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Film/Media Journal Archives

2007

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2005

2008 Journal

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A word about the ratings system used

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

It has been observed that I have a lot of 3-star 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.

***½

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.

**½

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

NCStardust (1/1/08) Air New Zealand Flight (2007 ***) Directed by Matthew Vaughn, based on the fantasy novel by Neil Gaiman. I'd been meaning to watch this movie since it was initially released, but career obligations got in the way. I understand that the video-on-demand sytem on an airplane doesn't do a film like this justice, but what beggers can't be choosers. I'm glad I got to see it. It wasn't quite as good as I'd hoped, but it was still pleasant enough. I especially enjoyed all the inventive Gaiman-esque story touches, and overall it "felt" like his work. Perhaps I should read the actual book someday.

Extras: Series 2 (1/1/08) Air New Zealand (2005 ***½) I watched all six episodes of Series 2 while flying across the Atlantic. I had truly enjoyed Ricky Gervais' British version of The Office and had been meaning to watch Extras -- it was in my Netflix queue and everything, honest! I highly recommend it, especially to fans of Gervais. The writing was simply brilliant throughout.

Showcase Presents: Teen Titans, Vol. 2 (1/2/08) Comics (2007 ***½) Written and illustrated by various. You know what's wild? I read the first Teen Titans volume on 7/1/06, a year and a half ago. At the time I wrote that review I hoped DC would publish the second volume, which I figured would complete all the issues of the Titan's original run. This volume (which was delayed several times for reasons I don't know) didn't quite do that, but it got close. The book does, however, include issue 36, which I'm pretty sure is the comic my uncle had that got me hooked on comics in the first place. Anyhow, it was a real trip to read these stories again, and it was especially interesting to observe how DC used the Titans book in the late 60's / early 70's to connect with its teen audience. This was reflected in the stories, many of which dealt with social unrest and race relations. The volume began with the three issues of the book written and illustrated by Neal Adams, then moved onto the landmark issue #25, where the Titans were attending a peace rally and were inadvertently semi-responsible for the death of a "man of peace" who looked suspiciously like Albert Einstein. Immediately afterwards they swapped their colorful superhero costumes for gray jumpsuits provided by the mysterious "Mr. Jupiter." I'm not sure what was in the water back then or why the editors thought this would be a good move for the Teen Titans, but it did seem to add a fresh relevance to the book, at least for awhile. A similar gimmick was tried with Wonder Woman, who lost her powers and turned in her costume right around the same time.

Kiss Me Kate (1/5/08) Netflix (1953 **) Directed by George Sidney, starring Katheryn Grayson, Howard Keel and Ann Miller. I really didn't enjoy this film very much. The premise (action taking place behind the scenes and onstage during a production of The Taming of the Shrew) was fine, I suppose, but I was just never fully engaged. I only liked about half of Cole Porter's songs, with my pleasure lessened somewhat by the barely audible voices of Grayson and Keel. Ann Miller was by far the highlight of the movie. Legendary Broadway choreographer and director Bob Fosse apparently played one of the minor roles, but I could never figure out which one he was.

Oliver! (1/5/08) Netflix (1968 ***½) Directed by Carol Reed, starring Ron Moody, Shani Wallis, Oliver Reed and Mark Lester as Dickens' Oliver Twist. Oliver! won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. I have particularly fond childhood memories of seeing this movie on the big screen and subsequently listening to the soundtrack until I nearly wore it out. One historical note: Apparently there are legions of bitter Stanley Kubrick fans still enraged that Oliver! was selected as the year's best film the same year as 2001: A Space Odyssey, which wasn't even nominated in the best picture category. Having seen and been bored by 2001, I can kind of understand why Oliver! took home the Oscar.

Charlie Wilson's War (1/6/08) Glendale Mann 10 (2007 ***1/4) Directed by Mike Nichols, screenplay by Aaron Sorkin. My wife and I were big fans of Sorkin's The West Wing, and we went to this movie specifically to enjoy his writing. I wasn't disappointed by the words, only by some of the delivery: Philip Seymour Hoffman was superb, but Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts were somewhat less so. I couldn't help but have the following two thoughts as I watched: (1) Big-name stars aside, with all the dialogue-driven interior scenes, this must have been an awfully easy movie to shoot. I mean, what was the shooting schedule? Ten days? (2) Having watched every episode of the eagerly-anticipated, then largely disappointing Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, I wonder if Sorkin wasn't spending time on the screenplay for Charlie Wilson's War that he could have spent making that TV show not suck quite as much.

Avengers Legends, Vol 1: Avengers Forever (1/6/08) Graphic Novel (2001 **½) Written by Kurt Busiek, illustrated by Carlos Pacheco. I must be honest: For about 90% of this book I didn't have a clue what was going on. It was only near the end that I finally sort of put the pieces together. I have loved Busiek's writing for some time, but this storyline seemed too much like reading a research paper masquerading as a comic book. I think at some point Busiek re-read every Marvel story ever that included Kang the Conqueror and Immortus and decided to shoehorn them all together into a single tale that took place adjacent to normal continuity. My problem as a reader was (being more steeped in DC than Marvel continuity) that I didn't have the background to appreciate this book. The story felt confusing and arbitrary to me. Some of the explanation for this lay in the introduction: Busiek described how artist Carlos Pacheco had become available and they had a storyline they were going to pursue, but then it turned out that another, nearly identical project was in the works and the first idea had to be abandoned. Busiek explained that in order to get production started he had to start writing pages without knowing where he was going. In other words, he just made stuff up for awhile until he figured out what the story was. That explained a lot. What it didn't explain was how this largely bewildering (though nicely illustrated) mess became, as Busiek called it, one of the readers' favorite Avengers story-arcs of all time.

A History of Violence (1/6/08) Graphic Novel (1997 **) Written by John Wagner, illustrated by Vice Locke. I never got around to seeing the 2005 Viggo Mortensen film version of this graphic novel, but I'd heard good things about it and so when I saw the book at a good price I figured I had little to lose. Honestly, I was disappointed. It wasn't horrible, but it certainly wasn't on the same level as Max Allan Collins' The Road to Perdition. I have to place some of the blame on the story construction, which seemed lopsided and clunky. The story itself was simple to the point of being minimalist and it never elevated itself above that. Moral ambivalence bordering on the sociopathic was implied (the main character committed armed robbery as a teen with apparently zero remorse) but was never explored. Unfortunately there was little to recommend art-wise either: Locke's sketchy illustrations got the job done, but that was about as far as they went.

Ghost of Hoppers (1/6/08) Graphic Novel (2006 ***1/4) Written and Illustrated by Jaime Hernandez. I'd forgotten how much I love Jaime Hernandez' clean and graphic illustration style. Man, he's good. It's been a couple of years since I last read one of the Love and Rockets books and after reading Ghost of Hoppers I may just have to dig out my books and start reading the series all over again.

The Golden Compass (1/7/08) DWA Screening (2007 ***) Directed by Chris Weitz, based on the novel by Philip Pullman. There were times when I was genuinely charmed by this film. The magical inventiveness in scene after scene made me feel like a kid again. It definitely was a story aimed at children, even though some of the sequences were intense enough to straighten the hair of a curly-headed ten-year-old. When the film was released I had read some of the commentary, discussing the author's pro-atheistic message. Some of that was in evidence onscreen but only the barest hint. I wasn't bothered by it, actually. Unfortunately the story seemed to sag toward the end and the final battle sequence was less than exciting. The end of the film was also devoted to setting up a sequel that may or may not get made due to lackluster box office.

Save the Tiger (1/9/08) Netflix (1973 ***½) Directed by John G. Avildsen, screenplay by Steve Shagan. Set in a bleak 1970's L.A., Jack Lemmon deservedly won the best acting Oscar for his gutsy performance as aging retail clothier president Harry Stoner. I watched this film once in my early twenties and wasn't all that impressed. Watching it again with considerably more gray in my beard, I have a greater appreciation for it and far more sympathy for the main character. This wasn't a film for everybody: A lot of plot elements weren't resolved. But I was more accepting of that than I once was. For many, who we are in middle age isn't exactly who we set out to be. Along the way, compromises get made and the world changes around us, often in unkind ways. Baseball was featured as a motif that came to represent a more innocent time, and it played a role in the first and final scenes. I was moved to the point of tears late in the film as Harry played a "name game" of his own invention with a young woman he picked up on Sunset Boulevard. Each took turns saying the first meaningful celebrity name that popped into their heads. For her they were Mick Jagger and Janis Joplin, for him they were Artie Shaw and Billie Holiday. From my description, the scene probably doesn't sound like much, but it resonated with me. Even in my early forties I often feel my own relevance to the zeitgeist slipping away. Now, on a completely different note, I found it both geeky-fun and distracting to see Dark Shadows stars Lara Parker and Thayer David playing a professional prostitute and a professional arsonist... er, respectively.

Juno (1/13/08) Glendale Mann 10 (2007 ****) Directed by Jason Reitman, screenplay by Diablo Cody. Well, I guess I didn't have to wait too long for my first four-star movie of 2008. I'd heard really great things about Juno and it was one of those rare films that lived up to my high expectations. Juno has been compared to Little Miss Sunshine but I definitely preferred Juno. Screenwriter Diablo Cody and her past experience as a stripper was featured recently on CNN.com. This was her first screenplay and she has a wonderful writing voice: I particularly admired her ability to stop just short of letting her hip dialogue get in the way of creating a variety of memorable characters. Though they all sparkled in different ways, there was a ring of truth to them all as well. Ellen Page was absolutely adorable as the title character and she played her with the right mix of self-possession and frailty that created a character the audience could truly love. For that matter, the entire cast was terrific, delivering some of the best performances of their careers. Juno was simply an all-around wonderful, sweet film and definitely a must-see.

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture (1/14/08) Nonfiction (2003 ***½) Written by David Kushner. It was an interesting choice that the publisher of this book left the words "video game" out of the title of this book. I guess it didn't really matter; Doom as a game and phenomenon has certainly impacted (some would say scarred) the cultural zeitgeist. I was drawn to buying this book primarily because of my recent experience playing Resident Evil 4, a game that certainly owes part of its DNA to those first-person shooters produced by the game company Id in the early to mid 1990's: Wolfenstein 3-D, Doom, and Quake. The book centered on two of the founding members of that company, John Carmack and John Romero. I've never met either man, though one of my friends once interviewed with Carmack. I was consistently fascinated throughout the book. Kushner's writing style was simple but well-organized and easy to read. It was particularly interesting for me to read about their early Apple II days and compare them to my own experiences and development as a 3-D graphics programmer. It wasn't hard for me to identify with what they went through. It even brought back some especially happy memories of the sense of exploration and discovery that came from writing code into the wee hours of the morning, trying to discover the outer boundaries of what one could do with computer graphics. But there was a dark side to it all too; reading about their later deathmarch projects brought back fairly unpleasant memories of anxiety and sleep deprivation from working far too many hours under far more pressure than a sane man should on projects that never seemed to end.

Extras: Series 1 (1/12/08) Netflix (2005 ***½) Having watched Series 2, I wanted to get caught up. It's a pity there were only twelve episodes and a Christmas special (not yet available on DVD) to enjoy. I began to notice a recurring theme: Andy Millman (Ricky Gervais) seemed to consistently encounter people with far more difficult lives than his, including the handicapped and the seriously infirm -- very gutsy for a comedy program.

In a Lonely Place (1/17/08) Netflix (1950 ***) Directed by Nicholas Ray. For the first ten or fifteen minutes I was convinced I had discovered a "lost classic," a great film I'd never seen before. Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Gaynor sizzled on the screen. The film began looking like a two-fisted noir detective story, with hothead Bogart the prime suspect in a murder investigation. The story took a detour, however and soon steered into the territory of melodrama. The mystery plot took a backseat and effectively ended up being solved off-screen while the audience was treated to an in-depth look at Bogie's anger management skills or lack thereof. The film was probably risk-taking in its day and certainly gave its contemporary audiences something to talk about. From the vantage point of the early twenty-first century I was somewhat less engaged, however. It's still a good film though, if not great, and it's probably worth seeing.

A Year at the Movies: One Man's Filmgoing Odyssey (1/19/08) Nonfiction (2002 ***) Written by Kevin Murphy. I admire that Murphy (who was one of the writers of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the voice of Tom Servo) took his obsessive love of film and turned it into a book. In 2001 he set out to watch a theatrically-screened movie every day for a year and to write about the experience in 52 stand-alone essays, each representing one week of filmgoing. While I think it was very smart to organize the essays thematically, I was disappointed that he didn't include at least a passing mention of most of the films he saw. There were many movies he watched in 2001 and I would have liked to have been told how he felt about them. By not sharing his reviews with his readers, he negated the relevance of the basic "a movie a day" premise of his experiment. I guess I'll just have to forgive him for that. His essays dealt with various aspects of the theatergoing experience, and he did a lot of traveling to various theaters throughout the year, visiting one made of ice and the world's smallest, among others. It was generally interesting and his easy-to-read style made the book a quick read.

Cloverfield (1/20/08) Glendale Mann 10 (2008 ***½) Directed by Matt Reeves. I find myself really torn on what rating to give this movie, but here's the bottom line: I loved about five to ten minutes of this movie so much that I'm willing to recommend it in spite of much of the remainder. Scanning the reviews on rottentomatoes.com, it's clear that the whole "Godzilla meets Blair Witch Project" shorthand has been worn out, but that doesn't make it any less descriptive. I might have liked to have seen more reviewers using the word "verisimilitude," but what the hell. I like to think of this film as telling the story of Godzilla told from the perspective of the teeny tiny little people running away screaming in background. To my friends who haven't seen it, I've been describing Cloverfield like this: It takes the super-memorable, super-awesome shots and sequences from the Spielberg / Tom Cruise version of The War of the Worlds and punctuates a feature-length film with them. By now, many instances of the motion sickness-inducing qualities of the shaky-cam technique have been reported. My wife and I went to see it and were clever enough to sit in the back row. Even so, about halfway through the film, my wife had to leave the theater for a few minutes due to nausea.

Angels in America (1/20/08) Netflix (2003 ***½) Directed by Mike Nichols, based on the play by Tony Kushner. A friend recommended this 6-part HBO original miniseries to me twice and I'm glad it finally floated up to the top of my Netflix queue. The subject matter (AIDS in the mid-1980's) might dissuade some people from watching it, but that would be unfortunate. Kushner's material was an utter delight and I found it to be funny, intense, and uplifting. Angels in America was an ensemble piece, and as such was only as strong as its weakest player. Fortunately, amazing performances could be found from beginning to end, with most of the principles playing multiple roles. Al Pacino and Meryl Streep reminded us why they are so worthy of the awards they've won. Also, I was only familiar with Justin Kirk from his role as the deadbeat brother-in-law in the Showtime series Weeds; it was nice to see what he could do with a real character.

Spent (1/21/08) Graphic Novel (2007 **) Written and Illustrated by Joe Matt. Oh Joe Matt. Poor Joe Matt. Want a sound byte? Here you go: "Spent is the graphic novel equivalent of watching someone going to the bathroom for an hour... unsuccessfully." Six years ago when I read Peepshow: The Cartoon Diary of Joe Matt, it not only showed me how gutsy autobiographical comics could be, it also inspired me to undertake my own self-published collection of stories. When Matt created Peepshow he was in his twenties. Now he's in his forties and he has clearly not progressed either as an artist or as a human being. The fact that he used this as the basis of this book didn't necessarily make it entertaining. A couple of times in the book Matt made a deliberate effort to alienate any remaining fan base. I felt as though I'd been poked in the eye with a sharp stick. Why did he do that, I wonder? I can't imagine this collection has been making much money for the publisher, Drawn and Quarterly. After Peepshow, I considered myself a fan, but now I might be ashamed to call myself one. The book began with Matt living a solitary existence, his life lost to a powerful pornography addiction. Little had changed by the end of the book; if anything, his life was even more hopeless. I was reminded of Neil in the Up series of films. For many years Neil was a somewhat of a "little boy lost" himself, spiritually adrift and homeless. But eventually he found his footing again and gave us, the fans of the series, cause for hope. For Joe Matt's sake I hope something like that is in store for him. Will I buy his next book? I don't know. It depends. Will there be a next book?

Film Crew: Hollywood After Dark (1/24/08) Netflix (1968/2007 **½) Walk the Angry Beach (AKA Hollywood After Dark) was written and directed by John Hayes and starred a young (-ish) Rue McClanahan of Maude / Golden Girls fame. The Film Crew is comprised of Bill Corbett, Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy, three of the writers/performers of the old Mystery Science Theater 3000 show. This direct-to-video series is much like the old one, but without the puppets or silhouettes at the bottom of the screen. Please don't take this the wrong way, Bill and Kevin, but I'm afraid heavyset middle-aged men -- no matter how articulate -- are no substitute for robot puppets. Sorry, guys. It will be interesting how this series compares to the Cinematic Titanic series (not currently available on Netflix), headed up by MST3K's original host, Joel Hodgson.

Targets (1/25/08) Netflix (1968 ***1/4) Directed by Peter Bogdanovich, starring Boris Karloff. I'm not sure exactly how I selected this movie for my Netflix queue, but I'm sure glad I did. I came away from watching it with not only a newfound respect for Bogdanovich but also for Boris Karloff! Targets was Bogdanovich's first directorial effort (before The Last Picture Show), and the story behind the making of the film was sensational: Karloff owed Roger Corman two days of shooting, and Corman, being the legendary businessman he was, wanted to build an entire feature film around that footage. It was up to Bogdanovich to come up with a creative solution (a shootable script) within that apparently impossible production constraint. What he came up with was positively brilliant. Next, his skills as a director elevated the overall quality of the project, and what in lesser hands might have been forgettable exploitative schlock became surprisingly good, garnering positive reviews. It's not perfect by any means, but Targets is definitely a movie that should be shown to aspiring film students to demonstrate what can be done with a limited schedule and budget.

