a short subject ("The Crimson Permanent Assurance"), which later intersects with the main feature, as a novel kind of a callback. Meaning of Life took the Python gang back to their TV roots, as it can be viewed as a series of thematically-linked sketches. And while I enjoyed some of the segments far more than others, I enjoyed the film as a whole quite a lot, and found the ending quite satisfying..
Frozen (12/15/13) La Canada 8 (2013 ****) Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, based on the story "The Snow Queen" by Hans Christian Andersen, featuring the voice talents of Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Nonathan Groff, Josh Gad and Santino Fontana. When her sister Elsa's mutant ice powers are revealed, Anna must embark on an dangerous journey to bring Elsa home. I absolutely loved this movie and am particularly happy for the production crew at Disney that worked on it, including a former co-worker. I strongly suspect this film is a lock to win the Oscar for best animated film. I say this, even though I worked on one of its most likely competitors. One of the things that's most impressive about Frozen is how it was marketed so effectively, essentially hiding its true nature. Specifically, one would never suspect from the TV ads that it was a musical. Yes, Virginia, the number one movie at the box office is an animated feature about singing princesses! Singing. Freakin'. Princesses! But you know what? It worked amazingly well. One of the key things that made it great was that the story grabbed your heart within the first five minutes and never let go for the rest of the film. Throughout the story there was a perpetual sense of high stakes and life-or-death jeopardy for the two sisters, and I loved that the filmmakers weren't afraid of taking the audience there. But in addition to all that, Josh Gad's Olaf the snowman offered perfect comic relief, and his song about what a Snowman does "In Summer," was perfect.
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (12/15/13) Netflix (2012 ***1/4) Directed by Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori, featuring interviews with and/or archival footage of Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Jody Stephens, Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer. The strange story of the greatest rock band most people have never heard of can finally be told. I was turned onto the music of Big Star by a college friend and I've been a fan ever since. In the mid-to-late 1990s, when I was living in New York, I even got to see the incarnation of the band that toured at the time, and previously I'd seen (with that same friend) Alex Chilton perform in a small club in Iowa City. I had also been a fan of The Replacements, whose song "Alex Chilton" pushed Chilton and Big Star as a whole forward into the cultural consciousness in the mid-1980s. As documentaries go, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me was reasonably solid, with plenty of interviews of the surviving original members (Chris Bell died in a mysterious single-car accident in 1978 and Alex Chilton died in 2010 from a heart attack) as well as others integral to the Big Star story. However, it seemed the filmmakers often stopped short of explicitly delivering key pieces of information, opting for subtlety. For instance, it's strongly implied in the film that Bell was gay and possibly had unrequited romantic feelings for Chilton, and that contributed to the longstanding tension between them. But none of the subjects were ever questioned about it directly, at least not in the footage that made the final cut. On the whole, however, I think this film will probably work nicely as an introduction to a band who produced some phenomenal music and, for many reasons, remained unappreciated for many years.
Six By Sondheim (12/18/13) HBO (2013 ***) Directed by James Lapine, Autumn DeWilde and Todd Haynes, featuring interviews and/or archive footage with Stephen Sondheim, Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, Dean Jones and many others. Stephen Sondheim's life and creative process is revealed via six of his memorable songs. This documentary had a particularly inventive structure I'd never come across before: It related chapters of Sondheim's life as well as layers of his public and private persona, by selecting six songs from his repertoire and nominally talking about each of them in turn, but really telling more about the man behind the music than the individual pieces.
Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor (12/19/13) British Airways -- Las Vegas to Heathrow (2013 ***1/4) Directed by Nick Hurran, starring Matt Smith, David Tennant, John Hurt, Jenna Coleman and Tom Baker. The Doctor is called to investigate strange happenings at London's National Gallery and must join forces with past versions of himself to correct a grave incident from his past. Ah, the wonder and magic of in-flight personal entertainment systems. For my first selection during my British Airways trans-Atlantic flight to Jolly Old England, I chose (somewhat appropriately, I thought) this film, which was technically an episode of the Doctor Who TV series. This year marked the show's 50th anniversary, and there's been much in the press leading up to this "event." I can't really call myself a fan of Doctor Who, though I have a definite affinity for it. I first became acquainted with the show when I was in high school, and watched a handful of episodes featuring Tom Baker, who played the fourth incarnation of the Doctor from 1974-1981. I liked what I saw, cheesy effects and all, but somehow I never made a point of chasing after the show in the way I did other series. I'm also aware of the reboot (of sorts) of the series, beginning in 2005 and continuing through to the current day.So far I've avoided watching these, know that if and when I do I'll be sucked into a time vortex. Such is my relationship with television. Anyhow, as what you would call a "watching from the sidelines" fan, I enjoyed this film, though I don't have much to compare it against. Undoubtedly I would have had more of an appreciation for the in-jokes had I been a true fan. Fortunately, in the week or so before my flight, I'd read an article on the "Easter eggs" hidden throughout the episode.
