NOTE: This material is now available in blog form.

 

terranmediajournal

Please send comments/feedback to: terranboylan (at) hotmail.com

[Return to Main]

Film/Media Journal Archives

2008

2007

2006

2005

2009 Journal

January

February

March

April

May

June

July

August

September

October

November

December

 

A word about the ratings system used

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

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

****

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

***1/2

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

***

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

**1/2

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

**

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

*

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

 

January

Tim Triplett, Hypnotist (1/2/09) Live Performance -- Princess Cruise (2009 ***1/2) It's been years since I first saw a stage hypnotism show, undoubtedly in either Reno or Las Vegas. I don't remember liking it nearly this much! Triplett did a sensational job of managing chaos onstage, while he had a dozen of my fellow Coral Princess passengers in a "trance." Clearly he was working from a set of prepared "bits," but it was still great fun. I noticed he had a clever built-in device for encouraging applause: Every time the audience got excited, one of the participants was under a hypnotic suggestion to act as an "applause cop," blowing a whistle and yelling "Fluff Bunnies!" My favorite, though, was the poor young man who had to scoot across the floor to sooth his "blazing backside" every time a tape played of Johnny Cash singing "Ring of Fire."

Adrian Zmed"¦ In Concert (1/3/09) Live Performance -- Princess Cruise (2009 ***) I'm not one for kicking a guy when he's down. Really I'm not. Fine, I'll admit it: much of the appeal of going to this show was the simple audacity of it. Adrian Zmed is known for three things, really: (1) sidekick to Bill Shatner's T.J. Hooker; (2) the male lead in Grease 2; and (3) the host of Dance Fever. He is definitely what they call in the "biz"¯ a B-list talent. There's nothing wrong with that. This show was apparently designed as a love letter... to himself. The dancers and backup singers were actually pretty good; the weakest part of the show was Zmed himself, who was out of breath most of the time he was onstage. The show was generally coherent with one bizarre, exception: In the middle of the show Zmed did a whole number devoted to TV theme songs. It made no sense, until it ended with a bizarre half-speed version of the theme from The Love Boat, supported by video clips of guest star... Adrian Zmed.

The Tailor of Panama (1/4/09) Fiction (1996 *) Written by John le Carre. I strongly disliked this book, and considered abandoning it several times. The fact that I finished it speaks to some inherently masochistic streak in my character. I actually read this book during a 2-week cruise, the highlight of which was the passage through the Panama Canal itself. You might say I read this book out of a misplaced sense of irony. I've never read anything else by le Carre, and so I can only judge his writing based on this single example. It constantly frustrated me: From the beginning, he seemed to bounce from past tense to present tense with no discernible pattern. I think I understand why he did that (to intensify description via present tense) but it was still irritating in the extreme. Next, after roughly 100 pages with a firmly established point-of-view character (tailor Harry Pendel), he began arbitrarily shifting the POV to other characters. Also highly annoying. Then, after about 300 (out of 400) pages, he decided to throw time shifts (scenes related out of temporal sequence) in as well. It was bad enough the book featured no likable characters, but it was ultimately boring. I was most of the way through the thing, waiting for some kind of spy-craft to take place, before I realized that nothing of the sort was going to happen; unfortunately, that was actually the only "point" of the book. Looking at the review on Amazon.com, apparently this book was supposed to be "viciously funny satire." I found it nothing of the sort and wish sincerely I could get a refund for the time I wasted reading this piece of shit.

John and Mary (1/7/09) TV-FMC (1969 ***) Directed by Peter Yates, starring Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow. Screenplay by John Mortimer, based on the novel by Mervyn Jones. A man and a woman meet in a bar and sleep together, but then what?... I felt throughout as though I were watching an American version of a French film, if that makes sense. I liked it more as a concept than as a film. Several times it nearly got to me, but was never entirely successful.

Frida (1/11/09) Netflix (2002 ***) Directed by Julie Taymore, starring Salma Hayek and Alfred Molina as artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, respectively. I think I liked this film more the first time I saw it. While I believe it was a genuine showcase for Hayek's talents, I found it less inspiring this time around. It's unfortunate that so many biopics (Walk the Line comes to mind) end up devoting so much screen time to melodramatically tempestuous interpersonal relationships. I would have liked to have learned more about Frida Kahlo as an artist, instead of devoting so much time on Diego Rivera's infidelities. In spite of a lot of stuff "happening" on the screen, in the end I think the portrayal of the film's title subject was ultimately superficial.

That Thing You Do! (1/12/09) TV-FMC (1996 ***1/4) Written and directed by Tom Hanks, starring Tom Everett Scott and Liv Tyler. There's so much to like about this up-beat movie. For one, that (damned) tune is still stuck in my head! I started counting the number of times the title song was featured, but quit around the fifth or sixth rendition. It's hard not to see this film as a vanity project by Tom Hanks, a view supported by him choosing a lead (Scott) who so closely resembled a younger version of himself... and who at times seemed to be doing a full-bore impression. The story was simple but it worked. I especially appreciated the role of wish fulfillment in the film: Who wouldn't want to travel back in time and be in a Beatles-inspired band in 1964? I sure would! More and more I'm convinced that wish fulfillment is an often-forgotten ingredient that can help make a film work.

The Shootist (1/13/09) TV-AMC (1976 ***) Directed by Don Siegel, screenplay by Miles Hood Swarthout and Scott Hale, based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout, starring John Wayne, Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard and James Stewart (in a cameo role). This was John Wayne's last film; he died in 1979, three years after it was released. Whether he was already feeling the effects of the cancer which would take his life, I don't know. Objectively, The Shootist is not a very good film; it frequently looks, sounds and "feels" like a cheap made-for-TV movie. Hand-held shots were used with little motivation, and the lighting often looked more appropriate for a situation comedy than a western. Wayne was probably the best thing in it, honestly, and I couldn't help but wish his final film performance had been executed in more capable hands. Normally I'd give a film of this quality two stars, but in spite of its faults there were a number of factors (including a reminder of why Ron Howard wisely moved from acting to directing) that kept my interest engaged throughout in spite of myself. I'm certainly not sorry I watched it, and I imagine others might want to watch it for reasons similar to my own. So long, Duke. They sure don't make 'em like you anymore.

Smile (1/15/09) Netflix (1975 ***) Directed by Michael Ritchie, written by Jerry Belson, starring Bruce Dern and Barbara Feldon, with Melanie Griffith, Annette O'Toole, Eric Shea and Joan Prather. The title song, written by Charlie Chaplin and sung by Nat King Cole, set the tone for this film about the pageantry behind the pageantry of the California Regional "Young American Miss" competition. Is the pageant a celebration of American ideals"¦ or tits and ass? Any film made the same year as the fall of Saigon must be expected to contain a healthy dose of cynicism mixed with longing, and this film sure delivers. It's nominally an ensemble film, with Dern and Prather's characters in the primary POV roles. I genuinely liked many individual scenes, like Eric Shea's (you may remember him as the young boy in The Poseidon Adventure) attempt to look wholesome and innocent after getting caught snapping Polaroids of the girl's dressing room. I must admit, that scene made quite an impression on me when I first saw it as a young teen. However, as much as I liked parts of the film, the script meandered and the whole film felt uneven, with a number of slow stretches and scenes. As I watched, I frequently found myself wondering what the movie was really about. In the end, I realized it was mostly about disappointment, a very appropriate sentiment for the time in which it was made.

Two for the Road (1/17/09) TV-FMC (1967 **) Directed by Stanley Donen, written by Frederic Raphael, starring Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney. This movie was well written, acted and directed, but the subject matter (a young couple's relationship disintegrates to bickering, infidelity and more bickering over a 10-year span) made me uncomfortable. I didn't "enjoy" this film any more than I would have enjoyed watching married friends having a fight in public. It made me wonder: Who this film was made for? Was its intended audience all those married people in 1967 trapped in joyless marriages, wanting to see their lives reflected in film? If so, count me out. On a more positive note: Instead of presenting the story chronologically, the film was structured (using multiple road trips across France as its unifying element) in a fractured time fashion, jumping back and forth to different years. The couple's relationship provided the structure. It was undoubtedly ahead of its time, a forerunner to films made 30 years later like Pulp Fiction.

Bolt (3-D) (1/20/09) DWA Screening (2008 ***1/2) Directed by Byron Howard and Chris Williams, screenplay by Dan Fogelman and Chris Williams, featuring the voices of John Travolta and Miley Cyrus. When Bolt was released last year it got pretty positive reviews (85% on Rotten Tomatoes, compared to Kung Fu Panda's 88%) and so I wanted to see it, but my interest was luke-warm at best. The premise -- a delusional TV dog action star is separated from his beloved owner -- sounded like warmed over Buzz Lightyear. I saw artwork for this film years ago when it was called American Dog. I think the TV show element was added later as the story was finessed, but I'm not certain. I was very impressed by this film, not only technically, but also by the writing. I laughed out loud many times. This past weekend my wife and I visited Disneyland (we're annual passholders) and I was reminded of Disney's rich animation legacy. While I liked Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons well enough, I felt like this was Disney's first CG film that really felt like a Disney movie, in the best possible sense. One historical note: Earlier this day (1/20/09) I watched Barack Obama sworn in as the 44th president!

The Hotel New Hampshire (1/21/09) Novel (1981 ****) Written by John Irving. Have you ever had a book it just took you forever to finish? I feel like I've been trying to finish the last 75 pages of this 450-page book since getting back from vacation two weeks ago. Oh well. What a wonderful book, written by one of my favorite authors. As I read -- mostly during my recent cruise -- I kept flashing back to a Christmas break many, many years ago. I was home from college, a sophomore or junior, and I spent much my reading time in my grandfather's old room, just a couple of years after he'd died. It was a very appropriate setting for reading this book, I think. When most people think of The Hotel New Hampshire (or the subsequent movie), they usually focus on the incestuous relationship between the narrator and his sister. While that's fair, it's far from the emotional center of the book, which was a loving portrait of a family who lived in three different "Hotel New Hampshires." Each member of the Berry family was a fully-realized, memorable individual -- I loved that Irving hit the ground running, painting the differences between them all from the first pages. Like much of Irving's writing (especially A Prayer for Owen Meaney and The Cider House Rules), this book was very Dickensian in tone and scope, and that is part of its charm. I find something quite comforting in the literary tradition of following rich characters as they trace the trajectory of their lives. The end result is so satisfying. In this case I read the final pages (finishing it during my lunch hour) with a tear in my eye, ending the book grateful for (and richer for) the experience.

Father Goose (1/21/09) TV-TCM (1964 **1/2) Directed by Ralph Nelson, screenplay by S.H. Barnett & Peter Stone, starring Cary Grant and Leslie Caron. In this light-hearted romp, Grant plays an alcoholic coerced into manning an island outpost in the South Pacific during WWII. His solitude is interrupted by a teacher (Caron) and her seven young female students. This film was released the year I was born; I don't believe I've watched it all the way through since I was very young, maybe eleven or twelve. However, during the early days of cable TV (in the early 1980's) I swear Father Goose played virtually every day on TBS. I never thought much of it -- it seemed innocuous enough, sharing its comedic roots with Mister Roberts (1955), Operation Petticoat (1959) and the TV show McHale's Navy (1962-66). Father Goose is what my wife kindly describes as "of an era." I was surprised the film's screenplay won the Academy Award in 1965, and it made me wonder what other films were eligible for competition that year. This was Cary Grant's second to last film; He closed his career with Walk Don't Run (a film I've never seen) in 1966.

Bombshell (1/24/09) TV-TCM (1933 **1/2) Directed by Victor Fleming, starring Jean Harlow, Frank Morgan and Lee Tracy as Space Hanlon. Who ever heard of anybody named "Space," anyhow? Bombshell's apparent mission was to satirize Harlow and other stars of the era who had a lot of hangers-on and deadbeat relatives. Poor them. Much of the dialogue was yelled instead of spoken, and BOY DID THAT GET GRATING! Not too long ago I had a similar problem with Libeled Lady (1936), which also featured Harlow. It must have been a trend of the times and a staple of screwball comedies. I'm not sorry I watched this movie, though I hoped it would be better. My #1 complaint story-wise, was that Harlow's character started out smart, but late in the film (in service of the plot) took a sudden turn for the dumb.