Real Stuff (1/26/08) Graphic Novel (2004 **½) Written by Dennis P. Eichhorn, illustrated by various. This edition collected stories originally printed in serial form in the early 1990's. I bought this book about four years ago from the author himself at the Alternative Press Expo (A.P.E.) comic convention in San Francisco. This was the first time I've re-read the collection since originally buying it. Sex, drugs and violence were the major themes to be found in these mini-stories from Eichhorn's life, and those themes were present in abundance. The quality of illustration ranged from amateurish to professional. It's definitely not for everyone, but if you like the work of Joe Matt, R. Crumb, Harvey Pekar and others who specialize in the autobiographical comix genre, this may be worth checking out.

Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead (1/27/08) Netflix (1995 ***1/4) Directed by Gary Felder, screenplay by Scott Rosenberg. “Boat drinks!” Andy Garcia played Jimmy "The Saint" Tosnia and Christopher Walker played "The Man With the Plan" in this surprisingly overlooked film about a caper gone terribly wrong. Rosenberg peppered his smart script with idiosyncratic dialogue and that was part of the fun. He also managed to take an ending that could have been a real downer and give it an upbeat spin. Things to Do in Denver... would fit quite nicely on a double-bill with Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction.

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1/29/08) Netflix (1942 ***½) Directed by John Rawlins. Holmes and Watson (Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce) are back, this time in present-day (WWII-era) London. There was a cute moment when Holmes reached for his familiar deerstalker hat and Watson chided him: "No, no -- You promised..." Granted, this film was propaganda through and through and there was little in the way of real detective work, but there was still something so compelling -- bordering on hypnotic -- about these characters. Maybe it's partially sentimental: My inner child claps with glee whenever I see the plane and hear the accompanying music of the 1940's era Universal Films logo. My personal fantasy is that someday before I shuffle from this mortal coil that the state of the art in computer graphics will advance to the point where studios can offer up an animated Abbott and Costello Meet Sherlock Holmes to the movie-going public.

The Big Book of the Unexplained (1/29/08) Graphic Novel (1997 ***) Written by Doug Moench, illustrated by various. It's been a few years since reading any of Paradox Press' entries in the "Big Book" series. This volume wasn't necessarily my favorite, but it was a good starting point nonetheless. The premise of the series was that potentially dry factual information could be made more exciting by presenting it in comic book form. When I stumbled upon the first volume, The Big Book of Urban Legends, I was thrilled that my appetite for quirky nonfiction subject matter could be combined with my love of comic books. I didn't mind the black-and-white presentation or the variety of comics illustration styles. For the next several years I sought out the books whenever I could find them and was sorely disappointed when the series ended.

U2 3D (1/31/08) DWA Screening (2007 ***) Directed by Catherine Owens and Mark Pellington. Bono, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jr. and... The Edge. I am going to admit something I'm a little embarrassed about: I have very eclectic musical tastes but have never really familiarized myself with U2's music. I've meant to, but never actually got around to doing so. For a non-fan like myself, seeing this film was undoubtedly a very different experience than for a fan. Music aside, most of the appeal lay in the 3-D visuals. I'd seen a clip of U2 3D at a special Dreamworks presentation a year prior and was totally blown away by it. This time around... eh, not so much. The images seemed soft in the way that sometimes digital images do, and the 3D effect wasn't as compelling. In the past two years I've seen the following in digital 3-D: Monster House, Meet the Robinsons, A Nightmare Before Christmas and Beowulf. In all cases except Nightmare and U2 3D I had a very positive experience. So what happened? Was it the projection system in our screening room? At any rate, I'm now concerned the presentation of 3D films and the whole 3D experience may be more fragile than I previously thought.

February

Going in Style (2/1/08) Netflix (1979 ***1/4) Written and Directed by Martin Brest, based on a story by Edward Cannon. George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg play three old friends who decide to supplement their social security checks by holding up a bank. I had fond memories of this sweet movie, which was released two years after the first Oh, God! Though nominally a comedy, I was moved to tears several times by the honest performances by Burns and Strasberg. Watching it for the first time in years, I was surprised how quickly the story got going; for three old codgers, they certainly didn't beat around the bush when it came to committing armed robbery! If you're looking for a heartwarming rental, this is definitely a little movie you should consider. Ultimately the film told a simple story in a straightforward way and wasn't particularly deep, but it was still damned charming.

The Big Book of Hoaxes: True Tales of the Greatest Lies Ever Told! (2/3/08) Graphic Novel (1996 ***1/4) Written by Carl Sifakis, illustrated by various. Paradox Press / DC's Big Book series turns an eye on Hoaxes, Hoaxsters and the women (and men) that love them. From Clifford Irving's Diary of Howard Hughes to Hitler's Diary, they're all here in dazzling black and white. Sifakis' writing struck a good balance between presenting a lot of condensed factual information and keeping a light and conversational tone, making it an easy read. It's worth noting that while many of the Big Book's (including The Big Book of the Unexplained) had a narrator / host, this one didn't, but it still felt quite unified.

New Invaders: To End All Wars (2/3/08) Comics (2005 **) Written by Allan Jacobsen, illustrated by C.P. Smith. When I was a kid I read a few issues of Marvel's mid-1970's run of The Invaders, which featured Captain America, The Sub-Mariner and the original Human Torch. Those stories were set in the 1940's and had The Invaders (along with sidekicks Bucky and Toro) battling The Red Skull and the Nazis. I picked up this collection (which included the new series' entire 9-issue run) at my favorite used book store. Why? The book represented a value: $9.95 for a hefty volume with cool art and glossy color printing. Later at home, about ten pages into the book, I realized I had probably made a mistake. C.P. Smith's realistic drawings were eye-catching but not quite simpatico with Jacobsen's writing. And as for the story, there were an awful lot of long stretches of talking in New Invaders, and not the interesting kind, like Kevin Smith's dialogue in Green Arrow. There was also a weird ongoing story with this USAgent character who was dressed as Captain America, but then the real Cap showed up and.... Aaarrrggghhh! Yes, all in all I found New Invaders to be a definite miss.

Michael Clayton (2/4/08) DWA Screening (2007 ****) Written and directed by Tony Gilroy, starring George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Sydney Pollack and Tilda Swinton. Clooney played the title character, a "fixer" at a prestigious law firm who also owes money to the mob. Wilkinson played a trial attorney who -- though he may have had a breakdown after going off his meds -- still presents a substantial threat. I was thoroughly engrossed in Michael Clayton. Its smart writing, acting and directing made me feel like I was watching a movie for grown-ups. Gilroy wrote the screenplay for The Bourne Ultimatum and he really demonstrated a skill for writing action and suspense. There were several times in the story when choices could have easily been made toward the cliché, but instead fresh directions were taken. Bravo.

Persepolis (2/7/08) DWA Screening (2007 ***) Directed by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi. At the risk of sounding uncultured, I didn't like this animated version of Satrapi's two-part graphic novel nearly as much as I'd expected to. Maybe it's because I was already familiar with the source material and maybe it's because I had such high expectations going in. While I enjoyed the visual style, which was both an upgrade of and respectful to Satrapi's original artwork, I had several issues with the storytelling: (1) For me the pace seemed far too slow, and I kept losing interest and becoming bored. There was a long section in which Marjane suffered from depression, and that's never going to translate to something that's visually interesting onscreen. (2) The autobiographical story was particularly linear. While that works in a book, it works less well as an animated film, in that there was no emotional beginning, middle and end. (3) The short stand-alone vignettes, which played out as one or two-page side-stories in the book, felt out of place in the film. They interrupted the flow and took away from the film's unity. The litmus test with any scene is this: If it can be removed and the audience wouldn't know the difference, does it belong in the first place? Undoubtedly many will disagree with my critique and I admit that perhaps I'm being too harsh. Persepolis was a remarkable accomplishment and I'm glad it's been nominated this year as Best Animated Feature along with Ratatouille and Surf's Up. Unfortunately, respecting the accomplishment of a film and enjoying it are two different things.

Paper Moon (2/8/08) Netflix (1973 ***½) Directed by Peter Bogdanovich, screenplay by Alvin Sargent, adapted from the novel Addie Pray by Joe David Brown. Tatum O'Neal played Addie Loggins, a nine-year-old who loses her mother and goes on the road with a con man who may or may not be her father. I have fond memories of this film, one I watched several times when I was younger. In the sixth grade I bought and read the book, which was very different from the movie. Watching the "making of" featurettes on the DVD, I learned why: Bogdanovich and Sargent made a lot of changes, all of them for the better. Did Tatum O'Neal deserve to win the Best Actress in a Supporting Role Oscar (TM)? That's a question for the ages. Who exactly was she supporting? She was the central character of the film! Besides, as cute as she was, she always seemed to be acting. One personal note: As I often do with my Netflix movies, I watched it right after work. When my wife got home and told me she'd never seen it I watched it a second time with her. I can't remember the last time I've watched the same movie twice in the same day. Maybe I should do that more often, especially if it's a good one like Paper Moon.

Electric Girl, Volume 1 (2/10/08) Graphic Novel (2000 **) Written and illustrated by Michael Brennan. As I have many times in the past, I picked up this volume at a used book store at a used book price. The artwork looked cute enough, indicating an indy-comix potential. Sadly, upon reading the stories contained within, Electric Girl had far too many empty calories for my personal taste. Thus concludes my review. Good day to you, sir.

The Last Picture Show (2/12/08) Netflix (1971 ***1/4) Directed by Peter Bogdanovich. This was the third Bogdanovich film I watched in as many weeks, proving the adage, "Bet you can't watch just one!" The last time I watched The Last Picture Show I was in my late teens or early twenties. At the time I think I was far more interested in catching the occasional glimpse of Cybill Shepherd's breasts than in the stories to be found in Anarene, Texas in 1951. Older now, I appreciated this exploration of the feelings of loss, hopelessness and confinement, but let's be honest, the film was still pretty damned depressing. As I watched, I was often reminded of similarities to American Graffiti (1973). Both ensemble films certainly launched a lot of acting careers. The two films might make an interesting double-feature, but who would buy tickets?

Chronicles of Narnia, The: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2/16/08) Netflix (2005 ***½) Directed by Andrew Adamson. Though I watched the BBC version last year on video, I hadn't watched this big-budget version since it was originally released. It's wonderful family film, the kind I hope to watch with my kids someday. I look forward to seeing what Adamson and Disney do with Prince Caspian.

Watchmen (2/17/08) Graphic Novel (1985 ****) Written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Dave Gibbons. On anyone's list of top ten most influential graphic novels, Watchmen would be pretty high up. What exactly was in the water (or in the wind) in the mid-1980's? Twenty years have passed since I first read Watchmen in serial comic form, and it's been five years or more since I last read it as a collected volume. I'm happy to report it still stands up. I look forward to next year's release of the Zack Snyder-directed movie, which features Jackie Earle Haley of Bad New Bears fame as Rorschach.

Once (2/21/08) Netflix (2006 ***½) Written and Directed by John Carney. Set in Dublin, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova played "guy" and "girl" in this infectious, highly satisfying musical fable. As Carney stated in the DVD extras, the story was deliberately simple, which made it all the more effective. Shot on a "micro-budget" of $100,000, Carney was freed from many of the pressures of a larger budget. As I watched, I was reminded of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), similarly simple movies in which dense dialogue between a man and a woman took the place of the music in Once. This movie is utterly charming and worth a look... and a listen.

Double Indemnity (2/22/08) Netflix (1944 ****) Directed by Billy Wilder, screenplay by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson. The last time I saw this film was at the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto, before I moved south. Now that I've been living in L.A. for a few years it's kind of a treat to hear so many familiar locations mentioned. According to the unusually good "making of" DVD featurette, Wilder and Chandler hated each other every minute they worked on the screenplay. Somewhere in that unholy union they managed to invent most of the conventions of the film noir, and for that we should all be grateful. Some of the dialogue was laugh-out-loud funny, but maybe that was part of the point. Wilder's direction was amazing -- omnipresent and invisible at the same time. This film is deservedly a must-see for any serious film student.

Pal Joey (2/23/08) TV-HDMOV (1957 **) Directed by George Sidney, starring Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak, music by Rodgers and Hart. This film (based on the Broadway musical) was a vehicle for Sinatra that placed him in a love triangle with Hayworth and Novak. Pal Joey was blatantly sexist and ripe with dated sexual innuendo throughout, so much so that it made me cringe. Die hard Sinatra fans may pardon its sins, however. Ultimately, the songs were wonderful, but there wasn't much in the plot to recommend Pal Joey.

The Associated Press Guide to News Writing (2/23/08) Nonfiction (1991 ***) Written by Rene J. Cappon. I somehow managed to get through college without ever taking a journalism class or working for The Iowa State Daily. Sometimes I regret that. I have a great respect for journalism, even more so these days: I'm currently taking a creative nonfiction class through UCLA Extension and having a background in "straight" news reporting would have come in handy sometimes. It was for this reason I bought and read this book. Like Strunk and White, it was an excellent writing reference book, and also one that allowed itself the luxury of brevity.

Spiral Bound (2/23/08) Graphic Novel (2005 ***) Written and illustrated by Aaron Renier. One of the blurbs on the back called this all-ages graphic novel a wonderful read for a rainy day afternoon, and I don't disagree. The story didn't particularly move me, but I'll take responsibility for that and not blame the book. I enjoyed Renier's deceptively-simple illustration style, and there was something in the pacing of his storytelling that reminded me of Herge's Tin-Tin books. I think the book is probably better suited to younger readers. In fact, it might make a good entry into the graphic novel format for young boys and girls.

Advise and Consent (2/24/08) Netflix (1962 ***1/4) Directed by Otto Preminger. Watching the first minutes of this film, my response was that it shared a lot of DNA with Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing. It was surprisingly modern in its portrayal of Washington's corridors of power. Shot on actual locations within the Capital building, there was something very cool about the fact that it was released while JFK was in office. This could have been a great film had it not been for one thing: Unfortunately, at aroundthe halfway point, the story took a nosedive into potboiler territory. It gave up all its momentum to a melodramatic subplot about a senator haunted by homosexual experimentation in his past. The fact that homosexuality was portrayed at all in a 1962 film was surprising. It's just too bad that the way it was shown was so embarrassing to a modern audience. Who knew gay men in the early 60's were so creepy?

Last Action Hero (2/28/08) HDMOV (1993 ***) Directed by John McTeirnan, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Danny Madigan (played by Austin O'Brien) is given a golden movie ticket that opens a portal to an action-packed world that works very differently than real life. I'm going to admit something a little embarrassing: I have always had a fondness for this movie, which I haven't seen since it was first released. Watching it again after all this time, I'm not even going to try to pretend that it's gotten a bad rap. There were portions of this film -- the long set piece with the explosive flatulent corpse comes to mind -- that weren't good by any standard. I guess the left side of my brain just appreciated the postmodern premise and there was enough action to keep the right side from getting too antsy. Maybe 1993 was too early for an action movie that satirized action movies, but I have to give it credit for trying, even if it was only marginally successful.

March

The Endless Summer (3/1/08) Netflix (1966 **½) Written and directed by Bruce Brown. For those who haven't seen this documentary, Brown followed surfers Mike Hynson and Robert August around the world as they searched for "the perfect wave." He combined this with additional footage to stretch the project to feature-film dimensions. According to my wife -- who grew up in Manhattan Beach, California and hung out with a lot of surfers in her time -- this film changed a lot of people's lives. By "changed" I guess they went from being recreational surfers to die-hard zealots. While much of the footage Bruce Brown shot remains impressive even in this day of Hi-Def video and Imax cinematography, I was never really able to get into this film. Maybe it's because I grew up in the Midwest (where surfers are a bit more rare) or maybe it was because I was never able to get over the voice-over narration / home movie quality of The Endless Summer.

Auntie Mame (3/4/08) HDMOV (1958 *½) Directed by Morton DaCosta, starring Rosalind Russell. It's unfathomable to me how this awful film was nominated for six Academy Awards! I also can't explain how or why I watched the whole thing. The running time was 143 minutes, but it felt like six hours. Why so bad? I'll tell you: What the film lacked in subtlety it made up for in tiresome predictability. Without exception all the characters were one-dimensional, frequently behaving far more like puppets than living sentient beings. On top of that, any plot twists the film had to offer were telegraphed at least fifteen minutes in advance. And yet in spite of my criticisms, the film is beloved. Why, why, why? I can only guess people were taken in by Ms. Russell's charms, even though her acting mannerisms were repeated endlessly and without variation. Or perhaps Auntie Mame spoke to the hearts of those sad, pathetic creatures living fifty years ago in the bizarre world of 1958. Still, I can't imagine what message it was they so desperately needed to hear.

The Natural (3/7/08) HDMOV (1984 ***1/4) Directed by Barry Levinson, starring Robert Redford. I was curious, so I looked it up: Levinson directed The Natural after Diner (1982) but before Young Sherlock Holmes (1985). For me, the quintessential Levinson movie will always be Avalon (1990), but that's beside the point. The Natural demonstrated to the world Levinson's ability to helm a big-budget Hollywood film. You may find it astonishing, but I'd somehow managed not to watch this film until now. It's not a film for the cynical at heart, that's for sure, but if you're: (a) willing to overlook a couple of on-the-nose plot elements and (b) able to buy into the idea that dreams can come true on the baseball diamond and it's never too late for a second chance, then this is the film for you. But hell, why am I even bothering? You've probably already seen it, haven't you?