The World's End (12/20/13) British Airways -- Las Vegas to Heathrow (2013 ***) Directed by Edgar Wright, written by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman and Pierce Brosnan. Gary King talks his chums into recreating a pub crawl from their younger days; unfortunately, the town has undergone a bit of a change since the early 1990s. Being a fan of Pegg & Wright's other films, I think I had unrealistic expectations for this one. I'll grant you that watching any movie on an airplane video entertainment system doesn't make for the greatest experience. This film was likable enough, and Pegg's character gave him a lot to work with, but the situation was a little hard to relate to. As the nature of the town's change became apparent -- revealed in a way that was enjoyably novel -- there came a point where believability was stretched beyond the breaking point, and the characters behaved more like puppets than sentient beings. In the end, The World's End tried to say something deep about the nature of the human condition, and I applaud the effort, but it still felt unsatisfyingly shallow..
Kick Ass 2 (12/20/13) British Airways -- Las Vegas to Heathrow (2013 ***1/4) Directed by Jeff Wadlow, based on the comic by Mark Millar, starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloë Grace Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Jim Carrey. Costumed superheroes Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl are back, teaming up with Colonel Stars and Stripes and his band of second-string heroes to take on... The Motherfucker. Seriously, that's his name. Jim Carrey famously refused to help publicize this film, due to its violence, but it certainly begs two questions: (1) Did he see the first film? and (2) Did he read the script? Maybe I've become inured, but to my way of thinking, gratuitous, over-the-top violence is what films like this are all about, and they're R-rated for a reason. At any rate, I enjoyed this sequel as much as its predecessor, though I would be surprised if they make any more in the series.
Puss In Boots (12/21/13) Hackney Empire, London (2013 ***1/4) Written and Directed by Susie McKenna, starring Kat B as Puss in Boots, Sharon D Clarke as Queen Talulah the Hoo Ha, and Josefina Gabrielle as evil witch Evilena. A talking pussycat in magic boots travels to the kingdom of Hackneyonia, where comedy and drama reign supreme. This was my first direct exposure to British theatrical Pantomime, or "Panto," as it's commonly called. However, I had an image in my head, thanks to an episode of Extras in which Ricky Gervais' character got a gig playing the genie in a panto version of Aladdin. It was definitely a cultural experience, and for the most part I enjoyed it, though a few scenes had me scratching my head, particularly ones that clearly did nothing to advance the plot. Early in the production, one of the players refers to panto as (I'm paraphrasing): "Thirty seconds of enjoyment spread over three and a half hours." At 2.5 hours (including intermission), it wasn't quite that long, but there was still a great deal of truth in the statement. In other words, it was well done (for what it was) and I'm glad we went, but I don't think I'll make it a regular habit.
Let It Be (12/22/13) Savoy Theater, London (2013 ***1/2) Musical Supervision and direction by John Maher. In the early sixties, a band of four musicians from Liverpool came on the scene, changing rock history in the process, and while they were together they produced some pretty amazing music. Hell, you might even call them "fab." First off, it's important to note that this show is fundamentally a well-produced Beatles tribute band, much to the disappointment of our friend who went to the show with us. During intermission, he lamented, "I expected more of a story." As for myself, you'd be hard-pressed to put on a Beatles-related stage production that I didn't enjoy, and I'm happy to say I've seen about a half dozen now, ranging from Circe du Soleil's Love to a show on a cruise ship. As for this production, my first reaction was: "Why are there two Ringos and no George?" Which is a reasonable question to ask. Actually, there was a George, but he was a dead ringer for Harry Shearer's Derek Smalls in This is Spinal Tap. You know what? If you're a Beatles fan looking to rise to your feet and dance to "Twist and Shout," this is definitely a show you should check out.