Slumdog Millionaire (1/25/09) Glendale Americana (2008 ****) Directed by Danny Boyle, starring Dev Patel and Freida Pinto. I was absolutely ashamed when they recently announced the five nominees for Best Film that I'd seen none of them. And here I am, some kind of fancy movie-reviewing dude. They're going to ask me to turn in my special internet critic hat and card! Every indication is that Slumdog Millionaire is the odds-on favorite to take home the big prize on February 22nd. It's certainly the best picture I've seen in a long time. What I think really makes this film work is its near-perfect mix of: (1) the familiar; (2) the exotic; and (3) the clever. Who doesn't want a yearning for love that began in childhood to be satisfied? Who doesn't want an underdog to succeed against all odds? This was a smart, heartfelt film, and it probably deserves to win. It wasn't particularly deep, but in the race for Best Picture that's always been a forgivable sin. I haven't seen the other four nominees -- yet -- so I can't say for certain, but I won't be surprised one bit if Slumdog Millionaire wins. Yes, kids, that's Slumdog Millionaire. Ask for it by name.

Woody Allen: A Life in Film (1/25/09) TV-TCM (2002 ***1/2) Directed by Richard Schickel. For a Woody Allen fan like me, this documentary was something of a dream come true. The premise was simplicity itself: Proceeding chronologically, Woody Allen talked about his films (not so much his life), and he did so in what appeared to be a humble, honest fashion. Very sweet. I saw him speak a few years ago before a screening of Match Point (2005), and he was similarly endearing. This documentary wasn't quite exhaustive; a number of films were skipped over, and that was a little disappointing. Seriously, I'm a big enough fan I would have gladly watched a version three times as long. I also wished the film had been made more recently, so it could have included some of his more recent work, but I suppose that's kind of a silly thing to wish for. Woody finished his discussion with Hollywood Ending (2002), not one of my favorite films, though according to the interview he considered it a success. It wouldn't surprise me at all if I learned this documentary was made in connection with the publicity for that film.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (1/27/09) DWA Screening (2008 ****) Directed by David Fincher, screenplay by Eric Roth, starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. There have been many comparisons between this film and Forrest Gump (1994), especially since Eric Roth wrote the screenplays for both. If you want to make that comparison, go ahead. As characters, Button and Gump (doesn't that sound like a burlesque comedy duo?) had southern drawls and were oddly passive emotionally. This film was undoubtedly less commercial and slightly more mature than Forrest Gump, but that sophistication only went so far. If you want to make comparisons, I personally thought it reminded me a hell of a lot more of the novel The Time Traveler's Wife, in that it portrayed a love between a man and a woman taking place under unique temporal circumstances. I was certainly emotionally moved (some may say manipulated) by Benjamin Button, and I left the screening room with a tear in my eye and a sniffle in my nose, thinking about my own mortality and that of my loved ones. Now for the big question: Is it Oscar-worthy? While I gave both this film and Slumdog Millionaire four stars, I still think Slumdog will take home the Oscar.

Gerry (1/28/09) TV-IFC (2002 *1/2) Directed by Gus Van Sant, starring Casey Affleck and Matt Damon. What's it like to get lost in the desert without food or water, to stumble stupidly into a life-threatening situation? In other words, what's it like to (as the kids say) "fuck up royally?" In the movie, the act of fucking up is frequently referred to as a "Gerry," which, by a strange coincidence, is also the name of both main characters. According to imdb.com, this 100-minute movie was composed of exactly 100 shots. I didn't know that when I watched the film, but it explains its pace, which was sometimes almost unbearable. This movie falls soundly into the "not for everybody" category. I'd be hard-pressed to recommend it to anyone for reasons other than academic. Funny thing is, I'd wanted to watch it since I first heard of the premise; there was something in it intrigued me. Was I disappointed? Not exactly. I wanted to see it through, but I also wanted it to end.

The Nutty Professor (1963) (1/29/09) TV-TMC (1963 ***1/4) Directed by Jerry Lewis, screenplay by Jerry Lewis and Bill Richmond, starring Jerry Lewis and Stella Stevens. I remember seeing this movie on TV several times when I was a kid. It's very possible that the last time I watched it I might have still been in single digits, which is probably the perfect age to watch a Jerry Lewis movie. Though the movie was made up largely of physical humor set pieces (e.g. Jerry Lewis goes to Vic Tanny), I still recall being moved during Lewis' final on-stage transformation from Buddy Love back to Professor Kelp. His speech about "liking yourself" might have been trite, but as a child it spoke to me. As an adult, not so much, but I appreciated Lewis' attempt to turn his own brand of comedy into something heartfelt.

The Poseidon Adventure (1972) (1/29/09) TV-FMC (1972 ***1/4) Directed by Ronald Neame, produced by Irwin Allen, starring Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine and a star-studded cast. I have really been taking a lot of walks down memory lane lately. I saw this movie when it was first released and I begged my mother to take me to it a second time. I completely identified with the little boy played by Eric Shea. As I watched it, 36 years later, I still felt occasional echoes of that feeling of connection. I'm embarrassed to admit it, but he's still the character I identify with the most. The Irwin Allen production values reminded me of made-for-TV movies of the mid-1970's, like a very special episode of The Love Boat. Still, there was something compelling about the film, even if the entire plot really consisted of a small group of people getting from point A to B to C to D before the rising waters caught up to them.

Back to School (1/31/09) AT&T Video On Demand (1986 ***1/4) Directed by Alan Metter, starring Rodney Dangerfield. Clothing raconteur Thornton Melon wants to reconnect with his son, and so he goes"¦ c'mon, are you really going to make me write it? Talk about high concept comedy! I hadn't watched this film since sometime in the early 1990's, though I've noticed it playing frequently on Comedy Central recently. Back to School was made in the irreverent comedy tradition of Animal House (1978), Meatballs (1979), and Caddyshack (1980) and holds up surprisingly well. On an intellectual level -- not necessarily the best level on which to appreciate this movie -- it's interesting that Dangerfield (who was well into his 60's when he made this film) had the youth appeal he did. But there was something undeniably likable about him, and the movie wouldn't have worked if he hadn't. In addition to Dangerfield, the film had a strong supporting cast, including Sally Kellerman, Ned Beatty, Burt Young, Sam Kinison and a young and wacky Robert Downey Jr. The film also featured one of Danny Elfman's first soundtracks, coming shortly after Pee Wee's Big Adventure (1985), and he and Oingo Boingo even made a brief cameo appearance.

February

Doubt (2/4/09) DWA Screening (2008 ***1/2) Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams. Set in 1964, Doubt is about the suspicions of a Catholic school principal (Streep) over the relationship between a priest (Hoffman) and a black 8th grade boy. Shanley based this film on his play, and like many films based on plays, it shows at times. That is not necessarily a bad thing. I had suspected this was his first directorial effort (his use of "Dutch" camera angles was a little too obvious), but I was wrong. Way back in 1990 he directed (and wrote) Joe Versus the Volcano! The three actors I mentioned have all been nominated for Academy Awards. Though I didn't think Amy Adams had much to work with in her supporting role, Streep and Hoffman gave impressive, nuanced performances.

Milk (2/10/09) DWA Screening (2008 ***1/2) Directed by Gus Van Sant, starring Sean Penn, Josh Brolin and James Franco. I wasn't familiar with the story of Harvey Milk, the first outwardly gay man elected to public office, then later assassinated. The story was an inspirational one, about standing up for what's right even in the face of hatred and bigotry. I was quite moved by the film, and much of that is due to Penn's superb acting, for which he is nominated; I firmly believe he is one of our greatest living actors. Others have written about the narration device used throughout the film, and while I agree it seemed like a lazy way to convey certain information, I can also imagine the film probably worked better with it than without it.

Cirque du Soleil: Love (2/14/09) Mirage Casino, Las Vegas (2009 ****) I have my wife to thank for booking tickets months back in October(!) so that we could see Love on Valentine's Day. I had previously seen two other Cirque du Soleil shows: Zumanity and Mystere, but nothing could have prepared me for how absolutely blown away I was by Love. It took everything you know (and, yes, love) about The Beatles and passed it through the prism of Cirque du Soleil, creating something entirely new. As I watched the spectacle unfold, I reflected on a couple of different things: (1) It's still impressive how The Beatles managed to cover such a wide cultural spectrum from 1964 to 1970. Granted, much of that was the spirit of the times, but still"¦ (2) The techniques and effects used in the show were jaw-dropping amazing and executed at a level I don't think I've ever seen before. I genuinely hope I get a chance to see this show again someday.

Cirque du Soleil: O (2/15/09) Bellagio Casino, Las Vegas (2009 ****) There was no way O could top Love, which we'd seen the night before, but it definitely did its best to try. O is Cirque du Soleil's tribute to water, and it utilizes a water stage that would be difficult to describe. We actually had front-row, "wet" seats, which interjected an element of danger. As with any of the Cirque shows, much of it was weird, some of it was transcendent, and there were a few feats of physical daring that made us gulp. The highlight for me was that at one point I actually got to become part of the show! Yes, that's right, for a duration of approximately sixty seconds, I was on stage as part of the evening's entertainment. Granted, my limited appearance involved dancing with a clown dressed as a sailor, but according to my wife I performed quite admirably.

Penn & Teller (2/16/09) Rio Casino, Las Vegas (2009 ***) My wife and I have enjoyed Penn & Teller for years. Hell, I even saw their Arthur Penn directed film, Penn & Teller Get Killed, way back in 1989, but neither of us had ever seen them live. We didn't have tickets for our third day into the President's Day weekend, so we walked through lightly falling rain to the Tix 4 Tonight half price tickets box office and bought two vouchers for P & T's 9 o'clock show at the Rio. There was actually a pre-show, featuring lively jazz piano and bass. Audience members were asked to go up on stage and sign an envelope (which was used later in the act), and so we did. As we stood in line I noticed the man playing the upright bass was Penn Jillette himself. That was weird, but cool. I wish I could say I liked the show more. My enjoyment might have been greater if our seats had been closer than the mezzanine. The evening's performance was a little short too, with no encore, running slightly longer than an hour. Jillette explained at the start of the show that they were dipping into some very old material, and indeed I had previously seen a couple of the pieces on TV a long time ago. They also performed a trick in which they simulated the burning of an American Flag, a piece I remembered as a story point on a 2004 episode of The West Wing. All in all, they're still Penn & Teller, and they're still terrific, but I was a little disappointed.

The Hotel New Hampshire (2/18/09) Netflix (1984 **) Directed by Tony Richardson, starring Rob Lowe, Jodie Foster and Beau Bridges, based on the novel by John Irving. Watching this for the first time in a couple of decades, I was surprised how awkwardly it was assembled. Having just re-read the wonderful novel on which it's based, I know much of the trouble lay in trying to compress a story of that scope into a watchable length. Many of the edits made me suspect a lot of material was left out. Perhaps at some point there was a less-rushed five-hour version of this film that may not have necessarily been better. It's also worth noting that much of Irving's lyrical writing did not (and does not) translate particularly well to the literal screen. Years ago I read Irving's My Movie Business: A Memoir, about his disappointing experiences with others adapting his work, which ultimately lead to him winning the Academy Award for his screenplay for The Cider House Rules. I have that memoir in a box in my storage unit somewhere. Perhaps I should dig it out and give it another read.

Who Gets to Call it Art? (2/18/09) TV-Sundance (2006 ***) Directed by Peter Rosen. The subject of this documentary was Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Henry Geldzahler, who passed away in 2004. It was remarkable the extent to which a single individual shaped the art world from the abstract impressionists of the 1950's, through the Pop Art explosion of the 1960's and beyond. At one point Geldzahler and Andy Warhol were best friends, calling each other multiple times a day.

Mother, Jugs & Speed (2/18/09) FX-MOV (1976 **1/2) Directed by Peter Yates, starring Bill Cosby, Raquel Welch and Harvey Keitel. This was an odd pick for me; please forgive me. I absolutely remember watching this film as the second or third feature at an Omaha Drive-In in the late 1970's, and that nostalgia is what motivated me to record it. I would argue that Mother, Jugs and Speed might best be viewed from the front seat of a car. It's not a terrible film; Yate's direction was solid, and most of the actors looked like they were trying their best, but unfortunately they were unable to elevate the movie beyond the limitations of its screenplay. Also, it required a degree of willing disbelief. In particular, it was a challenge to believe the romantic relationship between the statuesque (Amazonian) Raquel Welch and the fresh-faced, but criminally height-challenged, Harvey Keitel.