Hustle & Flow (3/8/08) Netflix (2005 ***½) Written and directed by Craig Brewer, starring Terrence Howard as Djay. Is it, in fact, as hard out there for a pimp as this movie would have you believe? I don't know the answer to that, but this was a pretty compelling and surprisingly inspirational film. Howard gave an amazing performance as a pimp-slash-drug-dealer with a dream. The behind-the-scenes DVDs extras told a fascinating story of how this little film got made, and they're worth checking out.

What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Diabetes (3/9/08) Nonfiction (2008 **½) Written by Steven V. Joyal, M.D. I got the sad news two weeks ago that I have type 2 (adult onset) diabetes, which runs in my family. The good news is I can do something about it, and that's really what this book is about. The book offered not only a lot of approaches for battling the effects of the disease, but also how to prevent it. Now while it's nice to know what preventative steps I might have taken, in the absence of a time machine the passages that addressed this group were more discouraging than helpful. The author also wrote at length about the dangers of glycotoxins, which apparently come from heating foods above the boiling point of water. I guess I'm not quite ready to fully embrace that aspect of the book, as it has widespread ramifications and greatly reduces my food choices.

Hoosiers (3/10/08) HDMOV (1986 ***1/4) Directed by David Anspaugh. I have no idea why it is that I have no interest in televised sports, yet I'm a sucker for inspirational sports movies. I'd never seen Hoosiers, but I'd heard good things about it. It was a pretty damned good movie. Gene Hackman did a decent job as Coach Norman Dale, but I must admit it was hard for me to see him without thinking of his role in Superman. I kept wanting to yell out to the basketball kids: "Don't trust him -- he's Lex Luthor! He's just trying to get your green Indiana Kryptonite so he can kill Superman!"

The Film Crew: Killers From Space (3/11/08) Netflix (2007/1954 **) Directed by W. Lee Wilder, starring Peter Graves as Doc Martin. Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy are back to once more to relive their Mystery Science Theater 3000 glory days. I wish I could say I liked it as much as the original incarnation, but I just can't. The new premise simply isn't as engaging as the old one. I said it before and it’s a lesson worth repeating: Robot puppets in outer space are just plain more appealing than middle-aged men sitting in a basement.

Glengarry Glen Ross (3/14/08) HDMOV (1992 ***½) Directed by James Foley, screenplay by David Mamet. God bless Jack Lemmon. It wasn't so long ago I watched one of his best performances in Save the Tiger. His performance in this film was right up there too. Though depressing as hell, there was a lot to like in this film. Alec Baldwin's brief appearance was brilliant and deserved to become a classic. Yes, I loved every minute, even if I couldn't honestly tell you what it's all about.

Moulin Rouge! (3/14/08) Netflix (2001 **½) Directed by Baz Luhrmann. "There was a boy, a very strange enchanted boy...." Boy oh boy, I truly wanted to like this movie more. I respected it, but that's far from the same thing. Frustrating. My main criticism when I first saw it during its theatrical release was that fifteen minutes worth of story was dragged out over two hours. My opinion hasn't changed in the interim. I liked the first half somewhat more than the second, and I will admit that Ewan McGregor singing "We Can Be Heroes" to Nicole Kidman atop her jeweled elephant was a fantastic and uplifting scene. Ultimately, though, I was told in the first few minutes how the story was going to turn out and no matter how I attempted to slice it, it was still a real downer of an ending.

Batman & Superman: World's Finest (3/15/08) Graphic Novel (2003 **½) Written by Karl Kesel, Illustrated by Dave Taylor and Robert Campanella. I liked the concept, which was to tell the evolution of Batman and Superman's relationship over the course of ten years. Unfortunately, the framing device used -- the death of an innocent man caused indirectly by the two heroes failing to work effectively together -- was awkward and problematic.

No Country for Old Men (3/16/08) Netflix (2007 ****) Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy. This film won the Academy Award for best picture, placing it forever more in the company of some of the greatest movies of all time. Much has been made about the ending and whether or not it was properly satisfying. In my mind it was the right ending for this story, which I have heard described as a good man hunting a bad man and a man caught in the middle. All of the actors were remarkable, with Tommy Lee Jones giving possibly the best performance of his career.

Invincible: Ultimate Collection Volume 3 (3/17/08) Comics (2007 ****) Written by Robert Kirkman, illustrated by Ryan Ottley. I'll do my best to describe succinctly what made Invincible so great: Its central teenage character was fresh and clean and so was the storytelling. In many ways it has the appearance of a book suitable for all-ages, but then it took a few darker turns. Invincible contained some incredibly graphic and violent scenes. Maybe that was part of what made it work, though: The juxtaposition of violence and innocence heightened the impact of both. Ottley's solid illustration style was a perfect match for Kirkman's writing. The high-quality art production was breathtaking, and the beautiful color design practically leaped from the page.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (3/20/08) TV-HDMOV (1962 ***) Directed by John Ford, starring John Wayne and James Stewart. I'm of two minds on this film: At times it was emotionally engaging, but at other times I felt I was watching an extended civics lesson. It's certainly a classic, but is it a great film? I was surprised when I saw that the film was made in 1962. My estimate would have placed it ten years before that, as the dialogue was quite dated by modern standards. As I watched, it was obvious that this film was used as a key reference for Back to the Future Part III (1990), in which Marty McFly traveled back to 1885. Lee Marvin's Liberty Valence was clearly the model for Buford 'Mad Dog' Tannen, who also had a tendency to call everybody 'dude.' In addition to Stewart, Wayne and Lee Marvin, there were a lot of familiar faces and some good performances. However, at the risk of being strung up by an angry lynch mob, I think the beloved James Stewart did more than his fair allotment of overacting. One final note: I could have sworn that the last time I watched this film there was a catchy song that accompanied the opening title sequence, but apparently my memory is faulty. Now, just where did I hear that song?

Enchanted (3/21/08) Netflix (2007 ***1/4) Directed by Kevin Lima, starring Amy Adams as Giselle, an animated (near) princess exiled to the real-world chaos of New York City. I love that Disney is finally taking ownership of the right to comment on their rich history. Enchanted wasn't a perfect film, nor was it a tale told from a particularly sardonic viewpoint, but it was sure a lot of fun. Amy Adams was a perfect choice to play a wannabe princess. The songs (three of which were nominated for Oscar consideration) were pleasant enough, and I even caught myself with the "Happy Working Song" stuck in my head, but also I'm not particularly sorry they were beaten by "Falling Slowly" from Once.

Get Rich or Die Tryin' (3/23/08) Netflix (2005 *½) Directed by Jim Sheridan, starring Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson. Once upon a time there was a hopeful young man who kept waiting for this movie he was watching to get better, but it never did. The end.

Showcase Presents: Superman, Vol. 1 (3/24/08) Comics (2005 **½)Written and illustrated by various. Much of the appeal of reading these old stories from the late-1950's is that they often take on a surreal quality. Unfortunately, there was much less of that in these Superman-centric stories than in the Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane stories in the first Superman Family volume. To be honest, I got somewhat bored by the juvenile stories in this collection. Maybe, just maybe, I'm finally growing up.

Sandman Mystery Theater: Dr. Death and the Night of the Butcher -- Volume 5 (3/25/08) Comics (2007 ***1/4) Written by Matt Wagner, illustrated by Guy Davis and Vince Locke. Like many of the books in my graphic novel collection, I picked this up at my favorite used book store, largely on a whim. This, the fifth volume in the series,was actually my first introduction to this incarnation of Wesley Dodds, the pre-WWII Sandman. The storytelling was strong and the realistic/sketchy art was totally appropriate to the material. I enjoyed this volume a lot, especially the decidedly non-superhero approach to one of the classic, albeit minor, golden age heroes. It was also fun to see the subtlety by which Gaiman's Sandman influenced Dodds. I will definitely make an effort to seek out other volumes in the series.

Justice League: The New Frontier (3/28/08) Netflix (2008 ***) Directed by Dave Bullock, based on the graphic novel by Darwyn Cooke. I appreciate that they even attempted to make a "feature" length version of Cooke's graphic novel. Unfortunately, it was painfully obvious they were working with a limited animation budget. I understand the need to work within production constraints, I really do, but in this case it really diminished the potential of the source material.

Mary Poppins (3/29/08) Netflix (1964 **½) Directed by Robert Stevenson, starring Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke and David Tomlinson. I had such fond memories of this movie from my childhood. It seemed so magic, so wonderful. I can't believe I'm going to say this, but Mary Poppins absolutely failed to hold up for me. I'm reminded of a similar disappointment I suffered a few years ago when I made the mistake of watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The visual effects in Mary Poppins, which were wonderful and inventive, were probably the highlight. At the risk of offending, I thought Robert Stevenson's direction was half-hearted at best. Much of my childhood adoration was based on the music, and there were a few top-notch, memorable songs, but at least half the musical numbers were utterly forgettable. I also noticed that with only a few exceptions, the songs totally halted any progression of the story. And what the hell was that bird lady and her "tuppence a bag" thing about? It barely made any sense at all. One final note: Julie Andrews didn't have much to work with in terms of character with Mary Poppins. Bert (Van Dyke) kept going on and on about how everybody loved Mary Poppins. But I actually thought she was kind of a bitch.

Hulk: Gray (3/30/08) Graphic Novel (2005 ***) Written by Jeph Loeb, illustrated by Tim Sale. This was a simple story, simply told, about the days following Bruce Banner's exposure to the deadly rays of his gamma bomb. I found it consistently effective, with Sale's artwork and Loeb's words complimenting one another. My only reservation was that there was really so little story-wise to recommend the book more. Though it was glossed over in this book, the real story of why The Incredible Hulk started out gray and quickly became green was a pretty mundane one: The early 1960's comic book printing technology had a hard time printing consistent gray values, and in order to get around this production limitation, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby decided Hulk would be better off emerald-hued.

Used Cars (3/30/08) TV-HDMOV (1980 **½) Directed by Robert Zemeckis, screenplay by Zemeckis and Bob Gale, starring Kurt Russell and Jack Warden, with Michael McKean and David L. Lander (TV's Lenny and Squiggy) appearing in a small role. This is a little embarrassing, but when I was a teenager, my grandfather took me to a handful of R-rated movies. Used Cars was one of them. Watching it now, for the first time in decades, I was flabbergasted by how much Kurt Russell's character reminded me of Marty McFly in Back to the Future, which Zemeckis directed five years later. I had never made that connection before.

Be Kind Rewind (3/31/08) DWA Screening (2008 ***) Written and directed by Michel Gondry, starring Jack Black and Mos Def. I recognized Gondry's name. Looking him up on imdb.com, he had previously directed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and The Science of Sleep (2006). Be Kind Rewind was a sweet film that almost worked but didn't quite. The premise was that a ragtag group of misfits made their neighborhood (and their world) a better place by using their wacky inventiveness to make their own versions of famous films. Unfortunately the potential in that setup was never fully realized. It was sweet as hell though, and I surely wish I could give it a higher recommendation.

Funny Girl (3/31/08) Netflix (1968 ***) Directed by William Wyler, starring Barbara Streisand and Omar Shariff as Fanny Brice and Nick Arnstein. “Hello gorgeous,” indeed. Streisand exploded to superstardom, winning an Oscar for best actress in a leading role. I have seminal childhood memories of my mother taking me to see this when it was first released. Doing the math, I would have been three or four at the time. I definitely remember Streisand singing on the tugboat just before the intermission. Oddly enough, I remember being bored and wandering around in the theater while Mom and the other adults watched. At 2hrs:45min, Funny Girl was a movie that would tax most adult attention spans, let alone that of a 3-year-old. Watching it now, it's clear that Streisand's performance and vocals really carried a film that had more than a few story-related problems. On the whole, I liked Wyler's directing (he'd won three best director Oscars), except for his tendency to use way too many damned lights in every damned scene.

April

Hannah and Her Sisters (4/1/08) Screenplay (1986 ***) Written by Woody Allen. So I decided to try something new. I was at my favorite used book store and I picked up a couple of screenplays in book form. Being a big fan of Woody Allen, and Hannah and Her Sisters being one of my all-time favorite films, I thought it would be an interesting read. In a sense it was: Several of the techniques Woody Allen used (off-screen and overlapping dialogue) were specified in the script. It was also interesting to see how he specified detail and hesitation in line delivery as well. Still, it wasn't as compelling a process as I'd hoped, but it didn't discourage me from reading more screenplays in the future. Next up: My Dinner with Andre!

Wet Hot American Summer (4/1/08) Netflix (2001 ***) Directed by David Wain. I can't remember who recommended this movie to me. It was actually pretty cute, a small movie that attempted to capture the fun of Meatballs. Set in 1981, the movie depicted the madcap antics of the last day of summer camp. Most of the time it was a spoof of movies in the genre, but it also worked on its own. It was fun to see some familiar faces all in the same movie; The film featured Janeane Garafolo, David Hyde Pierce, Paul Rudd, Molly Shannon and Amy Poehler. Watching the behind-the-scenes featurette on the DVD, my heart really went out to the cast and crew: It rained 20 of the 28 days of their shoot and everybody was pretty miserable. It's to their credit that none of that was apparent onscreen.

A Star is Born (4/3/08) Netflix (1976 ***) Directed by Frank Pierson, starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. When my wife was six, her mother took her to see this film and she loved it. I somehow managed to get to the ripe old age of 43 before seeing it for the first time, and I have mixed feelings. The music (much of it written or co-written by Paul Williams) was good. The whole film was really "of its time," and served as a beautiful example of mid-seventies filmmaking technique. I tried to put myself in the shoes of the people living in 1976 when this remake was released. Having not seen the previous 1937 or 1954 versions I didn't have them as frames of reference. Having Streisand star in a remake of a movie starring Judy Garland must have felt bold in 1976. Unfortunately, as modern as it was at the time, it still couldn't escape the weight of a largely melodramatic story about a woman in love with a washed-up has-been drunk. My favorite dialogue exchange in the whole film, bar none, was the following: Her: "Are you an alcoholic?" Him: "Probably."

Powers: Volume 8: Legends (4/12/08) Graphic Novel (2005 ***1/4) Written by Brian Michael Bendis, illustrated by Michael Avon Oeming. Awhile back I re-read my entire run of Powers and realized at that time that I'd never bought Volume 8. It's interesting to note that my reviews of that series were a little lukewarm, so my expectation with this volume was low, which may have contributed to my enjoyment. In Legends, the city reacts to sightings of a new Retro Girl while Deena returns to the police force and gets herself into a pretty bad situation. This all added up to a more interesting story arc than many of the other volumes in the series.

Who Lives? (4/12/08) Play (2006 ***) Written by Christopher Meeks. Meeks is a writing teacher of mine who wrote this play a decade ago. Set in the early 1960's, Who Lives? is nominally about a selection board who decides which select patients should be allowed to use a small number of experimental kidney dialysis machines. The play was about more than that of course, it was also about how one measures a life. As interesting as the premise was, I'm afraid that I wasn't nearly as entertained by it than I have been by some of Meeks' other writings. However, that may be a reflection of my inexperience reading plays.

Blazing Saddles (4/12/08) TV-HDMOV (1974 ***) Directed by Mel Brooks. I have probably seen this at some point in my life, but I'll be damned if I can pinpoint exactly when. Probably I watched it sometime in the early eighties during the early days of R-rated cable TV. It was fun enough -- some consider it a classic. Hell, it made #6 on AFI's "100 Years... 100 Laughs" list. You know what? I didn't find it all that funny, actually. Let me try to explain: Blazing Saddles, from start to finish, felt like really polished 1960's-era sketch comedy that had been made more adult via adult language and sex, race and drug references. And that's pretty much what it was. I wanted to like it more. I guess I'm just not a Mel Brooks kinda guy.

The Sons of Katie Elder (4/13/08) TV-HDMOV (1965 *½) Directed by Henry Hathaway. John Wayne and Dean Martin play two of the four sons of a beloved woman, now dead. When they return to town for her funeral, they get (as they say) “more than they bargained for.” At 122 minutes, this film dragged, and I was frankly relieved when it was done. The only bright light in the whole thing was seeing a young Dennis Hopper as the twitchy son of a land-grabbing jerk, played by infinitely recognizable James Gregory.

Superman for All Seasons (4/13/08) Graphic Novel (2002 **½) Written by Jeph Loeb, illustrated by Tim Sale. Several of the reviews of this book I read referred to Frank Capra and Norman Rockwell's America. I sort of got that, though this version of Superman's origin made less of an impression on me than it evidently has on some. Maybe it's because the effect was too superficial, too much a modern pastiche of 1930's life in the United States. It was pleasant enough, but lacked any true emotional depth, and I was unmoved from start to finish. That's too bad. One day someone will write a story about the "Man of Steel" that will grab my heart and have me weeping inconsolably. Kurt Busiek came close in 2005's Superman: Secret Identity. Unfortunately, Superman is easier to work with as an icon than he is as a character. Finding depth in Superman the man has always been problematic in that regard, but with the setup Joeb was working with in this book I think that might have been possible.

West Side Story (4/16/08) Netflix (1961 ****) Directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, starring Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn and Rita Moreno. Winner of 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. No two ways about it, this was a brilliant movie from start to finish. Its soundtrack was some of the best music ever written for the Broadway stage. I frequently marveled at how well directors Wise and Robbins worked together. The camera angles and movement and editing caressed the choreography, creating a drama and a sense of depth that is still as fresh today as it was in 1961. There is so damned much to learn about filmmaking from watching this film! Sadly, of the half-dozen times I've watched West Side Story in my life, it's always been on video. It is absolutely one of those great films I hope to someday watch on the silver screen.

The Guns of Navarone (4/23/08) TV-HDMOV (1961 **) Directed by J. Lee Thompson, starring Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn. Often when I watch an older film I try to imagine how it might have been appreciated by the audience of the time. In the case of The Guns of Navarone, I imagine this big-screen, big-budget, star-studded action war thriller must have made quite an impression in 1961. Unfortunately, watching it in 2008 on my 32-inch LCD flatscreen I found it a little melodramatic and by the end I kept looking at my watch, waiting for it to end.