Arrested Development, Season 4 (12/26/13) Netflix (2013 ***1/2) Series created by Mitchell Hurwitz, starring Jason Bateman, Michael Cera, Jeffrey Tambor, Will Arnett and Ron Howard. 15 episodes, originally released online on May 26, 2013. The continued ups and downs of the ultra-dysfunctional Bluth family make it clear that none of them will ever truly grow up. In the seven years since the show's cancellation, I'd seen a staggering number of press items about its possible resurrection. While I wouldn't exactly call myself a superfan, I enjoyed the show while it ran. Most of the stories I read were about how difficult it was to get all the cast members' schedules together, especially Michael Cera, who had gone on to a successful film career. When Netflix announced they were getting into the original TV series business, fans rejoiced. When stories started coming out about how the new season would be structured a little differently than any sit-com in recorded history, it made me curious. When the entire 15-episode series was released ( some would say dumped) en masse on May 26, 2013, it was met by die-hard fans with a mix of approximately 30% gratitude, 60% disappointment and 10% head-scratching. Learning that, I mentally filed the series away in my "someday" cabinet. Well, thanks to a strange vacation illness that left me too dizzy to attend an all-day Christmas party, I wound up watching the show alone and binge-style, nearly all in one (holy) day, and I liked a lot of what I saw. Having been prepared for it, I appreciated the time-fractured Rashomon approach, in which each episode centered on a different character's point-of-view, with some characters getting multiple episodes. There were Easter eggs sprinkled throughout, such as activities taking place in the background of an early episode being shown in a later one, or vice versa. There were a number of jokes that were set up, then paid off much later. Toward the end of the season, however, I felt like all I was watching were scenes that dovetailed earlier scenes, which I suppose was the natural progression. It also meant that binge-watching it was really the way to go, in order to appreciate all the little connections. Had I watched it over a course of three or four months of weekly installments, I never would have been able to have that appreciation. Aside from the season's unusual structuring, it was very much in keeping with the tone of the first three (normal) seasons. I was tickled my many of the individual story elements, particularly the reference to the 1994 unreleased (and infamous) Roger Corman-produced film version of The Fantastic Four, which was made for rights-rentention purposes. I also loved seeing Ron Howard in several of the episodes playing a version of himself. It's unclear to me what Arrested Development's future is. I won't give away the closing scene, but it certainly implied a continuation of the story into another season or film.
Royal Albert Hall Christmas Spectacular (12/27/13) Royal Albert Hall (2013 ***1/4) Music provided by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with conductor Anthony Inglis, opera singers Stephanie Corley and Marco Panuccio, and The Russian State Ballet of Siberia, featuring Natalia Bobrova and Nickolai Chevychelow. Our Christmastime visit to London continued with one of the city's winter traditions. First off, if you ever get a chance to see a performance at the Royal Albert Hall, by all means go. The place is huge, with incredible acoustics. The show itself offered up a variety of talents, a kind of sampler platter spanning the spectrum of the kind of entertainment you might expect upper class Brits to see. To be honest, and I hate to admit this, I started to get a little bored. My mind drifted as I pondered the difference between opera and operetta, and just how they were going to pull off the the indoor fireworks they promised. Also, lasers. The show featured an impressive laser system, though I think they might have used it just a little to often. Still, lasers.
The Little Orphaned Fannie (12/27/13) Royal Vauxhall Tavern, London (2013 ***) Directed by Tim McArthur, written by Gareth Joyner, starring Myra DuBois, Ginger Johnson, Harry Clayton Wright, The Divine Miss Em and Andrew Truluck. The Great Depression's favorite ginger-haired orphan aims to fulfill her destiny as the ward of a filthy rich man, in spite of the villainous Ms P'st Hagan and Randy the Fox. Having had our taste of family-friendly British Pantomime a week before with Puss in Boots at Hackney Empire, I was somewhat more prepared to enjoy its "poor cousin" with this decidedly budget-limited "Gay Panto," put on in the somewhat cramped quarters of a gay bar only slightly larger than our back patio at home. I went in with an open mind, of course, and for the most part I enjoyed the show, despite several microphone audio problems that indicated a less-than-professional stage production. My other complaint was that the place was an absolute furnace, so hot as to be distractingly uncomfortable. I'm still glad we went, for the experience of it, but was very glad to leave the bar and step out into the cool night air. Oh, and in case you were wondering, yes, I'm well-acquainted with the British meaning of the word "fanny."
World War Z (12/28/13) British Airways Flt 209 London Heathrow to Miami (2013 ***) Directed by Marc Forster, based on the novel by Max Brooks, starring Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale and Matthew Fox. Former U.N. investigator Gerry Lane finds himself at the epicenter of an investigation into the origins of a zombie pandemic. As I settled into my long transatlantic flight, I perused the options available on my personal video system and chose this film as the beginning of my inflight film fest. At this point in my life I feel obligated to watch pretty much any zombie-based movie that comes out. Funny, I never thought "Zombie aficionado" would ever make my list of identifying characteristics. The conceit of this particular zombie film is that it shows what would happen if undead masses behaved like colonies of ants, which was hands down the coolest part of the trailers. The structure of the film proceeded from one set piece to the next, with Brad Pitt's character consistently (and coincidentally) being in the wrong part of the globe at the wrong time. I had heard rumblings (in Entertainment Weekly, the only news source I trust any more except for The Daily Show) that the production had problems of the over-budget/re-shoot variety. I don't doubt it, though I thought the end result was fairly solid and Pitt (one of the producers) brought his A-game. According to a friend, the film version is very different from the book. Based on her description, I can see why they changed it, and also why the book isn't exactly high on my reading list.