Bullets or Ballots (2/19/09) FX-MOV (1936 ***1/4) Directed by William Keighley, starring Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart and Joan Blondell. Robinson played a former police detective going deep undercover to crack a syndicate. There is much joy in watching an old movie you've never seen before and having it turn out to be a real gem. Such was the case of the awkwardly titled Bullets or Ballots. This film definitely gave me a new respect for Robinson as an actor and as a star. He had an inescapable presence; whenever he was on the screen I couldn't look away. It was also great fun seeing Bogart in one of his early "thug" roles, and there was plenty of evidence he was a star in the making. His character was a little on the one-note side, but he did a nice job with what he had to work with.

Primary (2/19/09) TV-Sundance (1960 ***) Directed by Robert Drew. This documentary followed John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey during the 1960 primary in Wisconsin. It was an interesting, if not quite fascinating, look behind the scenes in American politics. Much has been written about how the 1960 election represented a turning point, a modernization of politics, and that was well represented here. I'm somewhat spoiled by fifty years of advancements in documentary techniques, so I couldn't quite turn a blind eye to the film's crude production values. However, some of the footage (like following JFK through a crowd and onto a stage) was engrossing. It's impossible to ignore the parallels between this film and our recent election, and it's clear Obama and Kennedy share a similar charisma. One thought occurred to me as I watched: I would love to see Aaron Sorkin create a movie based on a fictionalized version of politics in this era. I think it would not only be fascinating but also quite relevant to a contemporary audience.

The Seven Year Itch (2/20/09) TV-FMC (1955 ***1/2) Directed by Billy Wilder, starring Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell. Film historians can easily point to this film as the one that made Marilyn a star. She positively radiated her unique blend of sex appeal and innocence through every second she was onscreen. Who could possibly deny the iconic power of the subway air blowing up her skirt? Ewell had previously performed this role on Broadway, and his performance was certainly solid. His career never quite took off, perhaps because Jack Lemmon made Ewell somewhat redundant. On a weird/personal note, I had the strangest sensation as I watched this film: I felt as if I'd lived it! I kept getting sense memories: New York in the summer, the window air conditioner cooling my skin, holding the highballs Ewell mixed. I don't believe in past lives, really, but I'm not sure how else to explain it.

Gold Diggers of 1933 (2/20/09) TV-FMC (1933 **1/2) Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, starring Joan Blondell, Dick Powell and Ginger Rogers, dance direction by Busby Berkeley. Set during the fourth year of the depression, this movie is somehow all the more appropriate for the economically troubled times in which we live. Rogers was arguably the biggest star to come out of this film, but every time she appeared she seemed to be shuffled off-screen. My wife suggested she may have made the film for contractual reasons. The film ended with an upbeat little number called "The Forgotten Man" about WWI vets who had traded the front lines for bread lines. What a downer that was. 1933 audiences seeking escapist entertainment undoubtedly left the theater more depressed than when they'd entered!

Taken (2/21/09) Glendale Mann 10 (2009 ***) Directed by Pierre Morel, starring Liam Neeson, screenplay by Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen. Besson also wrote the Transporter series as well as writing and directing The Fifth Element (1997) and La Femme Nikita (1990). Taken didn't disappoint, but it did seem like warmed-over Bourne Identity. The best thing the story had going for it was a strong, clear motivation for its protagonist: The safe return of his teenage daughter. Liam Neeson was solid, but not always believable, as the ass-kicking lead. I never thought I'd write these words: Liam Neeson is no Matt Damon.

Frost/Nixon (2/23/09) DWA Screening (2008 ***) Directed by Ron Howard, screenplay by Peter Morgan (based on his play), starring Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, with a supporting cast of highly recognizable faces. This film described a minor chapter in the history of America, a time when a moment was created by the collision of media and politics. I have enjoyed Ron Howard's films in the past, but even in spite of its Oscar nomination this past year, I can't help but feel this material may have been more powerful in the hands of a different director, with a more obscure cast. Would that film have been as accessible or commercial? Probably not.

American Scary (2/24/09) Netflix (2004 ***) Directed by John E. Hudgens. You would never guess it from the title, but this low-budget documentary is a look into the world of the late-night Horror Hosts. I have fond childhood memories watching Dr. San Guinary on Omaha's KMTV in the early 1970's. Sadly, my favorite host wasn't included in this documentary, but that's not particularly surprising, since there were so many spread out all over the country. One interesting thing I learned from American Scary was that Ohio turned out to be the virtual horror host epicenter. Who knew? Undoubtedly this documentary would have benefited from a larger budget and better production values, but I enjoyed it enough and learned enough from it to recommend it to anyone who has an interest in its subject.

Coraline (3D) (2/26/09) DWA Screening (2009 ****) Directed by Henry Selick, based on the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman. I was just about as blown-away by this film as I think is possible. This is Selick's best work yet and the folks at Laika should be very proud of what they accomplished. Coraline shows that having the same person as both Production Designer and Director can result in something amazing, especially if that someone is Henry Selick. This film was a visual treat from beginning to end, and it absolutely took me to places I had never been while sitting in a theater. Much of the stop-motion animation was jaw-droppingly good. The 3-D effect was flawlessly executed and while it wasn't obtrusive, it definitely contributed to my experience. The word "immersion" gets bandied about a lot in all the hype you read about 3-D, but here it is very apropos. I sincerely hope Coraline is remembered come Oscar time 2010; it was just that good. Finally, I'd like to give a special shout-out to Robert Ducey, a former co-worker who was Animation Technical Director on the film. Congratulations, Rob!

March

Civil War (Marvel Comics) (3/1/09) Graphic Novel (2007 **) Written by Mark Millar, illustrated by Steve McNiven. When am I ever going to learn that event comics (regardless of DC or Marvel) end up disappointing about 50% of the time? And Civil War was definitely a letdown. The premise seemed interesting, with the Marvel universe evenly split, its sides led by Iron Man and Captain America. The Republican / Democrat political parallels were obvious enough, and that may have been compelling, but the story never got off the ground. There were also serious characterization problems, with Reed Richards probably suffering the most. Also, what was up with Spider-Man just giving up his secret identity like that? What the hell was that about? I suspect somewhere there's a corkboard with index cards describing potential story points for future "event" series. Each year a few more of those cards get taken down. Who knows what horrors they have in store for us in the future?

Georgy Girl (3/4/09) TV-TMC (1966 **) Directed by Silvio Narizzano, starring Lynn Redgrave, Alan Bates, James Mason and Charlotte Rampling. In all honesty, I might have enjoyed this film more had it been closed captioned for the hearing impaired like me. I had seen it once before, probably in my early twenties when I rented a lot of old videos. The film didn't really engage me on any level, and that is a shame. Redgrave was adorable and Bates was charming in his own zany way, but that wasn't enough. The film's resolution was especially suspect, representing an antiquated point of view. This was expressed quite clearly in the twisted alternate lyrics to the familiar Seekers' song that played over the end credits: "Who needs a perfect lover when all you ever wanted was to be a mother? At least he's a millionaire!"

Teen Titans: Year One (3/5/09) Graphic Novel (2008 ***1/4) Written by Amy Wolfram, illustrated by Karl Kerschl. I've made no secret that it was the original run of The Teen Titans that started me down the dark path of collecting comic books. You should appreciate, then, that I have a special fondness for those original characters: Robin, Kid Flash, Aqualad, Wonder Girl and Speedy. The Teen Titans at its best was stories about teen heroes, meant to be read by teens and their younger siblings. I think Wolfram's writing was a little bit too simplified at times; as an adult I would have appreciated meatier storytelling. Considering I'm not her target demographic, though, I don't think I can fault her too much on that. I did appreciate how artfully she made the five characters individuals, clearly distinct from one another. Karl Kerschl's drawings were a good match for Wolfram's words and he did a wonderful job of capturing the essence of the characters graphically, especially the original fish-out-of-water boy, Aqualad. I also must say his version of Batman was one of the best I've ever seen: Wholly accessible for all ages, while still sneaking in just a hint of Frank Miller's Dark Knight.

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (3/6/09) TV-TMC (1969 **) Directed by Paul Mazursky, written by Mazursky and Larry Tucker, starring (in titular order): Robert Culp, Natalie Wood, Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon. This film was arguably about two couples exploring each other and the limits of free love. This was a pretty big deal in 1969. Writing from the perspective of 2009, I found this film to be talky, exploitative and generally annoying most of the time. I had difficulty relating to any of the main characters because each was superficial and incomplete in their own way. The climax of the film was that "cover of the video" moment when they're all in bed together, but the high-point of the film for me was hearing Jackie DeShannon sing "What the World Needs Now Is Love" over the end credits. Natalie Wood and Dyan Cannon running around in their underwear came in second.

The Goodbye Girl (3/6/09) TV-TMC (1977 ***1/2) Directed by Herbert Ross, screenplay by Neil Simon, starring Marsha Mason and Richard Dreyfuss. The cynic in me suspects that Neil Simon wanted to repeat his earlier success with The Odd Couple, and so he wrote The Goodbye Girl, also about two people forced by circumstance to share an apartment. This was a very charming, very romantic movie. Simon wrote a lot of brilliant lines and the growth of the characters was natural and their attraction was understandable. The Goodbye Girl was nominated for best picture, but lost to Annie Hall. Dreyfuss won best actor for his role, and deservedly so. The tears welling up in his eyes in his dressing room after playing "the second greatest role in the history of the English speaking theater like a double order of fresh California fruit salad" probably clinched the win.

Watchmen (3/7/09) Glendale Mann 4 (2009 ***1/2) Directed by Zack Snyder. I bought and read the original 12-issue Watchmen miniseries in 1985. Much has been written about this movie and how true it remained to the source material. Fans -- I've seen the word "fanboy" used more than a few times -- and critics have had mixed reactions, as have I. I positively loved the credit sequence in which backstory elements from the history of the Watchmen universe played out in slow-motion against Bob Dylan singing "The Times They Are A-Changin'." There were many times throughout the movie when I saw Dave Gibbons' original comic panels come alive, but the action had a lot of heat as well; Snyder did a solid job as director. The ending was unsatisfying, but it was unsatisfying in exactly the same way as the one in Alan Moore's story.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (3/7/09) TV-FMC (1951 ****) Directed by Robert Wise. "Science Fiction Double Feature," the opening song from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) began with the line: "Michael Rennie was ill the day the earth stood still, but he told us where we stand." That song must be burned into my brain, because it kept flowing into my consciousness as I watched what is arguably one of the best sci-fi of the 1950's. Rennie was perfect as Klaatu, who wasn't so much "ill" as suffering from lead poisoning thanks to a trigger-happy army infantryman. Much of the creative success of the film was due to Robert Wise's steady hand as director. He never treated the story material with anything less than respect, nor did he call attention to himself. Wise, of course, went on to direct West Side Story and The Sound of Music with the same invisible brilliance. I haven't seen the 2008 Keanu Reeves remake, though after watching the original again I can't imagine the motivation for making it.

The Parent Trap (3/8/09) TV-TCM (1961 ***1/2) Directed and written by David Swift, based on the screenplay by Erich Kastner, starring Hayley Mills (and Hayley Mills!), Maureen O'Hara and Brian Keith. "Let's get together, yeah, yeah, yeah!" I was unexpectedly charmed -- and even touched -- by this film far more than I expected to be. When Disney did family-friendly live action right, they really nailed it. Though much of the film was an extended visual effects split-screen gag with Mills playing twins, there was something fundamentally interesting about two separated twins overcoming obstacles in order to put their family back together. I think the need for "family" can be a very compelling motivator indeed.

Blue Hawaii (3/8/09) TV-TCM (1961 **1/2) Directed by Norman Taurog, starring Elvis Presley and Joan Blackman, with Angela Lansbury as Elvis' mom. God only knows when I last watched an Elvis movie. My grandmother was a huge fan and so growing up I probably watched all of them at one point or another. It's just too bad that none of them were particularly good films. In this one, Presley played an army veteran torn between working at his father's pineapple business and working as a tour guide. The storyline simply wasn't very interesting and the dozen or so songs chosen were largely forgettable

The Secret Garden (3/9/09) TV-TCM (1949 ***) Directed by Fred M. Wilcox, starring Margaret O'Brien and Dean Stockwell. Having not read the original book nor seen any version of this film, I was unfamiliar with the storyline. I enjoyed it quite a bit and was unprepared for (mild spoiler alert) a sudden transition from black and white to Technicolor that occurred at about the two-thirds point. It's not a great film on the order of Citizen Kane or Casablanca, but it's certainly a solid classic worth seeing. For fans of Stockwell's later work like the TV series Quantum Leap, it was also especially amusing seeing him at such a young age.