The Mind-Body Diabetes Revolution: The Proven Way to Control Your Blood Sugar by Managing Stress, Depression, Anger and Other Emotions (4/29/08) Nonfiction (2005 ***1/4) Written by Richard S. Surwit. Man, what long titles some of these nonfiction books have! The primary message of Dr. Surwit's book is that the big three behavioral stressors (stress, depression and hostility) have been shown to contribute to the development of diabetes and patients can make positive changes in their blood chemistry by learning how to address these problems head-on. The primary method recommended was visualization and relaxation, and this approach was covered in depth. However, other approaches (including pharmaceutical ones) were addressed as well. In all, it was an excellent book for anyone with diabetes (like me) who also has a history of one or more of these other stressors (like me). The next time I'm driving and get pissed off at all the morons on the road I have a nice, selfish reason for throttling back the ol' hostility: My blood sugar and ultimately my life.

May 2008

Somebody Up There Likes Me (5/1/08) Netflix (1956 ***) Directed by Robert Wise, starring Paul Newman as Rocky Graziano. There are a lot of reasons to like a movie. In the case of this film, based on Graziano's autobiography, it wasn't a great film by any stretch of imagination, but it was sure a lot of fun to watch. I especially loved the exterior New York scenes, and the imagery truly transported me to another place and time. Newman's over-the-top performance was weird, but fascinating. He seemed at all times to be imitating either Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski or -- and I know this doesn't make sense in linear time -- Sylvestor Stallone's 1976 Rocky. I'm being facetious, but it was obvious to me after seeing this film that Stallone clearly owed a great deal to Newman's earlier performance.

My Dinner With Andre (Screenplay) (5/2/08) Screenplay (1981 ***1/4) Written by Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory. I was eighteen the first time I saw the film version of My Dinner With Andre. At the time I remember being excited about the possible world of ideas the film represented. There are very few movies that could be classified as "philosophical conversation" films. Several of Richard Linklater's films come to mind, especially Slacker and Waking Life. Not so long ago I read and reviewed the book containing the teleplays from Steve Allen's first Meeting Of Minds series, and that PBS show had a great deal of common with this film. There are those who may be critical of the goal or value of a movie (or a play) that consists of two people talking. Reading the screenplay made me want to see the movie again, and perhaps I will do just that in the coming weeks or months. I'm interested to see if it holds up to my own memories. As for the screenplay, reading its dense multi-page passages, I felt something vital was missing, that the words were insufficient to carry the whole meaning. I missed seeing Andre and Wally, a fact that struck me somehow as ironic.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (5/2/08) Glendale Mann 10 (2008 ***1/4) Directed by Nicholas Stoller, starring (and written by) Jason Segel. So much has been made in the press about Segel's full-frontal nudity in this film. I personally was underwhelmed. As I watched Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I was frequently reminded of last year's Knocked Up. Unfortunately, as likable as he was, Jason Segel was no Seth Rogen. Overall I found this film a little flabby, not nearly as tight as it could have been, and it seemed about twenty minutes too long. Milana Kunis of That '70's Show was surprisingly good as Segel's love interest, and I hope her performance was enough to earn her lead roles in the future.

Iron Man (5/4/08) La Canada (2008 ***½) Directed by Jon Favreau, starring Robert Downey Jr. Thank you, Iron Man, for kicking off the 2008 summer movie season. I wasn't particularly a fan of Iron Man growing up. His red and gold costume was cool but I couldn't really relate to him. As an adult it's easier to appreciate the story of a merchant-of-death turned super-hero. There were also plenty of cool cars and toys and guns and stuff blowing up to satisfy the 12-year-old boy in me. I have a great deal of respect for Favreau's directing talents and his passion for film as evidenced in 2003's Elf and 2005's Zathura. Robert Downey Jr. was born to play millionaire playboy industrialist Tony Stark and he played the role with both humor and sincerity. Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard and Jeff Bridges all did fine jobs in their respective supporting roles, but from beginning to end it was Downey's movie.

The Cat's Meow (5/5/08) Netflix (2001 **½) Directed by Peter Bogdanovich, screenplay by Steven Peros, based on his play. Kirsten Dunst and Edward Herrmann played Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst in this story of what may have happened on Hearst's yacht in 1924. There have been rumors over the years of a love-triangle gone wrong that resulted in studio head Thomas Ince's death. Whether you believe the rumors or not, it's still a compelling story. Unfortunately, the dialogue didn't quite live up to the potential of the premise and the action was necessarily limited by the geography of the boat. Finally, there wasn't a moment during the entire film when I forgot it was derived from a play.

Wristcutters: A Love Story (5/7/08) Netflix (2006 ***1/4) Directed by Goran Dukic, starring Patrick Fugit as Zia. The imminently likable Fugit previously starred as the main character in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous (2000), a movie high on my list of films I wish I‘d made. Wristcutters takes place in a sad, gray afterworld inhabited by suicides, where no one is able to smile. It was a surprisingly charming, low-key film, with just a hint of magic and hope. I especially loved seeing how broken-down junk and trash could work as an effective visual motif. Wristcutters is probably not for every taste, but fun nonetheless.

Gødland Volume 1: Hello, Cosmic! (5/9/08) Comics (2006 **½) Written by Joe Casey, illustrated by Tom Scioli. This is another one of those semi-random books I picked up used. I was intrigued by a blurb on the back that read: "Casey & Scioli surprised me by taking Kirby as a genre… and presenting an original concept within that genre." In fact, the book's dominant feature was Scioli’s over-the-top Jack Kirby-esque art. Unfortunately, it was often very bad Kirby-esque art that reminded me of my own teenage efforts. In fact, I think I have some old drawings somewhere that would have fit in nicely in the pages of Gødland. I don’t want to be overly harsh -- some of it was fun to read -- but overall the execution did not live up to the potential of the concept.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (5/9/08) DVD (1981 ****) Directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Harrison Ford and Karen Allen. With the fourth Indiana Jones film coming out on May 22nd, I thought it would be fun to watch the original trio of films for the first time in years. There was definitely something potent at work on this first one, and there’s a reason this film has been used over and over as an example in screenwriting books. From the first frame to the last, watching it was like taking a ride on your favorite roller coaster: Effortless and exhilarating at the same time. Raiders of the Lost Ark will also forever have a special place in my heart: The first time I saw it (at age 16) was also the first time I took a girl out on a date!

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984 **) Directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Harrison Ford and Kate Capshaw. In the behind-the-scenes DVD commentary, Spielberg and Lucas blamed this film’s "darkness" for its critical failure. For years I’ve joked that somebody really should have known better than to have the beloved Indy become evil and slap a kid, that it violated a basic tenet of movie storytelling. Watching it again after all these years, I think the true source of the film’s mediocrity lay not the darkness, but was actually far simpler: The script just wasn’t very good. In the first movie, the relationship between Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood was both believable and interesting. The romantic subplot in Temple of Doom played as a watered down imitation of Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in Robert Zemeckis’ Romancing the Stone. The bottom line is this movie had a lot of problems and everybody probably knew it. I can’t help but wonder if it might be possible using modern technology to re-edit the film and make it suck a little less.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (5/11/08) DVD (1989 ***½) Directed by Steven Spielberg. I would love to know technically why the third Indy movie looked so different from the other two. The images were altogether crisper and brighter. I suspect it was because of the film stock and lenses used, as well as the use of a lot of rim lights in the lighting design, but that's just a guess. Don't get me wrong, it's a marvelous story with a solid core (the relationship between Indy and his father), but some of the scenes looked like they were lit like an episode of Laverne and Shirley. Maybe Spielberg and others were trying to make up for the darkness of Temple of Doom. Anyhow, now that I've watched all three of the original films and they're all fresh in my mind, I'm ready for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls! All I have to do is try my best to sidestep spoilers between now and then and keep my expectations in check!

Showcase Presents: The Brave and the Bold, Vol 2 (5/15/08) Comics (2008 ***½) Written by Bob Haney (except for one story by Denny O'Neil), illustrated by various artists, primarily Nick Cardy and Jim Aparo. This book contains comic issues 88-109, which were originally published in the late 1960's and early 1970's. Bob Haney (who also wrote the original Teen Titans comics that got me collecting as a kid) has a reputation for the worst teen dialogue of all time. That is an unfortunate truth, but as I read this collection I felt as though I were watching Haney grow as a writer and really hit his stride. For anyone who doesn't know, The Brave and the Bold was a team-up book and in each issue different stars from the DC Comics universe would assist Batman in solving some crime or crisis. I would love to know what editorial process was used in choosing who would appear; some of the choices were surprising and inspired, including appearances by Wildcat, Black Canary, Sgt. Rock, and even Plastic Man. And here's a comics trivia question for the ages: Whatever happened to the London-based Bat Squad? I also appreciated the scope of the stories Haney told. Many were set in foreign countries and had the feel of an adventure movie in miniature. Finally, Jim Aparo passed away a couple years back, and re-reading the stories he illustrated reminded me of how brilliant he was; in black and white I could really appreciate his artwork. Along with Neal Adams, who illustrated many of the covers in this collection, Aparo remains one of the definitive Batman artists.

I'm Not There (5/15/08) Netflix (2007 ****) Directed by Todd Haynes, screenplay by Haynes and Oren Moverman. This was an amazing and original film, based on the "many lives" of Bob Dylan. I was captivated from beginning to end. As a Dylan / Woody Guthrie fan there was plenty to love. Six actors (including the late Heath Ledger) played facets / aspects of Dylan. Cate Blanchet was nothing short of amazing as Jude Quinn, the most easily recognizable incarnation. Is this film for everybody? Probably not, no. The storytelling was deliberately fragmented and at the very least non-conventional. It failed the "would I want to watch this film with my grandmother?" test. I'm Not There falls solidly into the experimental-yet-still-commercial genre I've long referred to as "mindf**k" films. The studios don't make a lot of them, but there are others, such as David Lynch's Eraserhead (1977) and Mulholland Drive (2001), as well as Head (1968), Pink Floyd The Wall (1982) and Waking Life (2001).

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (5/23/08) Glendale Mann 4 (2008 ***1/4) Directed by Steven Spielberg. Apparently the U.S. Government recently passed a law stating that all reviews of this film must begin with "It's been 19 years since Indiana Jones literally rode off into the sunset..." There. Satisfied? I did my best to prepare myself properly for this event: I watched all three of the previous films on DVD. I avoided spoilers. I glanced at reviews enough to know (Tomato-meter: 70%) to keep my expectations in check. I went into it with an open mind, knowing it wasn't going the be the greatest movie of all time. And you know what? I enjoyed it. It was a fun ride, one that was in keeping with the franchise. Some of my colleagues have been playing a game where they rank the Indy films in order of their enjoyment. Raiders is still my favorite, of course, but I liked some parts of this film even more than Last Crusade. Tonally, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull seemed closer to the first film than the third, which descended into slapstick a few times too often.

Bigger Than Life: A Murder, a Memoir (5/24/08) Nonfiction (2007 ***½) Written by Dinah Lenney. I'm currently taking a UCLA Extension memoir class taught by Lenney. I already had high regard for her as a teacher who both inspires and nurtures. Having read her book -- in which she interwove her father's murder and its aftermath with reflections on her life -- I have further respect for her as a writer. I especially appreciated her ability to write clear prose that still managed to communicates complex thoughts and emotions. In addition, I admired her deft handling when writing about members of her family. She was able to capture good and bad, sometimes at the same time, painting what felt like an honest portrait.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (5/25/08) Netflix (2007 **) Directed by Jake Kasdan, starring John C. Reilly and Jenna Fischer. This biopic parody followed directly in the footsteps of Ray and Walk the Line. While I appreciated what the writers attempted to do, which was to poke fun at the conventions of the genre, I just wish they'd done it in a funnier way. Also, as much as I like Reilly as a comic actor, it was painfully obvious that he didn't quite have the charisma to carry a film like this on his own.

Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters (5/26/08) Graphic Novel (2007 **½) Written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, illustrated by Daniel Acuna. This was a reboot of the classic team whose members were frivolously killed off in Infinite Crisis. As with many of the "random" books I buy, I bought it used, on sale and at least in part due to the quality of its artwork. It wasn't a bad read, and it had a fairly simple story-arc. It was also unnecessarily violent at times. Uncle Sam was presented as the literal embodiment of the American spirit, which made him a challenge as a character. There was a political subtext I found interesting: the American people were fed up with their government but were, against all odds, hopeful about the future. Quite apropos for our times.

Kung Fu Panda (5/29/08) Hollywood Mann Chinese (2008 ****) Directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson. Wow. I can honestly say without any irony whatsoever that the word "awesome" comes to mind. KFP is a beautiful film and an amazing achievement. The animation was great, the lighting was great, the story was elegant in its simplicity, the hero was likable and easy to identify with. It's my favorite Dreamworks movie since the first Shrek. I'm ashamed to admit that I'm more than a little envious of my co-workers who worked on the film. My sole contribution to this project was wearing a panda costume in New York for two days, but that's another story. Oh well, maybe if this film makes the money it deserves I'll get a chance to work on Kung Fu Panda II!

My Fair Lady (5/30/08) Netflix (1964 ***) Directed by George Cukor, starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, with Wilfrid Hyde-White as Colonel Pickering. You want to hear something crazy? As beloved as this film is, with a running length of nearly three hours, I thought this film was about an hour too long. I saw plenty of opportunities to cut it down, too. In many places Cukor's editing philosophy appeared to be: "Don't use three shots when you can use ten!" On top of that, it was misogynistic, often bordering on offensive, and it had a weird ending. In spite of all of this, Hepburn was radiant and Marnie Nixon (Hepburn's singing voice) sang and Rex Harrison sang-talked their way through some memorable songs.

Kung Fu Panda (5/31/08) DWA friends and family Screening -- Universal Citywalk IMAX (2008 ****) Directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson. I know, I know, I just saw this two days ago at the cast and crew screening. I sure didn't mind seeing it again, though! The film looked absolutely amazing on the big IMAX screen. I hope it does well at the box office. What with Iron Man and Indy and Sex and the City and Hulk and Wall-E, the theaters are so damned crowded with content this summer. I always get paranoid whenever one of Dreamworks' films opens. I wonder: "Is this the film where people decide they don't want to see any more animated movies?" So, will I see it again? You know what? I just might -- it's that good! (One sad side-note: The day after this screening [6/1/08] Universal Studios had a terrible fire that destroyed the New York set, the Back to the Future town square and the King Kong attraction.)

June

Iron Man (6/2/08) DWA Screening (2008 ***½) Directed by Jon Favreau. Dreamworks had a free employee screening and so I went for a second time, and yes, it was still an amazing ride. This may be a good opportunity for me to point out that, so far, the summer blockbusters of 2008 (Iron Man, Indy, Panda) put last year's offerings (Pirates 3, Spider-Man 3, Shrek 3) to shame! But before you get too smug, summer of '08, let me remind you: I didn't actually see Speed Racer, did I?

Comic Books and Other Necessities of Life (6/3/08) Nonfiction (2002 ****) Written by Mark Evanier. I've been a regular reader (and fan) of Mr. Evanier's blog (www.newsfromme.com) for more than two years. His career in comics, animation and TV interests me a great deal. He's about a decade older than I, but there are definite similarities between his early influences and work experience and my own. After reading this collection of columns originally printed in The Comic Buyer's Guide, I have even more respect for him as a writer. Not only does Evanier write about subjects I'm interested in (mostly comic books), he does so in amazingly tight, consistent prose. His writing exhibits a degree of professionalism and clarity I admire and aim to emulate. Because of its narrow focus, this book is not for everyone, but I loved it and have already ordered his other two collections.

Lars and the Real Girl (6/5/08) Netflix (2007 ***) Directed by Graig Gillespie, written by Nancy Oliver, starring Ryan Gosling. As Charlie Brown (or maybe Linus) would say, "It's not a bad little movie." Unfortunately, as is so often the case, I wanted to like this movie more than I actually did. Its premise: A lonely 27-year-old man in the Midwest orders an expensive sex doll and immediately succumbs to the delusion that she's alive. The movie was sweet and its heart was in the right place, but it was also quite predictable; as I watched it with my wife she called out a half dozen plot points well before they happened. It was also too obvious thematically. For example, in one scene a friend hands Lars (whose mother died in childbirth) a bunch of artificial flowers and he gives them to "Bianca" and says something like: "They're plastic, so they'll never die. Isn't that nice?" In spite of the film's flaws, I must admit to being touched by Lars and the Real Girl and I even teared up a couple of times. As I said, it wasn't a a bad little film, but I still wish the screenplay had been a wee bit smarter.

Outbursts (6/6/08) The Complex Hollywood: Flight Theater (****) Written and performed by Gordon James, directed by Maurice Jamal. Gordon James is my wife’s co-worker, and so when she told me we were going to see the one-man play he’d originally performed in New York I was supportive but kept my expectations solidly in check. I had no idea he was so talented, both as a writer and as a performer. In the space of ninety minutes he brought seventeen unique characters to life. Even more impressively, he did so through poetry: Each segment was a poem, all linked thematically by aspects of love. Though tightly scripted, the show was also interactive, with James drawing in audience members via eye contact and props. In less capable hands, all these ingredients could have added up to a recipe for disaster and/or fodder for parody (for some reason I imagine a version performed by Ricky Gervais), but James’ talent carried the night.

Cirque du Soleil: Zumanity (6/8/08) Las Vegas: New York, New York (***) Zumanity is marketed as the sensual side of Cirque du Soleil. In practical terms it’s a combination of circus acrobatics and cabaret. This was the first Cirque show I’d ever seen, and my favorite piece in the show was also one of the first, in which a near-nude nymph (sorry) swam and splashed in a raised pool. While I enjoyed the beauty and spectacle of the experience, there was far more audience interaction (and, to be honest, talking) than I had expected, and I’m afraid it lessened my enjoyment of the show.