Elysium (12/28/13) British Airways Flt 209 London Heathrow to Miami (2013 ***1/2) Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, starring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster and Sharlto Copley. In the decidedly dystopian 2154, a dying factory working ex-con named Max undertakes a dangerous mission that will take him to an orbiting paradise called... Elysium. This was Blomkamp's follow up to his first feature film, District 9, a film that featured so much shaky-cam work that my wife had to leave the theater to ask the concession stand for some soda water to settle her stomach. I had wondered for awhile what would happen if you set a sci fi film in the future and let utopian and dystopian cultures duke it out. Elysium went a way toward answering that question. Matt Damon was highly effective as well as sympathetic, and the film worked both as an action film as well as social commentary science fiction in the tradition of The Twilight Zone. I loved the fight sequences that followed Max's exoskeleton retrofit, and felt a little guilty that I was pleasantly reminded of Iron Man 3. I also loved that the film features a bad guy who basically gets his head blown off... then comes back for more.
We're the Millers (12/28/13) British Airways Flt 209 London Heathrow to Miami (2013 **) Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber, starring Jason Sudeikis, Jennifer Aniston, Ed Helms, Emma Roberts and Will Poulter. Small-time drug dealer David Clark creates a fictional "family" in order to mule an RV-sized load of pot across the Mexican border. As my transatlantic in-seat entertainment system video fest continued, I needed something a bit lighter than a movie about the zombie apocalypse (World War Z) and a dystopian future (Elysium). We're The Millers was probably not the worst choice I could have made. It was a decidedly lightweight comedy that followed the current trend of containing more than enough adult (but realistic) language to warrant its R-rating. (My favorite line, by far: "Fuck you, real life Flanders!") I've long been a fan of Jason Sudeikis, but after seeing this film, I don't know that he quite had what it took to carry a comedy. Aniston was a bit more suited to her supporting role, and she certainly had the comedy credentials, but I was frankly embarrassed for her during a couple of scenes and wondered if she regretted taking the role. The movie was mindlessly entertaining, but never much more than that, and I think I struggled quite a lot with a film based on its main character being an unsympathetic, drug dealer who may not sell pot to kids, but is otherwise an unlikable asshole. In the end, everything was resolved and the film ended on a nice, almost too-perfect note.
The Internship (12/28/13) British Airways Flt 209 London Heathrow to Miami (2013 ***) Directed by Shawn Levy, based on a story by Vince Vaughn, starring Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, Rose Byrne, Aasif Mandvi and a barely-recognizable Josh Gad. Two out of work middle-age salesmen talk their way into an internship at tech giant Google. This film is a re-teaming of the duo that starred in The Wedding Crashers (2005), a film that surprised me by how entertaining it was. The Internship wasn't quite as solid, largely because it started out with an engaging (if highly implausible) premise, but quickly morphed into a fairly formulaic comedy. The other thing that hurt it was that Vaughn and Wilson's characters were super-likable from the very beginning, almost to the point of disbelief. The audience liked them and it was just a matter of time before all the other characters in the film liked them as well. On a different dimension, the production of The Internship represented a highly unusual filmmaking situation. I can't think of another example of a top company that has opened its doors to a film made about the company itself. While it could be considered a P.R. stunt, it seemed that Google had more to lose than they had to gain. As an odd coincidence, I have a friend whose son was an actual Google intern (and is now a full-time employee). I must remember to ask my friend just how accurate the film was.
Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (12/29/13) Nonfiction (1995 ***1/2) Written by Anne Lamott. This book about writing and the inner workings of the writer's brain is really a collection of stand-alone essays masquerading as chapters. The material is grouped into 4 major sections: "Writing," "The Writing Frame of Mind," "Help Along the Way" and "Publication -- And Other Reasons to Write." The book is richly illustrated with personal anecdotes, including one about her procrastinating brother that served as the inspiration for the book's title. It's important to note that the book was written in 1995, and the publishing world has changed drastically since then. While it is certainly a good book and many writers and writing students consider it a bible of sorts, I don't know that I can go that far. Though the book offers much in the way of advice, I think its biggest impact may be that it was the source of the phrase "shitty first drafts" which I have personally heard spoken by writing teachers or at seminars approximately one million times. The copy of the book I read was given to me as a birthday present by a friend more than a decade ago. At the time I was embarking on a novel-length project that became my first unfinished book. I'd started reading Bird by Bird then, but it would appear from the location of the bookmark that I only got only as far as the second chapter before shelving it. Over the years I'd meant to pick it up again and finally managed to get around to it, reading much of it during a trip to London for the holidays.