Alfie (3/9/09) TV-TCM (1966 **1/2) Directed by Lewis Gilbert, screenplay by Bill Naughton (based on his play), starring Michael Caine. My wife hated this film, mostly because the title character (Caine) was at best a cad and at worst a borderline sociopath. Particularly bothersome to her was Alfie's tendency to call the individual women in his life "it," which recalled Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs ("It puts the lotion on its skin..."). Perhaps it's because I'm a man, or perhaps because of Caine's remarkable performance, I was able to look past how despicable Alfie was and appreciate what Naughton and Gilbert and Caine were able to accomplish. Regardless of my wife's feelings on the matter, I must admit I felt a bit of sympathy for Alfie, who underwent a definite metamorphosis by story's end.

The Blue Dahlia (3/9/09) TV-TCM (1946 ***) Directed by George Marshall, screenplay by Raymond Chandler, starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, featuring William Bendix and Hugh Beaumont. With a screenwriting pedigree like the one held by Chandler, you'd expect The Blue Dahlia to be thoroughly compelling detective noir, and it was mostly satisfying on that level. My one complaint was that the "rules" of detection fiction would normally dictate that the main character (Ladd) be the one to ultimately put the pieces together and reveal the identity of the killer. That didn't happen here, which was a surprise and a bit of a let-down.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (3/15/09) TV-TCM (1971 ***1/4) Directed by Robert Stevenson, based on the book by Mary Norton, starring Angela Lansbury and David Tomlinson. I loved this film as a kid (at one point I taught myself to play its song "The Age of Not Believing" on the piano), and I think it still holds up. As I remarked recently in my review of The Parent Trap, when Disney did family-oriented comedy well, they did it very well. Robert Stevenson, who's not exactly a household name, directed many of Disney's live action classics, including: Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959), The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), Mary Poppins (1964) and The Love Bug (1968). Bedknobs and Broomsticks also featured a sequence of wonderful classic animation, a soccer match between animals on the magical Isle of Naboomboo, which was fun to watch even if it didn't exactly advance the plot. The final climax sequence, in which a group of no-good Nazis got their asses handed to them by magically-animated ancient battle armor, was a perfect ending for a fun film.

Watchmen (3/15/09) Glendale Mann 4 (2009 ***1/2) Directed by Zack Snyder. I didn't originally intend to watch Watchmen a second time, but in the week following my first viewing, I was so haunted by the film's imagery I wanted to experience it again. In the meantime, I must have watched the title sequence ("The Times They Are A-Changin'") a half-dozen times on the internet. My other reason for going again was I wanted to share the movie with my wife. She enjoyed it, as I suspected she would since she liked Sin City and 300. Not surprisingly, she was a bit disappointed by the "French" ending.

The Devil's Dictionary (3/16/09) Humor (1906 ***) Written by Ambrose Bierce. One summer many years ago when I was still an undergraduate student, I stumbled across a copy of this book in the library. For the life of me, I'm not sure why I checked it out and read it, but I remember liking it very much. This time around, I re-read it over a fairly long stretch of time, as I kept it in my car and used it to occupy my attention while waiting for various doctor's appointments and the like. The Devil's Dictionary served this purpose well, as I could read a little at a time. Because of the Victorian-era language Bierce used, this book may not be for everyone. I confess sometimes the humor of the various definitions may have been lost on me due to its style. My favorite line from the entire book can be found in the book's definition of homicide: "There are four kinds of homicide: felonious, excusable, justifiable and praiseworthy."

Seven Soldiers of Victory, Vol. 1 (3/17/09) Graphic Novel (2006 **1/2) Written by Grant Morrison, illustrated by various artists. I'm not completely sure I understand the concept, but let me attempt to explain it: Morrison was given carte blanche to make over the following minor characters from the DC universe: Zatanna, The Shining Knight, The Guardian and Klarion the Witch Boy. This volume represented the first seven chapters in what was clearly a project immense in scope. Starting out individually, we are introduced or re-introduced to these "heroes," with the promise that their stories will eventually intersect. While I appreciated the ambition, I wasn't particularly moved to seek out more volumes in the series.

The Absent-Minded Professor (3/18/09) TV-TCM (1961 ***1/4) Directed by Robert Stevenson, starring Fred MacMurray, Nancy Olsen, Keenan Wynn and Tommy Kirk. MacMurray is just too darn likable as Ned Brainard, the Medfield professor who discovers Flubber (Flying Rubber). What's not to like about this high-concept family-friendly live-action Disney film? Keenan Wynn in particular was a stand-out. They don't make gravel-voiced comic villains like that anymore. One fun fact: The film is set at fictional Medfield College, the same institution Dexter Riley (Kurt Russell) will attend years later in The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969).

Son of Flubber (3/19/09) TV-TCM (1963 **1/2) Directed by Robert Stevenson, starring Fred MacMurray, Nancy Olsen, Keenan Wynn and Tommy Kirk. This mildly disappointing sequel to The Absent-Minded Professor was just a lot of warmed-over hash, and it showed. In the first film, Professor Brainard (MacMurray) was motivated by winning back the hand of his fiancée. This time around the stakes simply weren't as high (the Brainard's are broke until the U.S. Government ponies up the Flubber dough), and it cost the film a lot of energy. On another note, while watching this film I realized that much of the inspiration for Back to the Future's Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) came from MacMurray's character, including the home laboratory and his pet dog assistant.

Cassandra's Dream (3/21/09) Netflix (2008 ***) Written and directed by Woody Allen. Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell play brothers asked by their uncle (Tom Wilkinson) to commit a murder. The title suggests Greek tragedy, and there's plenty to be found in this story. McGregor and Farrell were both wonderful and natural. I'm a longtime Woody Allen fan and this movie is one of his best-looking and tightest in years. In particular his dialogue seemed free of the kind of tics I normally associate with his writing, and it never called attention to itself. I wanted to like the film better than I ultimately did. My mild recommendation is mostly a reflection of the film's final ten to fifteen minutes, which was disappointing.

Coraline: The Graphic Novel (3/22/09) Graphic Novel (2008 ***1/2) written by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by P. Craig Russell. With the amazing visuals of the Henry Selick Laika animated film still so fresh in my mind, it was very interesting to see a completely different visual interpretation of the same material. And yet it worked, in a very different way. Russell is an accomplished draftsman, and the level of realism in his drawing gave the impression of a parallel universe version of the tale. Reading the graphic novelization, Gaiman's word choices were more pronounced, and I was frequently reminded that the original story had been intended for children. I originally fell in love with Gaiman's writing because of his Sandman stories, and there were traces of that throughout. Sometimes, however, it did feel I was reading a simulation of a classic bedtime story, but that is probably the price I must pay for living in a postmodern age.

Monsters vs. Aliens 3-D (3/22/08) DWA Crew & Family Screening, Gibson Amphitheater, Universal Studios (2009 ***1/2) Directed by Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon. Jeffrey Katzenberg prefaced the screening by saying that our group of about 2,800 crew members and their families was likely the largest audience ever to see a digital 3D film. I'm anything but objective about this film; I worked as a character technical director on B.O.B. (voiced by Seth Rogen) for two challenging, sometimes stressful, years. My wife lovingly refers to B.O.B. as the third person in our marriage for that time. I'm quite proud of how good he looks in the final film, and he's undoubtedly my greatest achievement professionally. The film itself isn't bad either, even if the story is a bit simple. At first I felt having a female protagonist (Susan/Ginormica, voiced by Reese Witherspoon) was a real gamble, but over time I've definitely warmed to the idea and to the film's "girl empowerment" message, and hopefully filmgoers will as well. On a certain level, any film called Monsters vs. Aliens (unless it's a real dog) should be more or less review-proof. It's not exactly a film you go into expecting to have to do too much thinking.

It Happens Every Spring (3/23/09) TV-TCM (1948 ***) Directed by Lloyd Bacon, starring Ray Milland and Jean Peters. Milland plays a university professor who accidentally invents a substance that is repelled by wood. Naturally, he uses this invention to become a professional baseball pitcher with a real screwball. It's always a treat for me to run across a good old film I've never seen before, and this one was a lot of fun, even if the ultimate message was that it's okay to cheat. Milland always looks a little creepy to me, and even if he's playing a nice guy I just don't trust him. I'm afraid my impression of him will always be colored by later film choices like Dial M For Murder (1954), X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) and The Thing with Two Heads (1972).

Kotch (3/25/09) TV-TCM (1971 **1/2) Directed by Jack Lemmon (!), screenplay by John Paxton, based on the novel by Katherine Topkins, starring Walter Matthau and Deborah Winters. This was a gentle character study, I suppose, though I spent much of this film wondering where the hell the story was going. I can definitely imagine the story working far better as a novel than as a screenplay. It was consistently distracting watching Matthau, who was in his early sixties at the time it was made -- playing a man in his eighties via a shuffling walk and very fake-looking gray hair color. Jack Lemmon's directing wasn't particularly strong. I wish I knew the circumstances behind this film getting made. The budget was obviously quite low. The whole production had the look of a made-for-TV movie, so I was surprised to see Kotch was nominated for four Oscars. I guess standards have changed since 1971.

Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter (3/26/09) Netflix (2009 **) This "bonus" DVD, which went on sale at the same time as the film's theatrical release, featured the animated short "Tales of the Black Freighter," the faux-documentary "Under the Hood" and the first chapter of the Watchmen "motion comic." It also included "Story Within a Story: The Books of Watchmen," which provided a behind-the-scenes overview of the other features. These short pieces were neither up to the standards nor anywhere near as engaging as the film itself, and so I was disappointed and a little bored. Perhaps they would be more interesting to someone coming to the Watchmen universe totally cold. For me it didn't add any particular appreciation either for the world or its characters. I was particularly let down by "Under the Hood," which had tremendous promise, but suffered from an awkward framing device and an all-to-apparent low budget. As for the DVD's centerpiece, I confess I never really enjoyed the "Black Freighter" story from the original comic book series, and seeing it animated -- and uninterrupted -- didn't make me like it any more.

Great Expectations (3/28/09) Netflix (1998 ***) Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, screenplay by Mitch Glazer, based on the novel by Charles Dickens, starring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow. Cuarón went on to direct Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) and Children of Men (2006). This movie wasn't what I expected. I hate to admit it, but I'm not normally a fan of costume period dramas, and I was at first puzzled, then relieved, to see this was set more or less in the present day. I'm fairly sure I read the original novel in my early twenties, and this movie made me want to read it again. My enjoyment was lessened by Ethan Hawke's character wanting to be with Gwyneth Paltrow in the end despite her spending her life being a real c-word to him.

City of Heroes (3/29/09) Graphic Novel (2005 **) Written by Mark Waid, Troy Hickman and David Nakayama, illustrated by various. This volume collected issues #1-6 of the comic book, based on a massive multiplayer online game. Once again I took a gamble and picked up this book for $7.50 at my favorite used book store. I probably could have chosen better. Effectively watered-down Astro City, City of Heroes occupied my time, but not my imagination. Mark Waid (who wrote the first story-arc in the collection) also wrote Kingdom Come, one of the most important graphic novels of all time. Sadly, this wasn't his best work, and my inner cynic wonders if he wasn't just doing it for the money.

Ghost Town (3/29/09) DVD (2008 ***1/2) Directed by David Koepp, screenplay by Koepp and John Kamps, starring Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear and Tea Leoni. Koepp has some impressive screenwriting credits, including Jurassic Park, Spider-Man, and War of the Worlds. Known best for big-budget thrillers, he'd never directed a romantic fantasy comedy before, but he did an excellent job. I believe Ricky Gervais is probably an acquired taste, especially for American audiences, but it's a taste I happen to have. It's harder than you'd think playing a likable jerk, and Gervais certainly gave a solid performance as a misanthrope forced by fate to listen to annoying ghosts like Greg Kinnear.