Cirque du Soleil: Mystere (6/9/08) Las Vegas: Treasure Island (***½) My wife and I enjoyed our first Cirque experience (Zumanity) enough to get half-price tickets for Mystere the following day. Dreams, dreaming, and dreamers provided the thematic source material for the show. Acrobats flew through the air and tumblers tumbled as the center stage rose and fell. I was amazed by the artfulness with which the audience’s attention was directed to one focus while setup was completed unseen prior to that focus being shifted. Given its surrealist roots, there were times when I had no idea whatsoever what was going on, but Mystere was engaging throughout and I was a little sad when it was over.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (6/12/08) Netflix (2007 ***) Directed by Tim Burton, starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. Rated R, for extreme bloody gore. My wife had to watch the last half of this film through the narrow slit between her fingers. I’d heard good things about this film, and maybe they’re true. I don’t know. The bottom line for me: I think I would have enjoyed Sweeny Todd far more if I’d seen it in the theater. Normally I don’t comment on DVD-specifics, but in this case I’ll make an exception: The balance between the music and the voice track was terrible. Maybe the makers of the DVD thought we had surround sound or something, but I kept having to adjust the volume, and it was irritating as hell.

The Incredible Hulk (6/13/08) Glendale Mann 10 (2008 ***¼) Directed by Louis Leterrier, starring Edward Norton. I was one of the millions of people disappointed by Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk. Given some of the negative publicity a month or so back I wasn’t expecting much from this version. In the week or so preceding its release, a funny thing happened: It started getting decent (but not stellar) reviews. That, coupled with a lingering excitement buzz from Iron Man and internet info that Captain America made a brief appearance, put me in the theater for the 10am showing on its official opening day. I gotta tell you, The Incredible Hulk was not as good as Iron Man, but it was still a fun ride and I was not disappointed.

The King of Kong (6/14/08) TV -- G4 (2007 ***½) Directed by Seth Gordon. I’d heard great things about this documentary about two men (Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe) who competed against each other to break the highest Donkey Kong score. While gripping from beginning to end, the documentary technique was slightly suspect and I wondered to what extent reality was being manipulated: Mitchell was portrayed from the beginning as an arrogant asshole, while Wiebe was shown as his polar opposite, making him awfully easy to root for. I’m always a sucker for any film or book that provides insight into a subculture, and it was fun visiting the world of competitive classic gaming.

Alec: How to Be an Artist (6/14/08) Graphic Novel (2001 ***) Written and illustrated by Eddie Campbell. I picked this up used. I wasn't previously familiar with Campbell's graphic novel efforts. I didn't know it before, but he illustrated Alan Moore's From Hell. This book was really about Campbell's ringside seat as a comic artist trying to make his way during the development of that graphic novel. The book culminated with capsule reviews of several dozen of what he considered the best graphic novels at the time. While I appreciated Campbell's sometimes fragmented, second-person narrative writing style and sketchy illustrations, I can also see why he hasn't necessarily gained a larger following.

In Brief: Short Takes on the Personal (6/15/08) Nonfiction (1999 ***) Edited by Judith Kitchen and Mary Mapumier Jones. This book was a follow-up to Kitchen and Jones' In Short: A Collection of Brief Creative Nonfiction. In Brief was one of two books assigned during a UCLA Extension memoir class I took, which finished three weeks ago. Please don't tell my teacher Dinah Lenney, but I only now finished this book and still have a few pages left in the other. In our class, Lenney described In Brief as "dessert sherbet" to offset the considerably denser writing of Sven Birkerts. With each piece in the In Brief collection ranging from one to five pages, these “memoirs in miniature” didn't have much time to make a lasting impression. Still, aspiring writer that I am, I found it quite useful to have so many examples of style and approach contained in a single book.

The King and I (6/15/08) Netflix (1956 ***½) Directed by Walter Lang, starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner. There's something so stunningly pure and right about a good Rogers and Hammerstein musical, isn't there? Created fifty years ago in Technicolor and Cinemascope55, this film is so different from contemporary films it may as well have come from another planet. I guess I must be Mr. Weepy, because I got all teary-eyed as Marni Nixon (dubbing for Kerr) sang "Hello, Young Lovers." What the hell was that all about?

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (6/16/08) DWA Screening (2008 ***) Directed by Andrew Adamson. According to Boxofficemojo.com, Prince Caspian has earned $132M at the box office. Normally that wouldn't be relevant in my review, but in this case it is, as I'll explain in a bit. About a half hour or forty minutes into the film, I was really enjoying myself and thought I was watching a four-star film. But then the film lost its momentum and never regained it. Not coincidentally, the same first half hour or so took place with minimal digital effects, and I thought that was a brilliant decision. So what happened? Why didn't the film work? My wife (who has read all the Narnia books and has a great affection for the source material) had a simple answer: Too many battle scenes. While I enjoyed the action, I think she had a good point. So why is box office important? I think this was a fairly good film. Not as strong as the first, but still good. Along with about five hundred other people, I worked under Adamson on the first Shrek movie and I have great respect for him. I worry that after the disappointing receipts Disney won't greenlight the next film in the series. I'm also concerned that the weak performance of Caspian, coupled with similarly low earnings for The Golden Compass and other fantasy-oriented films, indicates we're seeing a marked shift in the zeitgeist. Perhaps the audience interest sparked by the Lord of the Rings films has finally played itself out. Oh well, I guess I shouldn't complain. It looks like we'll still have plenty of super-hero films. At least for awhile, anyway.

There's No Business Like Show Business (6/20/08) Netflix (1954 **½) Directed by Walter Lang, starring Ethel Merman, Donald O'Conner and Marilyn Monroe, with music by Irving Berlin. This was an odd film about a show business family. Though Merman received top billing, she was in far fewer scenes than I expected. The main problem with this film was that its story meandered, not finding its focus on Donald O'Conner's character until well into the second act.

A Star is Born (1954): Special Edition (6/22/08) Netflix (1954 **) Directed by George Cukor, starring Judy Garland and James Mason, with music by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin, produced by Sidney Luft, Garland's husband. This special edition attempted to recreate the original pre-cut 3-hour version of the film using "discovered" footage and production stills. Unfortunately, I was bored for must of the film and the upbeat musical numbers (which contrasted weirdly with Mason's alcoholic self-destruction) were mostly forgettable.

Libeled Lady (6/26/08) TV-TCM (1936 **½) Directed by Jack Conway, starring Jean Harlow, William Powell, Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracy. Released just two years after The Thin Man, this was only one of three movies Powell and Loy made together in 1936. They were by far the best thing in the film; every scene they had together sparkled. Unfortunately, that was pretty much where the good stuff ended. The premise was weak, the plot logic didn't stand up to any close examination, and the film ended without adequate closure. Libeled Lady also showed that Jean Harlow wasn't much of an actress and I never would have guessed Spencer Tracy was destined for great things based on his performance. Finally, this film demonstrated what I can only assume was a neurological malady prevalent in the mid-1930's: Talking really fast and YELLING. At least half the characters in the movie suffered from this dreadful affliction.

Wanted (6/29/08) Glendale Mann 10 (2008 ***) Directed by Timur Bekmambetov, starring James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman and Angelina Jolie. This film was a lot of two-fisted, violent, guns-a-blazing, tire-screeching fun, though it never managed to grab me emotionally. I'm not sorry I saw it in the theater, but I probably could have waited for the DVD. One historical note: In a brilliant counter-programming move, Wanted -- which definitely earned its R-rating -- opened the same weekend as Pixar's WALL-E. I was a little disturbed by the unexpected presence of a half-dozen young kids in our audience and couldn't help but wonder if their parents had been doing some theater-hopping.

July

His Girl Friday (7/1/08) TV-PBS (1940 ****) Directed by Howard Hawks, starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, screenplay by Charles Lederer, based on the play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. His Girl Friday is a brilliant movie from start to finish and I have no problem at all giving it four stars. Seventy years since its original release, the dialogue remains as crisp and fresh as ever. The performances by Grant, Russell and others (including that fellow who looks like Ralph Bellamy) were brilliant, and I must have laughed out loud a dozen times. I first saw this film in 1985/86 as part of a film genre class. To this day I still recall my teacher, Mary Beth Haralovich, claiming that the key to the progression of Russell's character was visually evident in her hat.

After the Thin Man (7/3/08) TV-TCM (1936 ***½) Directed by W. S. Van Dyke. I watched and reviewed this film a mere two years ago, but it wasn't exactly a hardship to watch it again. As was the case with His Girl Friday, which I watched recently, it's so freakin' cool that a film made seventy years ago is still fresh. Paradoxically, I know a contemporary reboot of the Thin Man series would be a hard sell for today's audience. Why is that? What have we lost along the way? It feels like something fundamental has changed. Still, you can't deny that William Powell and Myrna Loy had one of the best screen chemistries of all time. I wonder: How many married couples over the years have patterned their relationships on that of Nick and Nora Charles?

Essential Avengers, Vol 1 (7/4/08) Comics (1998 **) Written by Stan Lee, illustrated by Jack Kirby & Don Heck. All this Avengers movie talk recently got me intrigued about the team's early days. I've had this big black & white collection sitting in my closet for awhile and thought I'd dust it off and give it a read. It took longer than I thought; Stan Lee's early 1960's writing was awfully dense. I was never really into The Avengers as a kid and this collection reminded me why. The group dynamic of the team never found the right balance, at least in the early days. This collection (issues #1-24) included one important historical event: The re-introduction of Captain America in issue #4. A shake-up of the membership halfway through the set (Thor and Iron Man gave way to Hawkeye, Quicksilver and The Scarlet Witch) didn't make matters any better. It seemed as though Stan Lee had struggled with this book, trying to find a family dynamic like the one he had in abundance over in the pages of The Fantastic Four.

Bugs Bunny on Broadway (7/5/08) Hollywood Bowl (***) The premise of this performance was that classic Warner Brothers cartoons were projected while the orchestra provided the live music track. My wife and I didn't know it, but this show has been running for 19 years! Not only that, but we were present for a historic performance: Ours was apparently the last show at the Bowl before the show was to be re-tooled, to be brought back in a new and improved form (with different pieces and cartoons) in 2010. One personal side-note: During intermission the head usher gave us a special "promotional pass" which allowed us to move down to sit in one of the empty boxes for the second half. And so I got to sit in the hoity toity box seating at the Hollywood Bowl for the very first time!

WALL-E (7/6/08) UA La Canada Flintridge (2008 **½) Directed by Andrew Stanton, written by Stanton and Jim Capobianco. For the first twenty-five minutes, I thought I was watching one of the best animated films ever, but as soon as the story went into space things went south quickly. The story could have been so much tighter and it showed signs of being tinkered with up to the last minute. Some story elements were introduced but never paid off. Introducing a dozen characters late in the film didn't help. Character motivations were confused or unbelievable. The main dramatic conflict was introduced way too late. Here's another way of describing it: For the first act I developed an abundance of empathy for WALL-E. Once in space the focus shifted away from him and the story became an arbitrary chase film. Then at the end he underwent a “false death” in the Disney tradition and I was expected to care for him again. But I really didn't. For what it's worth, I liked the environmental message and didn't mind being preached to. In fact,I would've preferred more of that and less random chaos.

Animal Man, Book 2 -- Origin of the Species (7/6/08) Graphic Novel (2002 **½) Written by Grant Morrison, illustrated by various. This material was originally published in serial form in the late 1980's. The premise was that Animal Man became one of the few DC Universe characters aware of the disconnect created by the mid-1980's Crisis on Infinite Earths. Things got progressively weirder as threads were followed and each apparent answer asked more questions...

Animal Man, Book 3 -- Deus Ex Machina (7/7/08) Graphic Novel (2002 ***) Written by Grant Morrison, illustrated by various. Morrison's run on the comic came to a close with issue 24 (SPOILER) in which Animal Man found himself having a conversation with... Grant Morrison. This wasn't the first time a comic character had interacted with someone in our reality, but it was still a minor milestone in comic history. Along the way there was some fun to be had, but in my opinion not nearly as much as there could have been. The execution came close to but never fully lived up to the premise, something Grant Morrison (as a character in the comic) even admitted. This is purely conjecture on my part, but I believe Morrison was suffering from Alan Moore Miracleman envy. Deus Ex Machina certainly wasn't one of my favorite books but I'll probably keep it in my collection (as opposed to selling it) because it tickled a certain part of my brain. Five years from now I'll likely dig it out and read it again.

Hellblazer: Original Sins (Volume 1) (7/10/08) Comics (1997 **) written by Jamie Delano, illustrated by John Ridgeway. For the most part I've blocked out Keanu Reeves' version of John Constantine from my brain. It was surprisingly easy, actually. This collection included the first nine issues of the original comic book, which began in 1988. According to Wikipedia, as of this writing the series is still going (240+ issues so far), though based on the stories in this collection it's hard for me to understand its lasting appeal. I just didn't find the stories or Constantine to be compelling in any way. It must have gotten better as it progressed.

Outbursts (7/12/08) Live performance (2008 ****) Written and performed by Gordon James. My wife and I were present at Gordon's first L.A. run of his show and it was our honor to be there for the last. I wasn't sure if I'd get much out of it the second time around, but I did. I was even moved to tears at the end, just as I'd been for the first show.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (7/13/08) Netflix (1954 **) Directed by Stanley Donen, starring Howard Keel, Jane Powell, Russ Tamblyn and Julie Newmar. I could've sworn I'd seen this film in my mid 20's, but I must have either been mistaken or blocked the entire thing out from my memory. This was one weird mamma-jamma of a musical that veered into the creepy domain early on. It wasn't ultimately as disturbing as Oklahoma, but it was right up there. What made it so creepy? Basically that the titular seven brothers resorted to assault and kidnapping in their attempts to get their brides, that's what. The constant references to the biblical sobbin' (Sabine) women made me wonder if the movie shouldn't have been renamed Seven Brides for Seven Attempted Rapists. Finally, on a different note, just whose story was this supposed to be, anyhow? It started out clearly focused on eldest brother Adam (Keel), but then the focus shifted several times and Adam spent a lot of time off-screen. To me that indicated a pretty serious story problem.

Singin' in the Rain (7/14/08) Netflix (1952 ****) Directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, starring Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor and Debbie Reynolds. "All I do the whole day through is dream of you..." Holy smoke what a great film, arguably the best musical of all time. You know what makes it a four-star movie? The fact that it features two absolutely perfect and brilliant musical numbers ("Good Morning" and "Singin' in the Rain") back to freakin' back! And talk about likability! Just how adorable were the three stars, anyhow? If you've never seen it, see it! If you've seen it before, see it again!

Journey to the Center of the Earth (3D) (7/16/08) DWA Screening (2008 ***) Directed by Eric Brevig, starring Brendan Fraser, Josh Hutcherson and Anita Briem. This was definitely one of those movies where it was best to leave your brain at home. I even wondered whether the filmmakers deliberately included extra-dumb elements early on so that the ridiculous things that happened later would seem nearly plausible by comparison. Some might find the 3-D gags over-the-top, but I'm pretty sure that was the goal. Shakespeare this ain't, but I personally had a good time and left the theater feeling like I'd been on a really fun, well-done amusement park ride.

Into the Wild (7/17/08) Netflix (2007 ***) Directed by Sean Penn, starring Emile Hirsch as Chris McCandless. Based on the bestselling nonfiction book by Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild was an ultimately life-affirming movie about the death of a young man who tried to escape society's chains but didn't quite make it. Nearly everyone can identify with the desire to test the boundaries of one's humanity, and I could certainly see a younger version of myself in Chris. One of the most impressive accomplishments of this relatively small production was the use of more than twenty locations. Having said that, at two and a half hours, the movie felt a little long. While I respect Penn as a filmmaker, it's ironic that the main impact his film had was to make me want to read the book on which it was based.

Swamp Thing, Vol 1: Saga of the Swamp Thing (7/19/08) Comics (1998 ***) Written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Stephen Bissette and John Totleben. This volume collected issues 21-27, after Moore took over writing responsibilities for the Swamp Thing comic. I know it's supposed to be groundbreaking material, and maybe it was in the mid-1980's, but I wasn't personally engrossed. I didn't find the horror to be particularly horrifying and I never identified with any of the characters involved. In particular, I found the central character -- who was so detached that his motivations were indecipherable -- to be problematic in the extreme.

The Dark Knight (7/20/08) La Canada AMC (2008 ***½) Directed by Christopher Nolan. There has been so much hype over this movie that it was very hard for me to keep my expectations within a reasonable zone. Because advanced tickets were selling out all over the place (and because I hate sitting in a completely full theater) we went to a 9:00am Sunday morning showing. The bottom line is I liked it a lot but didn't think it was quite deserving of some of the praise it has received. There were a number of plot elements that were either confusing or didn't stand up to close inspection. Gary Oldman was wonderful as James Gordon, but Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman were totally underutilized compared to the first film. Heath Ledger's performance was gripping, but I can't help but feel that much of the Joker's presence came from his attitude and makeup. I would like to see it again, mostly because I feel I missed a lot; I suspected the sound mix may have been off in the theater because I had a lot of difficulty hearing the dialogue over the music and sound effects.

Alec: After the Snooter (7/22/08) Graphic Novel (2002 ***) Written and illustrated by Eddie Campbell. I suspect Campbell may be an acquired taste. This collection was made up of mostly short 3 and 4 page autobiographical stories, sketches from the life of a comic book artist and his family. I respect Campbell for having the guts to do personal comics about a quiet, unexciting life without giving into sensationalism or gimmickry. It was a comic for mature readers, in the best sense of the term. I will probably seek out and read his other work in the future. Reading this and Alec: How to be an Artist has also made me want to dig out and re-read Alan Moore's From Hell, which Campbell illustrated over the course of ten years.

Extras: The Extra Special Series Finale (7/23/08) Netflix (2007 **) Written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. At one point during this hour and a half long wrapup to the amazing BBC/HBO Extras series I turned to my wife and said: "This comedy program has me so depressed I want to shoot myself." This was the saddest, most downbeat television comedy show I have ever seen. Ever. Including M*A*S*H. And it was completely relentless. The thing is, I kind of got what Gervais and Merchant were trying to do, which was to take Andy Millman from the height of fame to the depths of hell (in this case Celebrity Big Brother), then end on an upbeat note, made all the more happy by virtue of contrast. In part they succeeded, and as Cat Stevens sang "Tea for the Tillerman" for the final time, I felt a hint of transcendent joy. Unfortunately, the abject misery I was subjected to prior to that moment wasn't worth it.

The Boys of My Youth (7/31/08) Memoir (1999 ***1/4) Written by Jo Ann Beard. I recently took a memoir-writing class and our teacher assigned a chapter from this book called "The Fourth State of Matter." In this chapter (or story if you prefer), Beard made the shooting that took place November 1, 1991 at the University of Iowa personal. Having spent much of my life living in the Midwest, seventeen years of it in Iowa, it was easy to relate. Overall I enjoyed Beard's writing, which struck a nice balance between objectivity and lyricism. However, as a reader, I never felt completely immersed in her world. I can't help but wonder if I would have felt a deeper connection with the material if I'd been female.

August

Stop Stealing Sheep & Learn How Type Works (8/1/08) Nonfiction (2002 **) Written by Erik Spiekermann and E.M. Ginger. The title comes from a snarky 1936 quote by type designer Frederic Goudy, upon receiving a hand-lettered award. Man, what an asshole! As someone who has spent his life not thinking about the invisible world of type, this book succeeded only slightly in introducing me to the issues involved in typeface selection. It seemed like very little content spread out over 150 pages, though, and I wish the selection of fonts covered had been broader.

There Will Be Blood (8/3/08) Netflix (2008 ***) Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview and Paul Dano as Eli (and Paul) Sunday. This was a good movie, but I don't know if I could honestly tell you what it was about. Odd choices abounded throughout. Many people have commented on the apparent weakness of the ending, and I have to agree. I must confess that part of my desire to see this movie was fueled by wanting to learn the context for the pop culture bombshell / apparent non sequitur: "I drink your milkshake!"

I Was a Male War Bride (8/3/08) TMC (1949 **) Directed by Howard Hawks, starring Cary Grant and Ann Sheridan. I thought I'd seen this movie a long time ago, but I was wrong. I expected more from it: Ten years prior, Hawks and Grant brought us Bringing Up Baby, one of the best screwball comedies of all time! Sadly, this was not a very good comedy, and I mostly blame the writing; any opportunities for humor seemed to be squashed almost immediately by disposable dialogue. Call me crazy, but I got a weird feeling the writers were running on fumes while writing the screenplay. The most interesting aspect of this film, and the only basis on which I might recommend it, is that it features a lot of actual war-ravaged locations in Germany. If you think that setting might be a strange choice for a comedy, you'd be right.

Fido (8/5/08) Netflix (2006 ***) Directed by Andrew Currie, starring Billy Connolly and K'Sun Ray. Set in a Utopian 1950's world, Fido was the story of a boy and his zombie. It was also a film that very nearly worked but didn't quite. Done right, it could have been a cult film worth loving. So why did it fail? The premise was particularly problematic. As lovable as Fido (the zombie) was, it was hard to sympathize with him after his ate his first victim. Also, none of the characters quite managed to quite come to life, no pun intended. The film ultimately lacked the unity that could have elevated it. It was sort of a parody of the Lassie movies, but it needed to be about something more, something clearly identifiable, something relevant to a modern audience. In today's world, surely there were plenty of adequate targets.

Westworld (8/6/08) Netflix (1973 **½) Written and directed by Michael Crichton. Westworld is one of those movies that's not particularly good but has definitely stayed with me over the years. Crichton's premise was obviously inspired by one or more trips to Disneyland: What would happen if an amusement park suffered a catastrophic failure and its pleasure-seeking guests started dying? He successfully returned to the same well later (and more successfully) with Jurassic Park. This begs the question: What does Crichton have against people enjoying themselves? Perhaps there is a moral dilemma that comes from seeking out escapist entertainment while people are fighting and dying half a world away. That was the case in 1973 and it's the case today. Hmmm. Food for thought for another day. As for the movie itself? It definitely was not without its problems. Crichton demonstrated with this film and The Great Train Robbery that directing was not his strong suit. At one point I was stunned by his overestimation of the interest to be found in a five-minute bar fight that did absolutely nothing to advance the story. Here's another indication something was out-of-whack: The inciting incident didn't occur until the 1-hour mark in a 1.5-hour movie. And last but not least, surely someone on the set should have told Richard Benjamin he ran like a little girl!

Resident Evil (8/7/08) Sci Fi Channel (2002 ***) Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, starring Milla Jovovich. I didn't have any high expectations for this film, which was based on the popular Capcom games. Having played through Resident Evil IV at least five times in the past year, I was familiar enough with the universe, and so I didn't mind one bit that the movie felt at times very much like a video game. In fact, I found that familiarity comforting. Look, it was what it was: Amnesiacs chased through an underground complex by zombies and monsters will never elevate itself to Shakespearean levels, but I enjoyed it enough to look forward to renting and watching its sequels.

Showcase Presents: Batgirl, Vol 1 (8/8/08) Comics (2008 ***) Yes, this is another one of those 550-page black and white collections the size of a telephone book. It began with the 1960's Batgirl's first appearance, passed through her backup feature stories in Detective Comics and concluded with a couple of mid-1970's appearances in World's Finest and The Superman Family. As a character, Batgirl was more or less a weaker, more human version of Batman. She spent a lot of time being knocked out and placed in deathtrap situations, and it's noteworthy that she didn't escape from all of them without help. By contemporary standards, some of the stories were so overtly sexist I wonder if they'll become unprintable in the future. Having said that, I hope you'll forgive me if I acknowledge that Carmine Infantino's version of Batgirl was about a million times sexier than Don Heck's. Whew, thanks -- I feel better having gotten that off my chest. I guess I might as well admit it. Politically correct or not, Batgirl will always occupy a special place in my heart.

The Incredible Hulk (TV Pilot) (8/9/08) Netflix (1978 ***½) Directed by Kenneth Johnson. When the most recent Hulk film came out, the Sci Fi channel had a mini-marathon. I watched a couple of episodes (just for kicks, you understand) and got hooked. I probably haven't watched the series pilot since it was first aired, thirty years ago. Watching it now, I can see why it was picked up as a series. It was really quite good, and I liked the production values they were able to get on a relatively limited TV budget. However, the pilot also began with one of the corniest, most cliché-riddled love montages of all time, featuring Dark Shadows' Lara Parker as David Banner's doomed wife.

Les Miserables (8/9/08) Hollywood Bowl (***½) First of all, seeing anything at the Hollywood Bowl is always an event, even though leaving afterwards is usually a terrible ordeal. I love Les Miz. It's my favorite musical of all time, and this is the fifth or sixth time I've seen it performed. There's something about the combination of the amazing music with Victor Hugo's deeply-moving themes that continues to resonate with me. It's a pity that it's no longer playing on Broadway, but it has had a couple of astonishing runs. One fun fact: This performance featured Melora Hardin, who current plays Jan, Michael Scott's love interest on The Office, in the role of Fantine.

The Incredible Hulk: Married (8/10/08) Netflix (1978 ***½) Directed by Kenneth Johnson. Man, David Banner simply cannot catch a break when it comes to being in a stable relationship! In this case, he meets, falls in love with and marries a wonderful woman, a woman with a scientific mind on par with his own. Too bad she's only got six to eight weeks to live! According to imdb.com, this was a 2-part episode that opened the second season of the series. Given the constraints of TV production, the episode was surprisingly well written and directed. After I finished, I watched the first half-hour again with the commentary track by Johnson, who was particularly articulate; it's one of the better commentary tracks I've ever heard and was full of interesting trivia too: I was surprised to learn that Mariette Hartley actually won an Emmy award for her role as terminally ill Dr. Carolyn Fields.

Pineapple Express (8/10/09) Pacific Theaters Glendale 18 (2008 ***) Directed by David Gordon Green, starring Seth Rogen and James Franco. The screenplay was written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who had also written Superbad, which I loved. For some reason the second my wife first saw the trailer for this film she knew she had to see it. I cannot account for this; she and I do not (as the kids say) "partake of the herb." Though I enjoyed Pineapple Express -- particularly some of the earlier scenes between Rogen and Franco -- it wasn't as good as earlier films in the Judd Apatow canon. I agree with other reviews that have said that the violence in the end of the film took it away from what made it fun. Also, Rogen's character's boyfriend/girlfriend relationship with a high school girl was hard to accept and made him a far less sympathetic hero than he should have been.

The Incredible Hulk Returns (8/10/08) Netflix (1988 **) Directed by Nicholas Corea, featuring Steve Levitt as Donald Blake and Eric Kramer as Thor. I remember watching this when it was originally aired. It was obvious to me that an attempt was being made to kick-start a TV series based on Thor. It might have been an interesting show if it had happened; I liked both Levitt and Kramer. Unfortunately, the writing in this made-for-TV movie was pretty weak, a weakness made all the more apparent by having just watched the far better-written original pilot and 2-part "Married" episode.

Travels With Alice (8/13/08) Nonfiction (1989 **) Written by Calvin Trillin. I remember watching Trillin as a frequent guest on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show and Letterman in the 1980's. During a recent memoir class we were assigned a short essay written by him after the death of his wife Alice. I enjoyed his writing style in that piece and so I bought and read this collection. I wanted to like it more, but unfortunately I didn't find his subject matter (he wrote at length about food) engaging enough to keep my interest. If food is the center about which your world revolves, please be my guest. Otherwise, I simply can't recommend this book.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (8/14/08) TV-AMC (1970 *½) Directed by Ted Post. This movie was a mess, and it bore all the classic signs of being a hastily-produced sequel to cash in on the popularity of the first film, which was released in 1968. It starred (for lack of a better word) James Franciscus, with Charlton Heston featured at the beginning and end in what was essentially an extended cameo. The storyline (which I suspect was designed around Heston's shooting availability) was largely unfathomable, and the ending was so abrupt and ridiculous I literally laughed out loud.

Kurt Busiek's Astro City, Vol. 1: Life in the Big City (8/15/08) Comics (1997 ***½) Written by Kurt Busiek, illustrated by Brent Anderson, with covers and character design by Alex Ross. Busiek and Ross worked together on Marvels, and Astro City can be seen as a continuation of that earlier work. Busiek took a world populated by super heroes and used it as an engine to generate short stories, sometimes taking the point of view of the heroes, sometimes by civilians. I like his writing, which brings with it a verisimilitude that works well for a modern (or postmodern) audience. I think the only thing that hurt the series was that the entire world had to be fabricated from whole cloth. Sometimes that was effective, but other times the characters were clearly second-rate versions of their more famous cousins. For example, “Winged Victory” was a thinly-veiled copy of Wonder Woman. I couldn't help but be reminded of Watchmen, which featured a similar parallel universe but was originally conceived to be based on old Charlton heroes acquired in the early 1980's by DC Comics. In the case of Watchmen, the world was also unified by the telling of a single multi-generational story.

The House on Telegraph Hill (8/19/08) TV-FMC (1951 ***) Directed by Robert Wise, starring Valentina Cortese and Richard Basehart. Cortese played a holocaust survivor who assumed the identity of a fellow concentration camp inmate, then moved to San Francisco, where she found herself caught between her secret and a murderous plot. This film featured a number of sequences shot-on-location, which would undoubtedly be fun for anyone who’s ever lived in or near San Francisco. I enjoyed the film, but wish it hadn't gotten so mired down in its own melodrama.

Meet Me in St. Louis (8/19/08) Netflix (1944 ***½) Directed by Vincente Minnelli, starring Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien and Mary Astor. This was definitely one for the "they don’t make ‘em like this anymore" box. There wasn't much of a plot, really. Instead, the joy of this film was that it never tried to be more than what it was, a slice of life in a family, leading up to the 1904 World’s Fair. I’ve seen the film before, but it’s been years. Though it was a film about a family, Garland sparkled as the character at its center. Watching the film, it occurred to me that Meet Me in St. Louis may have actually helped pave the way for countless family-centered TV situation comedies.

The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (8/16/08) Netflix (1989 **½) Directed by Bill Bixby. Just as the made-for-TV The Incredible Hulk Returns included Thor, this movie included Daredevil. There was nothing wrong with that, but Trial often felt like it was trying a bit too hard to spin off the character as a new series. My favorite part of this film was that Bixby (David Banner) spent the first half of the film with a full beard. I was conscious of Bixby's direction throughout. The film was shot and lit in a style far more naturalistic than what was used in the series. Sometimes that worked but other times it was poorly executed and just felt amateurish. Clearly Bixby was developing his skills as a director -- he went on to become one of the principal directors on the TV show Blossom. As a stand-alone movie, there were some story structure problems: Matt Murdock (AKA Daredevil) experienced an under-motivated crisis of confidence and the story's focus shifted awkwardly from Banner to Murdock. Also, I shook my head in disbelief when the film reached its end and I realized the dramatic climax hadn't even included Banner transforming into the Hulk!

The Loners: The Secret Lives of Super Heroes (8/16/08) Comics (2008 **½) Written by C. B. Cebulski, illustrated by Karl Moline. This volume collected issues #1-6. I had no familiarity with the series, but bought this from a co-worker for $5. The premise was that being a superhero is addictive, just like alcohol, booze or sex. It was a conceit that was hard to make work, and I never really bought it. I found the book mildly entertaining and well executed, but it didn't excite me enough to want to add it to my list of series to follow.

The Death of the Incredible Hulk (8/16/08) Netflix (1990 ***) Directed by Bill Bixby. I know what you're wondering -- I can see it in your eyes. Yes, both the Hulk and David Banner literally died at the end of this film. The Hulk jumped from a small airplane as it was exploding and plummeted to the ground in a scene deliberately reminiscent of King Kong. But fear not, true believers! It was the kind of comic book death that left plenty of room for resurrection at a later, convenient time. Sadly, this was the last of the made-for-TV Hulk movies, and Bixby died three years later. I can't help but wonder how he had felt about The Hulk. The death reminded me also a little of Sherlock Holmes battle with Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls.

Tropic Thunder (8/17/08) Glendale Mann 4 (2008 ***1/4) Directed by Ben Stiller. Tropic Thunder has gotten a lot of heat in the press recently due to its treatment of mental retardation. I myself have sensitivities in this area, but didn't find anything in the film particularly offensive. I hope the film does well in spite of this flap. It was definitely an R-rated comedy (for language and violence), and not all the jokes paid off, but it was consistently entertaining. Stiller, who hasn't helmed a feature since Zoolander (2001), was very effective as a director. Hopefully it won't be another seven years before his next film. Also, Tom Cruise may have just re-started his stalled career with his role as strangely familiar, foul-mouthed studio chief Les Grossman. "Get me a Diet Coke!"

The Fab Four (8/17/08) Starlight Bowl, Burbank (***½) The Fab Four is a well-known Beatles' tribute band. I have to say they gave an amazing simulation of the well-known, beloved music from the albums. Their act featured three costumes, representing the Beatles from the Ed Sullivan, Sergeant Pepper and Let it Be eras. I would definitely see them again, given the opportunity. This was also my first time at the Starlight Bowl. My wife and I took lawn chairs and a picnic and met up with another couple. It was particularly heartwarming watching all the little kids running around and dancing their little hearts out to the Beatles' music.

North World Book 1: The Epic of Conrad (Part 1) (8/25/08) Graphic Novel (2008 **½) Written and illustrated by Lars Brown. According to the author's bio, Brown was born in 1983, which makes him a mere 25 at the time of this writing. Sometimes his youth showed in his writing and some of his drawing, but North World was still a fairly decent effort for someone so young. It was a little hard for me to judge, though, since this volume feels like it represents half or a third of a larger story. The world in which the book was set was an engaging amalgam of our reality (75%) and a fantasy / D&D world (25%). It was a combination that worked better than I would have expected.

Hancock (8/25/08) DWA Screening (2008 ***) Directed by Peter Berg, starring Will Smith, Charlize Theron and Jason Bateman. Hancock received mixed reviews when it came out this summer, primarily due to a story twist in the middle of the second act that took the movie in a direction completely different from its beginning. I won't reveal the twist, but it involved Charlize Theron's character. I liked the movie better than I'd expected, mostly because my expectations were so low. My feeling was the movie would have been better if the revelation had been handled less awkwardly. As it was, it was overly-complicated and under-motivated.

Behind the Planet of the Apes (8/25/08) TV-Biography (1998 ***) Directed by Kevin Burns and David Comtois, hosted and narrated by Roddy McDowall. According to imdb.com, McDowall died less than a month after this documentary was aired. I recently watched a couple of the "Planet of the Apes" movies and became curious about the story behind the story. This was a decent enough documentary. It provided the basic information and featured interviews with many of the surviving participants, but it didn't really push to be anything more than what it was. The highlight may have been the behind-the-scenes footage, which included early makeup tests.