The Sunshine Boys (3/31/09) TV-TCM (1975 **1/2) Directed by Herbert Ross, screenplay by Neil Simon, starring Walter Matthau, George Burns and Richard Benjamin. Matthau certainly spent much of his career playing cantankerous (and grumpy) old men, didn't he? He was definitely the star of this show, a Neil Simon movie based on a Neil Simon play. I liked Matthau, but I think I would have preferred a little less of him and a little more George Burns. I didn't enjoy The Sunshine Boys as much as I hoped I would, and the main reason is that it wasn't ultimately about very much. It was an opportunity to watch a broken-up vaudeville team argue with each other, but that's about it. Also, the resolution seemed abrupt and artificial and it left me unsatisfied.

April

Emma (4/4/09) Netflix (1996 ****) Directed by Douglas McGrath, from his screenplay, based on the novel by Jane Austen, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeremy Northam and Toni Collette. Young Miss Paltrow ("Gwyneth's makin' drumsticks!") was adorable and perfectly cast as Emma Woodhouse, a young woman who, through trial and error, learns the hazards of interfering in the romantic affairs of others. I recently wrote that I don't normally go for costume dramas. Maybe that's something I should make more of an effort to get past. It's been years since I last watched this film, but I still thoroughly love Emma. Even though Jane Austen's plot was decidedly "of a period," her novel's messages remain universal. Perhaps I should re-watch Clueless (an uncredited modern adaptation of Emma), just for kicks.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (4/5/09) Netflix (2008 ***1/4) Written and Directed by Woody Allen, starring Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, narrated by Christopher Evan Welch. Normally I wouldn't list the narrator, but in this case the male voice-over narration was so ever-present, he nearly became a character. This was one of Woody Allen's most artistically successful films within the past decade. It's certainly one of his most visually rich, though as I watched I wondered if he set it in Spain mostly so he could share its beauty and spend time there during the film's production. Bardem and Cruz were particularly effective in their roles, and their Latin roots and frequent Spanish dialogue grounded Allen's story in very satisfying way. I was least impressed by Rebecca Hall's performance; "Vicky" was the most blatantly neurotic and Allen-esque character in the film, and Hall never quite managed to make her feel as real as the other characters.

My Favorite Year (4/6/09) TV-TCM (1982 ***) Directed by Richard Benjamin, starring Peter O'Toole, Mark Linn-Baker (best known for his role on Perfect Strangers) and Jessica Harper. The year was 1954, the place was 30 Rock in the heart of Manhattan and the irresponsible and frequently inebriated swashbuckling Alan Swann was guesting on The King Kaiser Comedy Cavalcade. What a great setup, huh? Of course Kaiser and Swann were thinly-veiled doubles for Sid Caesar and Errol Flynn. I truly wanted to like this film more, and I definitely have fond memories of watching it on cable in the mid-1980's, but it unfortunately a near-miss every step along the way. The writing (screenplay by Dennis Palumbo) felt lazy; every opportunity for originality was passed by and Benjy Stone was awfully passive for a nominal protagonist. And yet there was still enough charm and energy for me to give it a mild recommendation. The bottom line: I would love to see someone make a much better movie based on the same premise.

Superman: Doomsday (4/9/09) Netflix (2007 **1/2) Directed by Lauren Montgomery, Bruce Timm and Brandon Vietti. This 75-minute direct-to-video animated feature is a simplified retelling of the 1992/1993 "Death of Superman" comic book event. I've read those comics several times in trade paperback form, though the last time was more than five years ago. The premise was interesting enough to garner (at the time) international press coverage: How would a world accustomed to being saved by the last son of Krypton on a daily basis react to Superman's death? As I watched this watered-down, weakly-written, economically-animated slugfest, I wondered how it would play out as a live-action feature film? As of this writing, the current season of Smallville is working toward an inevitable showdown between Kal-El and Doomsday. Will Metropolis' "red-blue blur" die? If so, what will the impact be?

Jesus Christ Superstar (4/12/09) DVD (1973 ****) Directed by Norman Jewison, based on the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, starring Ted Neeley (Jesus), Carl Anderson (Judas Iscariot) and Yvonne Elliman (Mary Magdalene). My wife and I watched this with some friends at their house on Easter evening, appropriately enough, even if the movie itself ends on Good Friday. The film occupies a special place in my heart; I was eight when my mother took me to see it during its initial release, about six months after Godspell, which I also love. It was kind of a short course in "Comparative Christianity." I love the music in J.C. Superstar and it's impossible for me to resist the urge to sing along. Though I hadn't watched it in over five years, I was very happy to see the film still holds up, even though I frequently found myself telling my wife, who'd never seen it: "Okay, it's about to get weird." Weird or not, it's still amazing, and for reasons both objective and shamelessly sentimental, Jesus Christ Superstar definitely ranks as one of my favorite films of all time.

The Norton Book of Personal Essays (4/13/09) Nonfiction (1997 ***1/4) Edited by Joseph Epstein. This collection was the textbook for a UCLA Extension Personal Essay class taught by Rochelle Shapiro. She assigned a dozen or so essays over the course of the 10-week course and after the class ended I read the remainder on my own. With any anthology you must expect there will be pieces that will speak to you more than others, and that was definitely the case here. For me that was a large part of the experiment. I enjoyed the "sampler platter" approach, learning that I vastly preferred the writing of Truman Capote ("Tangier") to that of Virginia Woolf ("Leslie Stephen"). My favorite essays were ones that presented weighty topics in a form approaching weightlessness. Not being a fan of lyricism, my imagination was most easily captured by essays that were firmly grounded in reality, with elements of the sublime, rather than the other way around. In addition to Capote, I especially enjoyed the following: Winston Churchill ("The Dream"); Annie Dillard ("Living Like Weasels"); Scott Russell Sanders ("The Inheritance of Tools"); and the collection's editor Joseph Epstein ("I Like a Gershwin Tune").

Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (4/13/09) TV-TCM (1964 **) Directed by Robert Aldrich, starring Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland and Joseph Cotten. After the success of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), this was originally meant to reunite Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, but Crawford dropped out at the last minute and was replaced by de Havilland. The degree of exploitation was palpable at times, and Davis demonstrated a level of overacting second to none. The film was a "Southern Gothic," and its lighting design (which irritated me throughout) clearly influenced the TV Horror Soap Dark Shadows. As a fan of that series, I believe the harsh lighting and over-the-top melodrama worked far better on the small screen.

Our Man in Havana (4/13/09) TV-TCM (1959 **1/2) Directed by Carol Reed, screenplay by Graham Greene, based on his novel, starring Alec Guiness, Burl Ives, Maureen O'Hara and Ernie Kovacs. Over Christmas vacation I read and disliked John Le Carre's The Tailor of Panama, which was apparently a tribute of sorts to Greene's novel, though I didn't understand that at the time. Now, having seen this film, I feel as though there's still something I'm not quite getting. Was this film a comedy? If so, its humor was very subtle indeed. As is so often the case, watching the film made me want to read the original source material. Perhaps I will someday.

An American Werewolf in London (4/14/09) Netflix (1981 ***1/4) Written and Directed by John Landis, starring David Naughton, Jenny Agutter and Griffin Dunne. My two favorite lines, for different reasons, are: "Can I have a piece of toast?" and "A naked American man stole my balloons." I first saw An American Werewolf in London in a St. Louis multiplex while my aunt and uncle watched Raiders of the Lost Ark. I was sixteen and something in the film's juicy mix of horror and comedy spoke to me. I especially loved the use of music ("Blue Moon," "Bad Moon Rising," etc.) as a counterpoint to onscreen violence. I also very much enjoyed Griffin Dunne, who my wife and I have been watching lately on TNT's Trust Me, as David's undead friend Jack. Watching the film again as an adult I still enjoyed it, appreciating how it was both a loving tribute and a fine addition to Universal's pantheon of classic movie monsters. However, this time around I was a bit more aware of a certain "flabbiness" in Landis' writing and the limits of Naughton's acting abilities. That said, it's still a film well worth seeing.

Take the Money and Run (4/14/09) TV-TCM (1969 ***) Directed by Woody Allen, written by Allen and Mickey Rose. In this, his directorial debut (unless you count What's Up Tiger Lily?), Woody Allen plays habitual criminal Virgil Starkwell, and Janet Margolin plays his wife. This is not one of my favorite of Allen's comedies. Often the gags (some inspired by Allen's early standup material) overtook the "reality" of the plot. It's mostly interesting because it shows Allen in his early formative years and also because it's one of the earliest "mockumentary" comedies, laying the ground for This is Spinal Tap (1984), Best in Show (2000) and Allen's own Zelig (1983).

Tuesdays With Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life's Greatest Lesson (4/14/09) Nonfiction (1997 ***) Written by Mitch Albom. Sure I cried. Who wouldn't? For the five or six of you who don't know, Morrie Schwartz was Albom's sociology professor at Brandeis University; at graduation, Albom promised to keep in touch, but soon lost contact until he saw Schwartz on Ted Koppel's Nightline. Schwartz had ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) and only a few months left to live. They reconnected and turned a dying man's final weeks into a "final thesis." Cultural phenomenon aside, this was a fast read, something that can be read in a couple of hours. Albom's writing style was clearly deliberate in its simplicity -- at times I felt I were reading a children's book for adults -- and I'm sure this contributed to its popularity.

It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (4/15/09) TV-TCM (1963 **) Directed by Stanley Kramer, starring Spencer Tracy and a dozen of the early 60's comedy's brightest stars, including cameos by Buster Keaton, The Three Stooges, Jack Benny and Jerry Lewis. Jimmy Durante kicks the bucket and tells a group of strangers where $350,000 is buried. Greed overtakes common sense and bedlam ensues. At three hours, this is one looong comedy. Apparently the first cut was over five hours long. When it comes to noisy screaming, I don't believe that longer is necessarily better. I remember this film playing on TV frequently when I was in single digits. My friends thought it was the greatest thing ever, but I just didn't get it. Apparently I still don't. I watched it this time around mostly because I was interested in the cameos, but they were too few and too brief to make the rest of the film worthwhile. Ultimately I was unsatisfied and all the antics just struck me as kind of dumb; perhaps I have a comedy blind spot.

The Spirit (4/17/09) Netflix (2008 **1/2) Written and Directed by Frank Miller, based on the characters created by Will Eisner, starring Gabriel Macht and Samuel L. Jackson, with Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johansson and Sarah Paulson. If you're a comic book guy like me, you probably learned about Will Eisner at an early age. He was one of the giants of the medium, and The Spirit was his most enduring creation. Eisner died in 2005, so he didn't live to see his creations live on the silver screen. I wonder what he would have made of this well-intentioned but misguided film? I had long looked forward to a Spirit film, and years ago I got excited when Brad Bird was involved in the development of such a project. I always wondered how they'd pull it off. Eisner's beautiful drawings were always cinematic, but his characters existed in a more cartoonish reality of their own. I respect Frank Miller as a comic artist and writer, and the pervasive stylistic approach worked in Sin City, which he co-directed with Robert Rodriguez, but it fell flat here. Perhaps the lesson is that not all comic book series are meant to be turned into live action films. However, the film was far from the worst I've ever seen, and I absolutely do not believe it deserved the paltry 14% it got on Rottentomatoes.com.

Jackass: Number Two (4/17/09) Netflix (2006 **1/2) Directed by Jeff Tremaine, starring Johnny Knoxville, Bam Margera, Chris Pontius and Steve-O. Let me make this as clear as I can: This was not my Netflix pick. It was a surprising choice for my wife, but then I don't want to be known as a "stuck-up film snob," do I? Keep in mind, I'm the guy who walked out of Ace Ventura, Pet Detective because it made my brain hurt. Basically Jackass: Number Two was auteur filmmaking created by and starring all the guys from my dorm I avoided because they were assholes. The thing is, the film wasn't horrible; it was mildly fascinating from an anthropological standpoint. However, if you watch it, please know you will be subjecting yourself to (SPOILERS): testicle kicking, pubic area shaving, defecation in plastic funnels, vomiting, human ass branding, poop eating and horse semen guzzling. If this sounds like your cup of tea (so to speak), don't let me stand in your way.