Last Call, Volume 1 (8/26/98) Graphic Novel (2008 **½) Written and illustrated by Vasilis Lolos. I bought this book from a co-worker for $5. I'm not sure if it was a good value or not: The book only took about twenty minutes to read cover to cover. It began with an interesting premise: Two friends out driving in a stolen car late at night end up on what may or may not be a ghost train. Have they died? That's a question that found no answer in this volume, and therein lay the problem for me: It was hard to judge this story based on such a small snippet. Will the eventual story be told in four parts or in twelve? Please pardon my impatience (and for judging a book based on what it's not), but I would have preferred to read a collected edition with the entire story.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse (8/30/08) TV-SciFi (2004 ***) Directed by Alexander Witt, written by Paul W.S. Anderson, starring Milla Jovovich and Sienna Guillory. I'm going to have to put this in the "guilty pleasure" category. As I've mentioned previously, I played through Resident Evil IV multiple times on my Wii, though I didn't play the game set in Raccoon City, so I don't know how closely the movie follows the plot of that game. As a film, it was as fun as the first. Granted, I was watching an edited-for-TV version and I had to laugh at all the references to "those freaking motivators," (lipsync-similar dialogue substituting for a more adult phrase) but I don't think my enjoyment was diminished much. Yes, I did enjoy it and someday I will probably rent Resident Evil: Extinction.

John Williams With Special Guest Stanley Donen (8/30/08) Hollywood Bowl (2008 ***½) I'd never seen John Williams conducting in person, and it was a real treat. My only minor complaint was that the program seemed to be made up of bits and pieces from other programs, which resulted in some painfully obvious redundancy. However, being forced to sit through the Indiana Jones theme multiple times wasn't exactly a hardship. I didn't know until the night of the show that Stanley Donen was scheduled to appear. Donen, 84 on the night of the performance, is a Hollywood legend, having directed Seven Brides for Seven Brothers as well as co-directing Singin' in the Rain, arguably the greatest musical of all time. He was also responsible for Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry Mouse in Anchors Away and Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling in Royal Wedding.

The Black Diamond Detective Agency (8/31/08) Graphic Novel (2007 **) Written and illustrated by Eddie Campbell, based on a screenplay by C. Gabe Mitchell. I've read a couple of Campbell's autobiographical books recently, so when a co-worker was selling this book I snatched it up. Unfortunately, Black Diamond was a weird read and I didn't like it much. Campbell's illustrations were fine, though his style didn't lend itself to the color (specifically watercolor) treatment he used. The main problem with the book was the story, which felt structurally "broken," somehow. I have no way of knowing if this was present in the original source material. I'm sure there is probably a story behind the story of this book.

September

Peace Out, Dawg! Tales from Ground Zero (9/1/08) Comics (2002 ***½) Written by G. B. Trudeau. I've been a Doonesbury fan since the summer between eighth and ninth grade. Please don't tell the more conservative members of my family, but I think Gary Trudeau is to blame, at least in part, for my becoming a Democrat. This collection included the strips that followed 9/11/2001, when "everything changed." I'm mixed on how Trudeau handled that event. Reading the strips in order, it was interesting how quickly he returned to "business as usual." I guess I can forgive him, though: It's an understatement to say it was a weird time in America; as a nation we were all collectively in shock from the tragic events.

Pat and Mike (9/1/08) TV-TCM (1952 ***½) Directed by George Cukor, written by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Ruth Gordon will always occupy a special place in my heart as Maude in Harold and Maude. I have no way of knowing how she and Kanin split their writing duties, but this film was pretty strong from a writing standpoint. The premise (Hepburn was a female athlete, with Tracy as her manager) was fresh, as was the relationship between the two leads. Writers of contemporary romantic comedies, please take note! The message of the film was ultimately feminist as well, and Hepburn shone throughout this film, which was not only a great movie but also a showcase for her natural athleticism. One personal note, if I may: The film's opening scene was shot at Occidental College in Eagle Rock, and depicted Hepburn running out of Johnson Hall, where I've taken many of my writing classes!

Woman of the Year (9/2/09) TV-TCM (1942 ***) Directed by George Stevens, starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. I liked Tracy and Hepburn, who played two very different newspaper reporters who fell in and out of love, and so I'll give the film a mild recommendation, but know this: The subtext of the story bothered me greatly. Tess (Hepburn) was painted as the villain, but I didn't really see most of her behavior as deserving of that treatment. There seemed to be an underlying message that women should avoid letting their husbands feel inferior at all costs. No doubt it was a reaction against this kind of thinking that contributed to the sexual revolution of the sixties and seventies.

Comic Book Villains (9/3/08) Netflix (2002 ***) Written and Directed by James Robinson, starring a variety of highly-recognizable actors. The plot: Owners of two rival comic book shops compete for the holy grail: A huge decades-spanning collection of mint condition books. I must be honest: If I weren't a comic book collector, I probably would not have given this film a 3-star rating. Consequently, the lackluster user reviews on imdb.com and netflix.com didn't really surprise me. Also, the story had some problems: DJ Qualls played what was nominally the POV protagonist, but he was almost completely passive and wasn't directly involved in much of the action. All the other characters were unlikable to differing degrees and not all their actions were clearly motivated. Because of this, I was reminded of the 1998 film Very Bad Things, and not in a good way. Still, I enjoyed it on a geeky level. It was a kick to see an entire film whose plot took place in the world of comic collecting. Too bad it wasn't a better film.

Ultimate Annuals Volume 1 (9/4/08) Comics (2006 **½) This volume included four annuals from "Ultimate" versions of (in this order): The Fantastic Four, X-Men, Spider-Man, and The Avengers. The stories were written by a trio of comics' heavy-hitters: Mark Millar, Brian K Vaughan, and Brian Michael Bendis (Millar wrote 2 of them). I wasn't terribly impressed, unfortunately. My favorite was Bendis' Spider-Man story which centered around Peter Parker going on a date with X-Men member Kitty Pride.

Tchaikovsky Spectacular with Fireworks (9/5/08) Hollywood Bowl (***½) Los Angeles Philharmonic, Hannu Lintu, conducting, with Eugene Ugorski on violin, special appearance by the USC Trojan Marching Band. Another beautiful evening of classical music followed by fireworks at the bowl. What's not to like? They even played the theme music from The Right Stuff and The Bad News Bears! (Polonaise from "Eugene Onegin;" Violin Concerto, Op. 25; Francesca da Rimini; 1812 Overture)

Weeds: Season 3 (9/8/08) Netflix (2007 **½) Created by Jenji Kohan, starring Mary-Louise Parker and Elizabeth Perkins. For me this series falls firmly in the "guilty pleasures" category. It certainly contained a lot of empty calories. I enjoyed the first two seasons more than this one. Why is that? I felt like the show as a whole and Parker's character in particular slid down a morally slippery slope. Maybe that was the point of the whole show, I'm not sure. While I'm curious where the story will ultimately end, I can't help but think Weeds may be in serious danger of jumping the proverbial shark before it gets there.

Akeelah and the Bee (9/9/08) Netflix (2006 ***½) Written and directed by Doug Atchison, starring Keke Palmer, Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett. An 11-year-old black girl from South Los Angeles with a gift for spelling makes it all the way to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Along the way she learns a thing or two about the world... and about herself. My wife and I both teared up at the end of this unabashedly emotionally-manipulative movie, proof positive we're really just a couple of sentimental saps. I wished at times the writing had been stronger, but the film was so damned uplifting, and Palmer was so adorable. This was a great movie for kids, but one adults could enjoy as well.

Fringe (Pilot) (9/9/08) TV-FOX (2008 ***) Created by J.J. Abrams, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. Sometimes science and the paranormal bleed into each other, and there are scarier things in the world than "conventional terrorism." Comparisons to The X-Files were inescapable; I've heard the lead character of Fringe referred to as "Agent Scully 2.0." Honestly, I'm on the fence as to whether I'm going to continue watching or not. I was a fan of The X-Files and its direct antecedent, the original The Night Stalker. Fringe looks like it could be a fun ride, but life is short and there's only so much TV I want to watch...

All Star Batman & Robin, The Boy Wonder (9/10/08) Graphic Novel (2008 **) Written by Frank Miller, illustrated by Jim Lee. This series was one of those "dream team" events in comics publishing, uniting two giants in the field. Unfortunately, it didn't work for me, mostly because of Miller's writing. The book began with the deaths of Dick Grayson's parents and focused on the origins of the Batman/Robin team. Miller attempted to make The Dark Knight's selection of a sidekick plausible, but it never quite worked. At one point Grayson asked Batman -- in a voice I imagine sounding just like Bart Simpson -- "What the hell's a ward?" For reasons unfathomable to me, Miller thought it was a good idea to have Batman abuse Grayson physically by slapping him a couple of times for no particularly good reason. Finally, a great deal of time was spent on side-stories about Black Canary and a 16-year-old Batgirl that didn't relate at all to the main story. Why? My only explanation is that some of the story decisions were made in order to allow Jim Lee to draw sexy women. You know what? The more I think about it, the more I realize how big a mess this book really was. Too bad. It could have been great.

Swingtown: Season 1 (9/11/08) TV-CBS (2008 ***) Created by Mike Kelley. Guilty pleasure alert! Set in 1976, this series was very much like a weekly dramatic version of Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, a film I loved. It also reminded me at times of a dramatic version of That 70's Show. The premise: Three suburban Chicago couples (one having an open marriage) and their children all relate to each other on various levels. Wife-swapping, flirtations, secret yearnings and infidelities ensued. Virtually every episode revolved around a party, which got a little repetitious. I liked this little Summertime show, but I imagine its audience has been limited. I won't be particularly surprised if it's not picked up for a second season.

Charade (9/11/08) TV-PBS (1963 **) Directed by Stanley Donen, starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. There was no shortage of familiar faces in this cast that included Walter Matthau (with a mustache!), James Coburn and George Kennedy. My wife and I recently saw Donen at the Hollywood Bowl, and it was a thrill to see the man who co-directed Singing' in the Rain. Having said that, I wasn't impressed by his directing in Charade. Grant and Hepburn were charming, of course, but it looked like they were phoning it in, delivering impressions of previous, far fresher performances. The screenplay was really the weakest link in the whole film, though. I can't help but wonder if everyone involved wasn't painfully aware of this film's weaknesses during production.

Got War?: A Doonesbury Book (9/12/08) Comic Strips (2003 ***1/4) Written by G. B. Trudeau. I will be a Doonesbury fan until the day I die, though I enjoyed this collection slightly less than its predecessor, Peace Out, Dawg! There may be some small irony in the fact that I finished this book (while walking on my treadmill) the day after the seventh anniversary of 9/11. The sequence of strips contained in this volume covered the beginning of the Iraq war, which is now well into its fifth year. With a topical strip like Doonesbury, reading old runs can be very much like traveling back in time. It was both disturbing and sobering to note the optimism expressed by those old strips regarding the length of the war.

Fireworks Finale: Celebrating Summer with Brian Wilson (9/13/08) Hollywood Bowl (***½) This was a program elegant in its arrangement. It began with the LA Philharmonic performing three pieces (Mozart, Bach and Gershwin) selected by Wilson. Then Wilson and his band came onstage and they performed "Forever She'll Be My Surfer Girl," "Midnight's Another Day" and "God Only Knows," backed by the philharmonic. For the second half of the show, Wilson and his band played more than a dozen hits. As I sat there on a perfect Southern California night, I looked over at the radiant joy on the face of my Southern Californian wife (who grew up listening to the Beach Boys catalog) and I thought, just briefly, "Maybe I deserve to be here."

You Deserved It (9/15/08) Comics (2005 **) Written and illustrated by Bob Fingerman. I love Fingerman's illustrations -- he's one of my favorite comic artists -- and this was a beautiful, colorful volume, comprised of several pieces originally published separately. It's too bad his storytelling left me flat. The gratuitously violent, sex-filled centerpiece, "Otis Goes to Hollywood" was especially confusing; it seemed to be heading in a clear direction, but then near the end the storyline suddenly veered toward a wholly unsatisfying conclusion. It was as though Fingerman had been making it up all along and had intended another chapter but then became bored by his own story.

The Rose (9/16/08) TV-FOXHD (1979 **) Directed by Mark Rydell, starring Bette Midler, Midler won a best Actress Golden Globe, but not the Oscar -- she lost out to Sally Field! This movie has been on my "never seen it but should" list for a long time. I finally got around to it, but it was a disappointment: It was overlong (125 minutes but due to sluggish pacing it seemed longer) and I ultimately didn't know what I was supposed to get out of it. Midler's character was clearly inspired by Janis Joplin, but I would have preferred a straight biopic. Nevertheless, The Rose was the film that made Bette Midler a star, even though comparisons (not all of them favorable) with Barbra Streisand in A Star Is Born remain inescapable.

Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys! (9/17/08) TV-FOXHD (1958 **) Directed by Leo McCarey, based on the book by Max Shulman. The cast was star-studded in a bizarre way, so forgive me if I list more than normal: Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Joan Collins, Jack Carson, Dwayne Hickman, Tuesday Weld and Gale Gordon. This was one of those films my wife describes as "of an era, but not in a good way." I remember reading a beaten-up paperback copy of the Shulman book as a teenager. Shulman was also the comic mind behind the character Dobie Gillis. A few of you reading this may even know who that is. Unfortunately, what passed for adult suburban screwball comedy in 1958 didn't really translate for a modern audience. I spent most of the movie in a state of unease. Let me approximate the sensation: Imagine being under-dressed at a fancy dinner party where you didn't know anyone, sitting in an uncomfortable chair, having just bitten into an unexpectedly pungent hors d'oeuvre. It wasn't quite that bad, but it was close.

The Thing (9/21/08) Sci Fi Channel (1982 ***) Directed by John Carpenter, starting Kurt Russell. I have vivid memories of watching this (R-rated!) film on Cinemax repeatedly back in the early days of cable TV. Watching it now, years later, I think Carpenter really knew a thing or two about building suspense and developing an air of paranoia. Given the passage of time, the weak link for this film may have been the dialogue. Some of it was good but much of it sounded pretty false. (Note: Spoilers follow!) The film's end, in which MacReady (Russell) and Childs (Keith David) shared a bottle while waiting to freeze to death, has always troubled me. It was terribly unsatisfying on some basic level. Was Childs an alien? If so, was MacReady truly too exhausted to care anymore? And if he didn't care, why should we?

The Secret Diary of Sigmund Freud (9/22/08) TV-FMC (1984 *½) Directed by Danford B. Greene, starring Bud Cort and Carol Kane. Bud Cort starred in Harold and Maude, which may possibly be my favorite film of all time. When I was in college I occasionally went to the reading room at the library and checked out and read issues of Variety. Yeah, I was weird that way. One day I saw an advertisement for Secret Diary, and I got excited, since it was a new movie starring Cort. I never heard of of it since, and never saw it available for rent at the local video store. I'd forgotten about it entirely until I saw it in the program guide for the Fox Movie Channel, which I subsequently recorded. It's easy to see why this film was virtually lost to the cinematic cosmos: It's nearly unwatchable. There was an air of amateurishness that hung over every line of dialogue, every lighting setup, every shot composition. Truthfully, I'm probably being kind giving it one and a half stars.

The Dark Knight (9/22/08) DWA Screening (2008 ***½) Directed by Christopher Nolan. This was my second time seeing this film. They had a free showing after work, so I figured why not? I was seated in the third row, so the experience was a little more immersive; I never did get to the Imax version like I'd meant to. (Mild spoilers follow) I really loved this film up to the point where The Joker bomb-rigged the ferries. It was at that point when the movie sagged for about 20 minutes and never quite recovered its momentum. In screenwriting (all writing for that matter), there's this dramatic principle of escalating tension. In the case of The Dark Knight, the intensity (and fun factor) peaked with Batman interrogating The Joker in the holding cell. It was all downhill from there, with a minor uptick when The Joker blew up the hospital.

45 Master Characters (9/25/08) Nonfiction (2001 **) Written by Victoria Lynn Schmidt. I believe character archetypes are important, and perhaps some writers may find this to be a decent reference book. However, it really didn't do a very good job of holding my interest. I had to make a real effort to finish the book and really have little desire to describe its failings further.

All Star Superman, Volume 1 (9/27/08) Comics (2008 ***½) Written by Grant Morrison, illustrated by Frank Quitely. After the disappointment of Frank Miller and Jim Lee's All Star Batman and Robin, this book was a real treat. As stated in the Introduction, Superman and his origin have been re-envisioned a dozen times. Almost without exception, those reboots have sidestepped the "silly" Mort Weisinger 1950's version of the “Man of Steel.” Grant Morrison somehow magically managed to embrace that version (complete with Jimmy Olsen's signal watch!) and made it fresh at the same time. Quitely's illustrations had a "Little Nemo in Slumberland" quality that was somehow the perfect complement for Morrison's words. Though I would have preferred a single story-arc instead of serial continuity, All Star Superman ranks high among my favorite Superman books.

October

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (10/4/08) La Canada AMC (2008 ***) Directed by Peter Sollett, screenplay by Lorene Scafaria (based on the novel by Rachel Cohn), starring Michael Cera and Kat Dennings. The bottom line is I wanted to like this movie so much more than I actually did. I felt it completely squandered an opportunity to be a truly great film. Some critics have said it was too cute for its own good, and I don't disagree. More than anything I found some of the writing, such as the awkward way exposition was handled early in the film, to be borderline amateurish. The movie still had its moments though, largely due to the appeal of its two stars. I also really liked Ari Graynor as Norah's perpetually-drunk friend Caroline.

Escape From New York (10/9/08) TV-AMC (1981 **) Directed by John Carpenter, starring Kurt Russell, Ernest Borgnine and Adrienne Barbeau's breasts. When I was a teenager, I thought this movie was pretty awesome. How could it not be? It featured my childhood favorite, Kurt Russell, as Snake, an eyepatch-wearing badass, sneaking into maximum security prison Manhattan to rescue the president, Donald Pleasence. You know what? This movie, even with Borgnine as comic relief and multiple countdown clocks, didn't hold up. At all. Still, Barbeau's spectacular early-eighties cleavage continues to forgive a lot of sins and is probably responsible for at least one of the stars in my two-star review.

Justice League of America Vol. 2: The Lightning Saga (10/15/08) Comics (2008 ***) Written by Brad Meltzer and Geoff Johns, illustrated by various. I had this book on my Amazon wish list and received it as a birthday present. It contained one four-issue story and three other stand-alone stories. I was intrigued with the premise of the main story, in which the JLA and JSA teamed up to solve the mystery of why members of the 30th Centrury Legion of Superheroes were suddenly appearing in the present. The answer to that riddle was somewhat less than engaging, however, and the story got bogged down with continuity details that weren't especially compelling to a casual reader like myself. The highlight of the book for me was the stand-alone story, "Walls," in which Red Arrow (you might remember him better as Green Arrow's sidekick Speedy) and Vixen found themselves trapped underneath a 47-story building that had been thrown into the Hudson river during a super-battle.

Justice Society of America Vol. 1: The Next Age (10/17/08) Graphic Novel (2007 **½) Written by Geoff Johns, illustrated by Dale Eaglesham. This volume was actually the lead-up to Justice League of America: The Lightning Saga, which I read two days before. It began with the death of Mr. America's family, and we soon learned someone was killing former JSA members and their relatives, including young children. The violence felt exploitative and sometimes I wondered what today's writers have against the characters created back in the Golden Age. Ultimately this volume was fine, but not particularly engaging. The storyline felt tired, like it had been done a hundred times before.

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (10/18/08) DWA friends and family screening: Sherman Oaks Arclight (2008 ***½) Directed by Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath. I liked the first Madagascar film (which I worked on for nearly 2 years), but wished its third act had been stronger. I imagine some critics may complain the sequel didn't carry through with the emotional depth established in its opening minutes. Also, there were a half-dozen storylines juggled throughout. Maybe that's fair, but I was pretty entertained and thought this movie was much stronger than the original. On top of that, some of the animation and directing was flat-out brilliant. I'm proud to work for a company that produces quality family-friendly animated comedies like Madagascar 2.

Batman and Son (10/19/08) Graphic Novel (2007 *½) Written by Grant Morrison, illustrated by Andy Kubert. You would think the discovery that Batman fathered a child with Talia al Ghul would pretty compelling, right? So why was this book such a disappointment? Violent, decapitation-prone six-year-old Damian Wayne was equal parts brat and Tasmanian devil. Raised by the League of Assassins, he kicked ass and took... heads. For reasons too flimsy to go into, Batman was forced to take him under his wing, into the Batcave and into Wayne Manor. Combine that premise with the least convincing romantic partner in comics history, and you've got the recipe for one of the weakest Batman storylines I've ever read.

On Golden Pond (10/19/08) TV-AMC (1981 ***1/4) Directed by Mark Rydell, screenplay by Ernest Thompson, based on his play. This movie won Oscars for Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn and Thompson. It was Henry Fonda's final film and the only one in which he appeared with his daughter Jane, whose Oscar-nominated overacting made me cringe. Hepburn, on the other hand, was radiant and made up for it, though. On Golden Pond was a touching movie about what happens when we get older and death starts closing in, and I recommend it on that basis. It's a weird thing to comment on, but the film contained a surprising amount of PG-level cussing. I remember seeing it in the early 1980's (in the early days of cable TV it was played almost as often as Stripes) and the "bullshit"'s and "God-damn"'s (as in "I'm gonna do a God-damned backflip!") used ubiquitously by each and every character had far more impact back then. 27 years later they just sounded awkward and forced.

Mr. Majestic (10/26/08) Comics (2002 ***½) Written by Joe Casey, illustrated by Ed McGuinness. This was probably the best comic I've read in a while, and that's saying something. Casey's stories reminded me of the fun and potential in comics as a storytelling medium. That “fun” is something a lot of people have talked about in the past decade, but few people have been able to deliver. Mr. Majestic reminded me a lot of Invincible, written by Robert Kirkman. The last story in the collection, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Carlos D'Anda, was somewhat different in tone but still good, showing Mr. Majestic and a handful of other immortals present at the literal end of the universe.

Chinatown and The Last Detail: Two Screenplays (10/29/08) Screenplays (1997 ****) Written by Robert Towne. This book (the first half, anyway) was required reading for the screenwriting class I'm currently taking. We've been using Chinatown as our working example of what makes a script work. It's been at least a decade since I watched the film itself, and I must admit I never really related to Jake Gittes or the central drama of the story. Reading the film's screenplay gave me a greater appreciation for Towne's writing. As respected as the Oscar-winning Chinatown was, I was personally far more touched by The Last Detail, which was more of a subtle character study, with barely enough plot to constitute a movie. Something in the tone of the screenplay got to me; I haven't been able to shake that feeling since I put the book down. I know I've seen that film as well: As I read I occasionally got flashes of Randy Quaid in his role as sailor / convict Meadows. As my wife likes to say, the screenplay and movie were definitely "of an era."

November

Being There (11/8/08) DVD (1979 ****) Directed by Hal Ashby, screenplay by Jerzy Kosinski (based on his novel), starring Peter Sellers and Shirly MacLaine. This is one of my favorite movies of all time, though explaining exactly why would take far more space than I have here. I must admit that the film seems to have somewhat less depth than I perceived when I first saw it nearly thirty years ago when I was in my teens. Still, there was such a sweetness to this fable of “Chance the gardener,” from beginning to end. Ashby also directed Harold and Maude, one of my all-time favorites, and the opening scenes of Being There certainly echoed the beginning of that earlier film. Peter Sellers' measured performance was breathtaking throughout, and I can't imagine anyone else in the role. I was also quite impressed by MacLaine's acting. Ashby was criticized for the final shot (which wasn't in Kosinski's screenplay), but it remains one of the most beautiful, haunting shots in the history of film.

Monkey Business (11/11/08) TV-FOX (1952 ***) Directed by Howard Hawks, starring Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers and Marilyn Monroe. Grant played a chemist searching for an elixir of youth, but when he accidentally discovers it -- or so he thinks -- screwball merriment and mayhem ensued. If this sounds to you like the high-concept formula for a fun but ultimately lightweight movie, you'd be absolutely right. Ginger Rogers and Marilyn both seemed to be having fun, but Grant appeared to be sleepwalking through the film.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (11/13/08) Netflix (2007 ****) Directed by Julian Schnabel, based on the novel by Jean-Dominique Bauby, starring Mathieu Amalric. This is a beautiful film, based on a true story of a man who, following a major stroke, suffered from locked-in syndrome: Though completely alert, he was paralyzed, and his only means of communication was via blinking his left eye. His only escape (and ours) was through imagination and memory. Schnabel, best known as a neo-expressionist painter, showed amazing facility as a director. Much of the film was presented in the first person, from Jean-Do's limited point of view. This claustrophobia opened up as Jean-Do's mind and spirit opened. This is not a film for everyone: In addition to the subjective camera, Schnabel, an American, chose to shoot the story in French in order to increase authenticity. Still, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is well worth any small effort you'll pay in exchange for a genuinely unique film experience, one you won't soon forget.

Quantum of Solace (11/16/08) Glendale Mann 10 (2008 **½) Directed by Marc Forster, starring Daniel Craig as James Bond. I was a fan of Casino Royale, and for the first ten minutes I thought Quantum was going to follow in its footsteps. I was wrong. This was the twenty-second film in the Bond franchise, and that in itself was a major accomplishment, I suppose. I think Moonraker (#11 -- 1979) was the first Bond film I saw in the theater. I've seen most of the movies since, though never with any particularly high expectation. They've never touched me; James Bond is simply not a character I can relate to. Craig's performance in Casino Royale piqued my interest, though, and yes, I had high hopes. Unfortunately, Quantum of Solace was an incoherent, uneven, confusing mess. I'm still not sure what the plot was. On a personal note, it was an interesting coincidence that Mathieu Amalric played Quantum's "boss villain." I watched Amalric mere days before in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and he was amazing. In Quantum... not so much. But then he didn't have much material to work with. I just hope he got a nice fat paycheck.

Writing the Romantic Comedy (11/17/08) Nonfiction (2000 ****) Written by Billy Mernit. I'm currently taking a screenwriting class (and working on a romantic comedy screenplay) and so I ordered this book on Amazon.com. Mernit was (and possibly still is) a writer at UCLA Extension, and this book was developed following a class he taught (or teaches) there. I admired his writing style; he achieved an easy-to-read, conversational flow, yet still packed in plenty of information. This was a book rich in content. Mernit's experience as a teacher, writer and story analyst really came through in his writing. I hope someday I'm capable of writing a reference book as solid as this one.

Daddy Long Legs (11/21/08) TV-FMC (1955 **) Directed by Jean Negulesco, starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron. This was a decidedly minor musical, one that obviously aspired to be greater than it was. Astaire played a rich man who finds an 18-year-old French orphan (he sees her but she doesn’t see him) and decides to anonymously sponsor her college attendance in America. As much as I love Fred Astaire, he was clearly not giving his best performance. Caron was only slightly more engaging in this film, which was made three years before her role in Gigi.

Catwoman: Nine Lives of a Feline Fatale (11/21/08) Comics (2004 **) Written and illustrated by various. I’m pretty sure this collection of Catwoman stories spanning the decades was published in conjunction with the ill-fated Halle Berry film. As is the case with many of the comics I buy, I picked this up used and cheap. Sadly, the stories chosen for this volume were -- with a couple of exceptions -- not very good. It did, however, include Selina Kyle’s very first appearance (as a sexy thief named "The Cat") in Batman #1, in which Batman delivered that classic, oft-quoted line: "Quiet or papa spank."

Lucinda Williams at the Wiltern Theater (11/21/08) Live Performance (***½) I am a huge Lucinda Williams fan and have been since a friend turned me onto her first self-titled album in 1988. The last time I saw her perform was at San Francisco’s famous Fillmore theater in 2005, one of three performances that were used on her Live at the Fillmore double-CD set. I’ve never thought of her as a country artist, per se, though I recognize many of her songs could be classified as such. I bought her new album, Little Honey, as soon as it was released and have listened to it many times. Williams played five or six cuts from the album, but sadly excluded one of my favorites, "Circles and X’s." She also left out "Drunken Angel" (from Car Wheels on a Gravel Road), which is probably my all-time favorite song of hers. Somehow I’m sure I'll find it in my heart to forgive her.

Batman: City of Crime (11/24/08) Graphic Novel (2006 **) Written by Dave Lapham, illustrated by Ramon Bachs and Nathan Massengill. This book had a terrific start. The first fifty pages or so had me believing the storyline was taking me to a far, far darker Gotham City than Batman has ever gone before: Batman "zigged” when he should have “zagged" and as a consequence an apartment building burned, including six pregnant girls held captive in a locked room. Batman, overcome with guilt, wa frustrated that he couldn't save everyone. Great setup, right? Then something shifted and Batman went undercover as a construction worker for what seemed like hundreds of pages for reasons I still don't understand. The story became nearly impossible to follow and any interest I had was (as the kids say) pissed away. What a disappointment.

Going to the Movies: A Personal Journey Through Four Decades of Modern Film (11/27/08) Nonfiction (2001 **½) Written by Syd Field. I bought and read this book because I'm considering writing a series of memoir-slanted essays about my favorite films. I enjoyed the first third or so of Going to the Movies, which was a near-perfect mix of autobiography and film analysis. But then the author took a left turn and spent well over a hundred pages describing in excruciating detail his apparent discovery of the three-act structure. What was absent in this section was his passion for film itself. Besides, that material had already been covered in his earlier books. As I read, I became increasingly troubled by an underlying ego at work. Was Syd Field truly the first to discover and articulate filmic story structure as he claimed? He provided no hint to the contrary. There was an implication that screenwriters working prior to 1977 or so didn't know what the hell they were doing, and I found that notion simply unbelievable, not to mention offensive.

The Incredibles (11/28/08) TV-NBC (2004 ****) Directed by Brad Bird. I've said it before and I'll say it again: The Incredibles was (and is) an amazing movie and accomplishment and I hope someday Pixar and Brad Bird decide to create an Incredibles II. However, watching a two-hour movie played out over what seemed like ten hours (due to commercial interruptions) was enough to drive a man nearly insane. Thanks a lot, NBC.

Parenthood (11/30/08) Netflix (1989 ***½) Directed by Ron Howard, screenplay by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. It's been several years, possibly a decade, since I last watched this film. It didn't quite hold up like I'd hoped, but please don't get me wrong. I still love it and it was still damned good. But something wasn't quite right. Maybe it was this: From start to finish it felt just a smidge too engineered, too polished for its own good, if that makes sense. Still, I think it's fair to say it probably represented the height of commercial screenwriting at the time it was produced. I think it's also worth noting that this film was a superb example of how to write an ensemble film.

December

Sherlock Holmes In Washington (12/5/08) Netflix (1943 ***) Directed by Roy William Neill. A Murder, a matchbook and microfilm made up the key ingredients that sent Holmes and Watson flying across the Atlantic to our nation's capital. I particularly loved how Holmes' contemporary spy-smashing 1940's existence was explained upfront in a screen graphic that described how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's beloved creation was "immortal." He certainly was popular. At 71 minutes, this and other films in the Sherlock Holmes series seem like prototypes for later 1-hour TV dramas. For me, Basil Rathbone will probably always be the quintessential Baker Street detective, though I look forward to seeing how Robert Downey Jr. will do in the role next year.

The X-Files: I Want to Believe (12/11/08) Netflix (2008 ***) Directed by Chris Carter, starring David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. Mulder and Scully investigate the abduction of an FBI agent with the help of a psychic played by Billy Connolly. I'm not the first to acknowledge this movie was made about five years too late. This was probably Mulder and Scully's swan song, since the film didn't do well enough at the box office to warrant another theatrical film in the series. It wasn't a terrible movie by any stretch of the imagination, but more than anything else it reminded me of a solid (but not great) episode of the series.

Magic (12/13/08) TV-AMC (1978 **½) Directed by Richard Attenborough, screenplay by William Goldman (based on his novel), starring Anthony Hopkins, Ann-Margaret and Burgess Meredith. Goldman wrote his fair share of great movies, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), All the President's Men (1976) and The Princess Bride (1987). Magic was not quite on the same level as some of his other work. Its main cinematic challenge was this: Just how much menace could a ventriloquist's dummy manifest? The key to making that problematic premise work was Hopkins, who delivered a surprisingly convincing performance, one that paved the way for Hopkin's Dr. Hannibal Lecter thirteen years later.

It's a Wonderful Life (12/17/08) TV-NBC (1946 ****) Directed by Frank Capra, starring James Stewart and Donna Reed. It still surprises me that this classic film wasn't more popular when it was first released. At 130 minutes, it was a long film, and the story structure was unusual: The first two-thirds of the film were really just setup for the remainder. Still, the universal message (“Each life touches many others.”) is just as relevant sixty years later as it was the day it was released. In hard economic times like these, it's worth remembering that even if our lives haven't always turned out the way we expected, there are a lot of things to be thankful for, and our lives are all precious gifts.

Werewolf of London (12/18/08) Netflix (1935 **½) Directed by Stuart Walker, starring Henry Hull as Dr. Glendon and Warner Oland as Dr. Yogami. A botanist in the Himalayas, searching for a rare Tibetan flower is attacked by a… guess what? He returns to London with a scar, a plant, and a blood disease. I had never seen this classic film before. Released by Universal Studios, it followed Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (also 1931) and pre-dated Lon Chaney Jr.’s The Wolf Man (1941) by six years. It wasn’t as compelling as any of those films, however, and I think I know why: Hull’s character simply was not sympathetic, and our introduction to him was muddled; it wasn’t until the story moved to London that I was even certain he was the main character.

Wizard of Oz (1925) (12/19/08) TV-TCM (1925 *½) Directed by Larry Semon, starring Semon as the Toymaker / farmhand / Scarecrow (kind of), Dorothy Dwan as Dorothy and Oliver N. Hardy as the farmhand / Tin Man (sort of). This silent movie represented an era in film history I don't often visit. I can’t really recommend it, though it was mildly engaging intellectually. For one, it was interesting seeing Oliver Hardy in an early role, prior to his pairing with Stan Laurel. The story was very different from the 1939 Judy Garland Oz to which we’ve become accustomed. Most of the screen time was taken up by long gag sequences, the kind of gags that are now clichés of the silent movie era. Unfortunately, those sequences did nothing to advance the story, what little story there was.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (12/20/08) TV-TCM (1958 ***) Directed by Richard Brooks, based on the play by Tennessee Williams, starring Paul Newman (as Brick), Elizabeth Taylor (as Maggie the Cat), Burl Ives (as Big Daddy) and Jack Carson (as Gooper). What was it with those Southerners and their crazy names, anyhow? I’d seen this movie before, but not in a long time. It's a classic, of course, with conflict a-plenty and just the barest hint of an homosexual undercurrent thrown in. I’ve never read the original play; it would be interesting to see just how much cleaning up and whitewashing was done in the film version.

The Age of Believing: The Disney Live Action Classics (12/21/08) TV-TCM (2008 ***) Written and directed by Peter Fitzgerald. Angela Lansbury narrated this original TCM documentary, which featured interviews with Dean Jones, Hayley Mills, Tommy Kirk, Kurt Russell and many others. The film covered the era of Disney’s live-action films, from Treasure Island (1950) through Tron (1982). Many of these films had a huge impact on the childhoods of people of my generation, films like Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959), Mary Poppins (1964) and The Love Bug (1968). My main fault with this documentary was there was too much material for a mere 80 minutes. You could make the argument that the subject matter didn’t warrant it, but this film could have easily been expanded to miniseries length, or at least three hours. As it was, the films produced after Walt Disney died got short shrift.