The Moviegoer (4/18/09) Novel (1962 **1/2) Written by Walker Percy. New Orleans' favorite stockbroker Binx Bolling's 30th birthday looms on the horizon. He occupies his time going to the movies and having empty relationships with women. Will he find salvation in his beloved cousin Kate? Intrigued by the title, I picked up The Moviegoer at a church book sale. About a year later I was looking over the Modern Library's list of best 100 Novels when I saw it listed as number 60. Wow, greatness right under my nose! Reading it, I immediately recognized the quality of Percy's writing. It was dense, but not completely inaccessible. It was clear early on, however, that the protagonist's existential search for meaning and the book's virtually non-existent plot was not as much fun as, say, reading a Batman graphic novel. I persevered all the way to its final ambiguously hopeful page, however, recognizing I need to increase my exposure to more serious writing. In the end I'm not sorry I read it, but I wished it had contained more (or any) likable characters, action or moviegoing.

Months and Seasons (4/20/09) Short Fiction (2008 ****) Written by Chris Meeks. Meeks taught my first UCLA Extension class, "The Writer's Workout." I found him to be a supportive and generous teacher and workshop moderator, not to mention an all-around great guy. This collection of short stories is his follow-up to The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea, which I also gave four stars. I loved his writing and the choices he made. His characters covered a wide range of backgrounds, but all were richly-drawn and clearly motivated. His stories all grew from situations I could readily identify with and his writing style was extremely accessible and easy to read; I read his book very quickly, over the course of a weekend visit to family in St. Louis. I look forward to reading (and reviewing) Meeks' "novel in stories," The Brightest Moon of the Century, the first chapter of which was offered as a "bonus track" at the end of Months and Seasons.

The Reader (4/22/09) Netflix (2008 ****) Directed by Stephen Daldry, screenplay by David Hare, based on the novel by Bernhard Schlink, starring Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes and David Kross. 15-year-old Michael Berg's first sexual relationship turns out to have been with a Nazi war criminal. Winslet won a Best Actress Oscar playing former SS guard Hanna Schmitz in this gripping drama. The Reader was at times sensual and deeply disturbing. The main characters were very real: both sympathetic and flawed, likeable and inscrutable at the same time. As much as I loved Slumdog Millionaire and was happy to see it win the Oscar for best film, I found its fellow nominee The Reader just a little more satisfying.

John Tucker Must Die (4/25/09) Netflix (2006 **1/2) Directed by Betty Thomas, starring Britanny Snow and Jesse Metcalfe, featuring Jenny McCarthy as the hot mom. Three girls discover they share a boyfriend and scheme to take revenge via the new girl in school. This teen comedy was pleasant enough, and Thomas' direction was perfect for the material, but the story was maddeningly toothless. There were a few references to death during the film, and from the title I secretly hoped the plot might take a Heathers-like turn somewhere in the second act. Sadly it did not. In fact, the stakes were never very high, and in the end everyone learned their respective life lessons but got off just a little too easily.

Justice League of America (The Unaired Pilot) (4/27/09) Youtube (1997 **1/2) Directed by Felix Enriquez Alcala, written by Lorne Cameron and David Hoselton. I learned about this unaired (except in Europe) 1997 CBS pilot from Fred Hembeck's blog, and I watched it in 9 parts over a couple of lunch hours, thanks to the magic and majesty that is Youtube. It was almost worth the cost of admission to watch David Ogden Stiers play J'onn J'onzz, Manhunter from Mars in full green makeup and costume. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn't as terrible as one might expect, and I'm not sorry I took the time to watch it. Sure, the costumes were downright dreadful, but the actors cast and the character relationships had a certain charm, so I can't help but wonder what an adequately-funded series might have been like? After the recent success of Iron Man and other comic book heroes, and the big plans for The Avengers in 2012, will there ever be a big budget film version of the JLA? George Miller (Max Max, Happy Feet) was apparently on board to direct, but apparently that project was placed on indefinite hold in 2008.

The World According to Garp (4/29/09) Netflix (1982 ***1/2) Directed by George Roy Hill, screenplay by Steve Tesich, based on the novel by John Irving, starring Robin Williams, Glenn Close, Mary Beth Hurt and John Lithgow. I've made no secret about my love for John Irving's writing. This was the earliest screen adaptation of his work, and one of my favorites, second only to The Cider House Rules, for which Irving won an Oscar for his screenplay. Garp is an altogether charming -- though undeniably sad -- film about the ups and downs of life. Who knows how long we've got, so we must make the most of each day we're still here. This was underscored nicely throughout by The Beatles "When I'm 64" and Nat King Cole's rendition of "There Will Never Be Another You." This was only Robin Williams' second starring role after Robert Altman's Popeye (1980), and it was a shock seeing him looking so young and fresh-faced.

Wertham was Right!: Another Collection of POV Columns (4/29/09) Essays (2003 ****) Written by Mark Evanier, with illustrations by Serio Aragones. This book was a follow-up to Comic Books and Other Necessities of Life (2002). I am a regular reader of Evanier's blog, www.newsfromme.com, and I greatly respect his professional writing career, which has included comics, television, animation and several books. I really enjoy his writing, which presents content about comic books and related topics in a light, clean easy-to-read style. Thanks to the passion in Evanier's essays, he managed at times to reawaken the little 12-year-old collector inside me. It was like time travel and I found myself in 1975, peering longingly into the long wooden cases at Bob's Comics in Omaha, Nebraska once again.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (4/30/09) Netflix (Blu Ray) (2006 ***) Directed by Gore Verbinski, screenplay by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, starring Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. The last time I watched this film, during its initial release, I saw it in the theater and complained that I never knew what was going on. This time around I was able to watch it with subtitles and was better able to follow the plot. There was a lot to like about the writing, and Elliott and Rossio (Ted and Terry, if you prefer) did a wonderful job in creating rich characters and clever dialogue. However, something happened in the second half of the second act: I felt like the air started leaking from the tires and I began caring a bit less. Perhaps it's ultimately because I wasn't sure whose story it was. If it was Captain Jack Sparrow's, he spent most of the film unsure what his heart desired (this was an important plot point), and having a main character without clear motives is always dangerous in storytelling. On a personal / historical note, this was our first Blu Ray Netflix rental. I was excited by the improved visual fidelity, though our 34" screen was small enough that I felt I should sit two feet from the TV in order to get the full effect.

May

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (5/2/09) Netflix (Blu-Ray) (2008 ***1/4) Directed by Guillermo del Toro, based on characters created by Mike Mignola, starring Ron Perlman, Selma Blair and Doug Jones. This sequel to the 2004 film was a box-office disappointment when it was released last year, so I doubt they'll make any more. That's a shame; it was such a well made, overall satisfying film, and it really deserved to find a bigger audience. Perhaps the root of the problem is that there's something in the characters that falls short of engaging a general audience. Case in point: I have been meaning to order some of Mignola's Hellboy books for some time, but have never quite gotten around to it.

Superman: Emperor Joker (5/2/09) Graphic Novel (2007 **) Written and illustrated by Jeph Loeb, Ed McGuiness and various. What would happen if Superman's favorite 5th Dimension Imp, Mister Mxyzptlk, gave his reality-altering powers to the Joker? That premise promised more joy than it ultimately delivered. This was another "graphic novel" comprised of a set of individual comics in continuity, each one written and drawn by different people. I'm increasingly of the opinion that such an approach rarely produces a satisfying book. In this case, the discontinuity introduced by different creative teams combined with an shapeless psychedelic storyline resulted in a forgettable mishmash.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (5/3/09) TV-TCM (1969 ***1/4) Directed by George Roy Hill, screenplay by William Goldman, starring Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Katharine Ross. I first saw this film during a 1973 theatrical re-release. Going in, I told my grandmother I thought it was about a bunch of crime-fighting kids and their dog. I was thinking, of course of the 1973 animated series, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids. Well, my nine-year-old self was disappointed. I'd have to wait until I was much older to appreciate this film. Written by William Goldman, one of the giants of screenwriting, its story structure was odd: There was a very long section of the film in which Butch and Sundance were relentlessly pursued ("Who are those guys?"), culminating in their famous leap from a rocky cliff into the rapids below ("The fall will probably kill ya!"). To this day, Newman and Redford represent the pinnacle of male onscreen chemistry.

Astonishing X-Men Vol. 1: Gifted (5/3/09) Graphic Novel (2004 ***1/2) Written by Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Toy Story), illustrated by John Cassaday. Kitty Pride returns to Charles Xavier's academy, this time as a teacher, and is reunited with Cyclops, The Beast, Wolverine and The White Witch. The story seemed familiar; the "Mutant Cure" plot from this book was incorporated into the third X-Men movie. This book was much better than I had expected. I loved the return to the X-Men's small team roots, while moving the characters forward at the same time. Cassaday's drawings were a perfect choice for Whedon's strong writing. As I neared the end I noticed two small stylistic choices which I believe contributed to the reading experience: (1) Unlike many comics, boldface accents and exclamation points were used sparingly; (2) The word balloons were smaller than usual, using a smaller typeface, which left more room for the beautiful visuals. I'm a late-comer to Joss Whedon's universe, but after this book I'll definitely seek out his work in the future.

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (5/3/09) TV-TCM (1941 ***1/2) Directed by Alexander Hall, starring Robert Montgomery, Claude Rains and Evelyn Keyes. This delightful fantasy comedy about a boxer/pilot/saxophone player taken up to heaven fifty years before his time was the basis for Warren Beatty's 1978 film, Heaven Can Wait, but not the 1943 film titled Heaven Can Wait, starring Don Ameche. Even though Here Comes Mr. Jordan was about a guy named Joe, it should also not be confused with 1943's A Guy Named Joe, starring Spencer Tracy, which was remade in 1989 by Steven Spielberg, starring Richard Dreyfuss, and was renamed Always. That film should not be confused with 1985's Always, which was written and directed by independent filmmaker Henry Jaglom. Finally, Here Comes Mr. Jordan also shared a few plot elements in common with the David Niven film A Matter of Life and Death (1946), which was released in the U.S.A. as Stairway to Heaven, which should not be <sigh> confused with the Led Zeppelin song of the same name. What was the question again?

Fantastic Four Legends Volume 1: Unstable Molecules (5/4/09) Graphic Novel (2003 ***1/2) Written by James Sturm, illustrated by Guy Davis. What if the four principle characters in the Fantastic Four comic book had been based on real people? That's the premise of this series. It was definitely an experiment of sorts. I particularly enjoyed the application of the independent comics aesthetic to a mainstream series. That was a gutsy move on Marvel's part. Unstable Molecules certainly had me looking at Reed, Ben, Johnny and Sue with fresh eyes. I'm sad to report that this noble experiment doesn't appear to have been a commercial success. While the storyline in this book implied a continuation beyond its pages, a story I personally would like to see, apparently the series was canceled and no other books are available or forthcoming. That really is too bad.

Star Trek (5/6/09) DWA Screening (2009 ****) Directed by J.J. Abrams, written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Leonard Nimoy and Eric Bana. I knew going into this special advance screening that the movie was good, but I didn't expect its level of... well, awesomeness. This was probably the best Star Trek movie ever, and I'd like to share why I think worked so well: Every scene was about character. Everything else in the film -- the plot, the effects -- was in service to those characters. I'd forgotten just how truly marvelous the "family" of characters was on the original series. More than just a loving tribute, Abrams' Star Trek incorporated the best elements of Roddenberry's TV show and also owed a great deal to what many, including myself, consider the previous best in the film series, The Wrath of Kahn. Leaving the theater, I felt a sense of joy and optimism. I'm excited to think that for some kids this film will be their first introduction to the Star Trek universe, and it makes me happy that it shares so much spiritual DNA with the version I loved as a child.

The Pink Panther (5/8/09) Netflix - Blu-Ray (1963 **) Directed by Blake Edwards, written by Maurice Richlin and Edwards, starring David Niven, Peter Sellers, Robert Wagner, Claudia Cardinale and Capucine. Inspector Jacques Clouseau pursues the mysterious Phantom, an international jewel thief after a $500,000 pink diamond with a flaw that looks just like a panther. I am shocked to report this, but the main emotion I experienced watching this comedy classic was"¦ boredom. Looking at the film with 21st Century eyes, I have become accustomed to heist films with more action and twists and turns. I was constantly frustrated by scenes that looked beautiful (especially in Blu-Ray) and were acted in by beautiful people, but did nothing to advance the story. To make matters worse, I also didn't find the comedy in the film particularly funny. All in all I was very disappointed.

Green Lantern / Green Arrow Collection -- Volume 1 (5/8/09) Comics (2004 ***1/4) Written by Dennis (Denny) O'Neil, illustrated by Neal Adams. Ah, the veritable birthplace of relevance in comics. This collection of a half-dozen issues of Green Lantern from the early 1970's was instrumental in changing the face of comic books forever. If you are a collector and have never read these stories, I highly recommend them, largely for the historical perspective they offer. The stories themselves aren't all great. Though I'm still in love with Neal Adams' dynamic, realistic drawings, Denny O'Neil's social commentary could be pretty heavy-handed. It was also interesting to watch as Hal Jordan and Oliver Queen's "On the Road" journey to find America ran out of steam after only a few adventures, then they returned to fighting aliens and Sinestro.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (5/12/09) Netflix (Blu-Ray) (1982 ***1/2) Directed by Nicholas Meyer, starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Ricardo Montalban, Kirstie Alley and all the rest. It was a relief that this movie has held up as well as it has. Inspired by the recent relief of J.J. Abrams' Star Trek, I pushed Wrath of Khan to the top of my queue. This was the film that truly injected new life in the franchise, leading eventually to Star Trek: The Next Generation and all that followed. It did so many things right: Emphasis on characters and a nod to the Enterprise's TV history without geeking out too much, a sense of real mortal danger and a story that started with a bang and never let up.

A personal note: I was seventeen the summer when this film was originally released. On the morning of June 4, 1982, I woke up early and drove across town to the Indian Hills Theater in Omaha, Nebraska. Arriving just past 6am, I was first in line to see the film. Later in the day a couple of friends arrived and got into line behind me and I was even interviewed on the local news. The sequel blew me away; it was so much better than the first one, which my friends called Star Trek: The Slow-Motion Picture. After the film was over and Spock had "died," my friends and I raced from the exit back to the entrance and bought tickets for the second show. That was a pretty good summer.

Angels & Demons (5/16/09) Glendale Americana Pacific 16 (2009 **1/2) Directed by Ron Howard, starring Tom Hanks and Ewan McGregor, screenplay by David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman, based on the thriller by Dan Brown. After reading Angels & Demons in print and seeing The Da Vinci Code, I was looking forward to this film. Sadly, it was ultimately a disappointment, and I'm not sure exactly why. Perhaps it was because Tom Hanks was never completely believable as symbologist Robert Langdon. Or maybe it was the fact that much of the film's dramatic tension hinged less-than-credibly on a bomb made of anti-matter, a device (in two sense of the word) somehow far more believable in the book. In spite of the nonstop action, murder and explosions, I left the theater largely unaffected.

Eat Drink Man Woman (AKA Yin shi nan nu) (5/25/09) TV-TCM (1994 ***) Directed by Ang Lee, written by Ang Lee and James Shamus, starring Sihung Lung. An aging chef with a fading sense of taste faces life alone as his daughters break away from home one by one. With this premise, I was reminded of Fiddler On the Roof and half-expected Shihung Lung to raise his hands up to God and shout "Tradition!" I liked this film, particularly the acting and direction, but found the drama a bit thin. The subplots featuring each of the daughters felt generic, like underdeveloped placeholders for better ideas, and they were too unrelated thematically to contribute to a unified whole. When the movie was over, I was uncertain what it was really about.

It's a Big Country (5/25/09) TV-TCM (1951 **) Directed by various, starring various, including Ethyl Barrymore, Gary Cooper, Gene Kelly, Janet Leigh and future first-lady, Nancy Davis. Gene Kelly played a Greek ice cream vendor in this 8-chapter anthology film about America's"¦ er, awesomeness, which was inspirational to the point of being jingoistic. After watching the film, I now firmly believe we should embrace one another regardless of race, creed, color, age, political party affiliation or even religion (so long as it's monotheistic). Hey, if Greeks and Hungarians can get along, why can't we? Also, I learned that wearing eyeglasses doesn't necessarily make you a sissy-boy!

Justice Society of America, Vol 2: Thy Kingdom Come, Part 1 (5/26/09) Comics (2008 ***) Written by Geoff Johns, illustrated by Dale Eaglesham, with covers by Alex Ross. Though the confusing trade paperback title (Vol 2, Part 1?) implied a single story-arc, this collection was really a set of individual comic book stories in series. At or around the collection's midpoint, Starman created a miniature black hole or singularity or whatever, and the version of Superman from Mark Waid and Alex Ross's Kingdom Come got yanked into the JSA's presence. I found the premise compelling enough to want to get future volumes in the series"¦ eventually.

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (5/27/09) Netflix (1943 ***) Directed by Roy William Neill, starring Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce and Hillary Brooke. WWII-era Holmes investigates stabbings and murder in a creepy convalescent home for shell-shocked servicemen. There were twists and turns and clues and bloodshed and red herrings a-plenty. I identified the killer early on, but does it matter? As I watched yet another of the old Universal Studios entries in the Sherlock Holmes series, I was reminded how much I liked them. It's impossible to forget this film was made in the middle of the second world war, especially when one of the recovering soldiers made reference to concentration camps. Holmes' parting thoughts, delivered in a speeding convertible as Watson drove the pair back to London, spoke of a "new wind blowing through the country." You know what? The speech sounded very nearly socialist.

Johnny Belinda (5/29/09) TV-TCM (1948 ***1/2) Directed by Jean Negulesco, starring Jane Wyman, Lew Ayres, Charles Bickford and Agnes Moorehead. A deaf-mute woman living in a small Nova Scotia town is raped by the town bully and later gives birth to his son. Wyman is possibly best-known now as Ronald Reagan's first wife, but she was particularly effective in this film. Johnny Belinda managed to remain dramatic, telling a compelling story, without slipping into melodrama. On a side-note, it seems like every other film I have watched lately on Turner Classic Movies has featured Agnes Moorehead in a supporting role. She certainly got around.

Up (5/30/09) La Canada AMC (2009 ***1/2) Directed by Pete Docter, co-directed by Bob Peterson, screenplay by Bob Peterson, featuring the voices of Edward Asner, Christopher Plummer and Jordan Nagai. The latest headlines read: "Pixar Does it Again!" and they certainly did. The first few minutes of Finding Nemo (in which Nemo's mother was killed) were pretty moving, but this was probably Pixar's most emotionally manipulative (in a good way) movie yet. There was definitely an emotional imperative at work in the film, and Up's story was much more about artfully hitting the right emotional chords at the right time than about the plot. Like WALL-E (which I liked far less), the strongest part of Up was its first act. Once Carl, Russell and their floating house got to South America, the film underwent a tonal shift and became somewhat less interesting. Some have complained that the film's villain and his dogs weren't a very good fit for those first wonderful thirty minutes or so, and that may be true. Still, I cried no less than three times during the movie, and that's really saying something.

Nearly a year ago, when I saw the first trailer for Up I observed the character design and cynically thought to myself: "Huh, the old man's a square and the scout's a circle. I wonder what the message of this film is going to be about?" Of course I was right, but it was handled in such a gentle, effective way I didn't care. I also wondered about Carl's motive for tying all the balloons to his house after the death of his wife, and in the unseen movie in my head I wondered if he wasn't aiming to get closer to her, you know, up there? I was a little disappointed that this potential goldmine of emotional power went untapped and I wonder if that story element wasn't considered at some point and abandoned as too over-the-top.

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (5/31/09) Glendale Mann 10 (2009 ***) Directed by Shawn Levy, starring Ben Stiller, Amy Adams and a host of friendly, recognizable faces. I went to an early Sunday matinée of this film knowing full well its reviews hadn't been particularly positive. One of the critics complained that the film was evidence of why a story with 83 characters doesn't work. You know what? That negative review just made me want to see the film even more. I was in the mood for spectacle and cheesy effects and that's what this film delivered. Amy Adams' primary purpose playing Amelia Earhart in this film was to be cute and adorable, and she fulfilled that role spectacularly.

The Trip (5/31/09) TV-TCM (1967 **1/2) Directed by Roger Corman, written by Jack Nicholson, starring Peter Fonda, Susan Strasberg, Bruce Dern and Dennis Hopper. God bless Roger Corman, who led the revolution in making interesting films with better production values than their budgets or shooting schedules should have allowed. The Trip -- practically a documentary on how to safely drop acid -- demonstrated an economy of scale and a visual inventiveness that made it worth watching, especially for aspiring film students. I imagine half the film's budget was spent on editing; there were an awful lot of cuts and dissolve effects, which were none too cheap in 1967. A lot of psychedelic films failed because they were ultimately dull. Fortunately, the "trip" sequences didn't go on long enough to become boring, and the film had a well-defined structure, even if I did find the ending abrupt and unsatisfying.

Justice, Volumes 1-3 (5/31/09) Graphic Novel (2009 ***) Written by Alex Ross and Jim Krueger, illustrations by Doug Braithwaite and Alex Ross. I remember how blown away I was by Alex Ross's painterly illustrations in Kingdom Come. In this series, his finishes over Braithwaite's pencils were also very effective, but I noticed something I hadn't noticed in the earlier work: The painted approach created a kind of distancing effect for the reader. As much as I loved looking at page after page of beautiful artwork, I was less engaged by the characters and their situations than I might have been in a traditionally inked version of the same story. One thing I did appreciate about the story, however, was that it deliberately used the mid-1970's version of the Justice League of America (and the DC Universe), the same version I grew up with. The little 1975 version of me really liked that.

June

The Diary of Anne Frank (6/4/09) TV-TCM (1959 ***1/2) Directed by George Stevens, starring Millie Perkins, Richard Beymer and Shelley Winters. The story of Anne Frank and her diary is heart-wrenching, all the more because it really happened. Could you remain hidden for two years in an attic while Nazis marched the streets outside? What kind of existence would that be? I found myself imagining a double feature with this film and Schindler's List. It would certainly provide evidence of how much film evolved in the intervening decades. As I watched The Diary of Anne Frank, having never read the book, I wondered how many liberties had been taken with its material for dramatic effect. There was a kind of 1950's sense of drama that permeated the film. Most of the scenes were necessarily dialogue-heavy, and I was very aware at times that the film's screenplay by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett had been based on their play. Still, it's a great film and an important one and well worth seeing.

Marvel Zombies (6/4/09) Graphic Novel (2008 ***1/2) Written by Robert Kirkman, illustrated by Sean Phillips. Wanna see Magneto ripped apart by undead versions of Captain America and Wolverine? Now you can. Apparently the Marvel Zombies were first encountered as a storyline in Ultimate Fantastic Four. This series picked up where that story left off"¦ from the point-of-view of the zombies. Honestly, I never would have thought a mixing of superhero and zombie genres would have worked nearly so well, but this book was a guilty pleasure from beginning to end. Apparently I'm not alone in that opinion, as the original comic series went into second and third printings due to its popularity. This success was largely due to the fresh writing by Robert Kirkland, who also wrote Invincible. He is definitely one of my favorite writers in comics today. Sean Phillips' illustrations were also effective and were able to present the gory aspects of the zombie lifestyle in a way that still had impact but felt generally PG-13. I look forward to other volumes in the series and highly recommend it as a very different and twisted take on some beloved characters.

The Brightest Moon of the Century (6/5/09) Novel (2009 ****) Written by Christopher Meeks. Meeks taught the first writing class I took at UCLA Extension, and his support in that class encouraged my writing, and for that I'll always be thankful. Previously I'd read his two collections of short stories (The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea and Months and Seasons) and his play (Who Lives?), and so I looked forward to this, his first novel. It's actually a novel-in-stories, taking us through the life of its protagonist, Edward Meopian, ages 14 to 45. His geographical journey took him across the United States: Minnesota, Colorado, California and the deep South. Some periods of his life were featured more prominently than others, such as a period in his mid-twenties when he managed a convenience store in a trailer park. I love Meeks' writing, especially his facility for crafting characters we care about. It continues to be an inspiration to me for what my own writing may be someday.

Rashomon (6/5/09) Netflix (1950 ***) Directed by Akira Kurosawa, starring Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo and Masayuki Mori. In 12th Century Japan, in the woods, a woman is raped and her husband is killed. At the trial, four conflicting versions of the events are given. The philosophical question for the audience: Do the parts paint a picture of the truth? Is there any such thing as truth? I rented and watched this film because it's an important film in the history of cinema, and over the course of my life I've come across many references to it. I was familiar with the premise but had never seen it for myself. I'm sad to report I didn't enjoy it more than I did. As an experiment it worked, and I can see how it had an impact on an audience sixty years ago, but as an experience it was slow-paced and I was frequently bored. It's sad, but I think I may have enjoyed Hoodwinked, Rashomon's animated take-off/tribute, slightly more than the original.

Marvel Zombies: Dead Days (6/6/09) Comics (2009 ***) Written by Robert Kirkman, Mark Millar and various. This collection includes the first appearance of the Marvel Zombies from Ultimate Fantastic Four, as well as some of their subsequent appearances. Having read Marvel Zombies recently it was nice to get a little more context, and there was plenty of that to be found here. I must say, however, that the storyline in which the super-powered zombies devoured Galactus and terrorized the universe as the "Galacti" seemed like a narrative dead end (no pun intended). By taking the undead hunger into the cosmos, it departed so much from the horror aspects of the original premise that I don't know whether or not I'm interested in continuing on the Marvel Zombies journey.

Happy Endings (6/6/09) Netflix (2005 ***) Written and directed by Don Roos, starring Lisa Kudrow, Steve Coogan, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Ritter and Tom Arnold. This was a decidedly quirky film made up of three primary storylines that intertwined one another but rarely intersected. Its cast was altogether likable, and most of the dramatic situations felt original. The fourth wall was repeatedly broken via omniscient narration in the form of onscreen (split-screen) titles. This was effective much of the time but didn't always work and was occasionally annoying, such as when we were told that twenty years hence one of the characters would be happier than all the others, "but that's another story." Irritating.

The West Wing: Season 1 (6/7/09) DVD (1999-2000 ****) Series created by Aaron Sorkin, starring Martin Sheen, Rob Lowe, etc. My wife is a big fan of The West Wing and so I bought the box set containing all seven seasons as well as multiple bonus features for her birthday last year. Now that the regular TV season is over we've started watching it again and finally finished the first season. Hopefully we'll continue to march forward as summer becomes autumn. I'm a fan of Aaron Sorkin's highly intelligent writing and I love this series. It's one of the high-water marks of American TV, and if I were asked to vote on the best series of all time, it would be high on my list. The West Wing was especially strong in the first season, and was frequently inspiring to the point where it brought tears to my eyes. It's interesting to note that watching it with Obama in the White House the series takes on a very different meaning than when George W. Bush was president.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (6/8/09) DWA Screening (2009 **1/2) Directed by Gavin Hood, starring Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber. Logan's past prior to his memory loss, including the painful replacement of his skeletal structure with Adamantium is revealed. When this film was released recently it received fairly dismal reviews, enough so that I chose not to see it in the theater. When they had a free screening at work, I decided to give it a shot. You know what? Keeping my expectations low, I had a fun time. It wasn't absolutely abysmal, though there were a half dozen moments when it was unintentionally funny and I wanted to laugh out loud. But that just added to the experience. Honestly, I would probably recommend it as a rental.

My Summer On Earth (6/10/09) Novel (2008 ***1/4) Written by Tom Lombardi. A foul-mouthed teenage alien with a mission visits L.A. This book is a young adult novel published by Simon Pulse, an imprint of Simon and Schuster. Though I regularly read more than my share of comic books and graphic novels, with only a couple of exceptions the only YA books I've read since becoming an adult have been the Harry Potter series. My reason for buying and reading My Summer On Earth was because it was written by one of my co-workers. The book was well-written and, as should be expected, easy-to-read; its story and characters kept me turning its pages. However, as sweet and funny as the book was, I was surprised by how much cursing, sex and sexual situations this book contained. I'm not a prude, but I had no idea this level of R and X-rated content would be published as "Teen Fiction." A writing friend of mine confirmed that this is indeed a current publishing trend. One possibility is it's deliberate sensationalism with an aim of selling more books. On the other hand, the world has changed a lot since I was a teenager, and so this trend may actually be a reflection of contemporary society. At any rate, I enjoyed "Clinton"¯ Eastwood's story but some of the book's content has me questioning my understanding of what it's like to be a teenager in the 21st Century. And maybe that's a good thing.

A Guy Named Joe (6/11/09) TV-TCM (1943 **1/2) Directed by Victor Fleming, starring Spencer Tracy, Irene Dunne and Van Johnson. I recently reviewed the 1941 film Here Comes Mr. Jordan. At the time I made a crack about how it was about a guy named Joe but shouldn't be confused with this film. Funny thing: A Guy Named Joe was actually about a guy named Pete. Weird. Anyhow, I wish I liked this film more than I actually did. In spite of several action sequences of aerial derring-do, its story seemed to move at a glacial pace, with a narrative structure that was just plain awkward. I don't think I'm giving anything away, but Spencer Tracy's character died at about the 1-hour mark of this two hour film, the point where the story really began. The film seemed like two half-stories, if that makes any sense. I was also distracted by the story's dependence on supernatural intuition: Dorinda (Irene Dunne) knew Pete's "number was up" with absolute certainty prior to his final mission, and everyone else (Pete included) accepted it as a fact without challenging it. At any rate, all these story problems added up to a film that was ultimately unsatisfying. Strangely enough, I remember being similarly disappointed when I watched the 1989 Steven Spielberg remake, Always, which starred Richard Dreyfuss and Holly Hunter, though at the time I was unable to articulate why.

Green Lantern / Green Arrow Collection -- Volume 2 (6/13/09) Comics (2004 ***1/2) Written by Dennis O'Neal, illustrated by Neal Adams. This volume contains the infamous GL/GA #85-86 story arc "Snowbirds Don't Fly" in which we learn Green Arrow's sidekick Speedy was addicted to heroin. This was a pretty big deal in 1971. I attempted to explain the significance of this particular series of comics to my wife, but I fear I was unsuccessful. The early attempts at "relevance in comics" may appear a little awkward through modern eyes, but they certainly broke ground that needed to be broken. Historical importance aside, as I read through the stories in this collection, I was reminded of how they influenced me as a young teenager when I read them for the first time. Back then I used to study Neal Adams' drawings (mostly inked by Dick Giordano) for hours, and I distinctly remember copying one panel of Green Arrow in painstaking detail. Reading these stories again brought back a lot of happy memories, and for that I'm grateful.

Serenity (6/17/09) Netflix - Blu-Ray (2005 ***1/4) Written and directed by Joss Whedon, starring Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres and Adam Baldwin. I feel like I missed out on this Joss Whedon guy, as if his creative output for the past decade took place in a parallel universe of which I was oblivious. Serenity, which somehow got made contrary to the laws of God and Hollywood, was based on a canceled TV show called Firefly, which never made my radar screen. Of course I was aware of Whedon's show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but never tuned in, thinking that watching Smallville pretty much satisfied my weekly requirement of TV aimed at thirteen-year-olds. But from everything I've been hearing, I should have tuned in. In the future I will make it a point to check out some of Whedon's work. I guess all that doesn't exactly add up to a review of Serenity, does it? It wasn't bad, actually. You should check it out.

Limelight (6/18/09) TV-TCM (1952 **) Written by, directed by and starring Charles Chaplin, who also composed the music for the film. Limelight also starred Claire Bloom as "Terry, a Dancer" and featured a cameo by Buster Keaton. A drunk, washed-up clown named Calvero interrupts the suicide of a young woman, and heartfelt hilarity ensues. At the risk of inviting fans of the great Charlie Chaplin to line up to burn me at the stake, I really did not enjoy this film. I disliked it for many reasons, but the one topping my list was that I was bored much of the time; this 2-hour film should have been at least a half hour shorter. I admire Chaplin a great deal, but this unabashed love letter to himself was embarrassing to watch. Surely there's a name for films whose good intentions drive deep into maudlin territory. On top of everything else, I thought it an odd choice that the young man cast as Chaplin's romantic rival was his own son Sydney, who coincidentally died recently at the age of 82.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (6/19/09) TV-TCM (1956 ***1/2) Directed by Don Siegel, screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring, based on the Collier's Magazine serial by Jack Finney, starring Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter. I'd had this classic sitting on the ol' DVR for some time. My wife, who hates scary movies, was out of town at a funeral, so I had a perfect opportunity to watch it. So what if it was late at night and I was all alone in an empty house except for my cat? I figured an old black and white movie like this couldn't scare me. You know what? I was wrong. More than fifty years after it was made, there was still something in this damned film that got to me. Maybe that's why they've made two remakes: One with Donald Sutherland in 1978 and another with Nicole Kidman in 2007. Was the original film a metaphor for the cold war and fear of communism? Perhaps. But it was still pretty damned creepy.

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (6/20/09) Netflix (2008 ***1/2) Written and directed by Joss Whedon, starring Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion and Felicia Day. You know what's funny? I forgot about Joss Whedon's involvement until the end credits. Having recently watched Serenity, I appear to be on a Joss Whedon kick lately. I loved the music, and after several days I still have the first song, "Freeze Ray," playing in my head. The backstory of this project was fascinating: Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog was released on the internet for free in three installments. The series' fans were generally also fans of Whedon, and they made it a phenomenon. Once again I was struck by Whedon's strong storytelling skills. In this project, he showed how hard he could hit story beats and also how deftly he could twist the ol' emotional knife. Finally, I can't help but recognize how Dr. Horrible himself, played brilliantly by Neil Patrick Harris, with his romanticized alienation, seemed designed to appeal specifically to the fan demographic. It was as though Joss Whedon had taken one of his fans, geek tendencies and all, and had cast him as his lovable but tragically flawed mad scientist.

The Batman Adventures (6/20/09) Comics (1993 ***) Written by Kelley Puckett, illustrated by various. This book collected the first six Issues of The Batman Adventures, a comic book inspired by the early 1990's animated TV show, Batman: The Animated Series. While the simplified style and characterizations made it a good candidate for younger readers, there was plenty for adult readers as well. It was a pleasant, if not challenging, read. The foreword by Bruce Timm, creator of the TV show, provided insight into DC Comics' motivations in creating this comic: It allowed them to add a fifth monthly Batman comic while still appearing fresh.

Bunny Lake is Missing (6/21/09) TV-TCM (1965 ***1/4) Directed by Otto Preminger, starring Laurence Olivier, Carol Lynley and Keir Dullea, with Noel Coward as ultra-creepazoid Horatio Wilson. What would you do if you dropped your 4-year-old daughter off for her first day of school and when you returned to get her nobody had ever seen her? Olivier played a London police detective trying to separate fact from fantasy. This was a gripping story up until its third act, when the story went in a direction that wasn't entirely satisfying. I thought the point when that shift occurred was handled rather weakly. Also, the script violated one of the core tenets of detective fiction: If you have a detective, he or she must be the one who figures out who the murderer (or, in this case, the kidnapper) is. Otherwise the audience feels cheated.

1941 (6/21/09) TV-TCM (1979 **1/2) Directed by Steven Spielberg, screenplay by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, starring John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd and a whole mess of other people. I'm pretty sure I went to see this with my uncle George when it was first released. I enjoyed it well enough at the time, but it certainly didn't grab my heart and squeeze it like Close Encounters of the Third Kind had a couple years before. Since 1979 I've often wondered why 1941 has such a reputation for being "Spielberg's Folly." Honestly, it wasn't a terrible movie, but it didn't quite work. Why? Watching it again after so many years, I believe it was a combination of things: A couple of months ago I watched the 1963 film It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, and I am firmly convinced that earlier film was used as a stylistic template of sorts for 1941. This similarity was particularly strong in a scene in which a tank smashed through the middle of a paint factory... and the turpentine warehouse next door. I personally have never been a fan of that kind of humor; there's something old-fashioned about it, somehow. The second reason I think this movie missed its mark was that it was structured as a milieu, meaning it had dozens of characters but focused on none. I think this is kind of a left-brained approach to storytelling, and it cheats the audience out of following one main character. Milieus can work (as in American Graffiti or The Big Chill), but 1941 probably would have been far stronger if we'd known whose story it was.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (6/22/09) DWA Screening (2009 *1/2) Directed by Michael Bay, starring Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox, with Peter Cullen as the voice of Optimus Prime. A friend told me that as he watched Transformers 2 he could hear Michael Bay whisper in his ear, "You're a moron." My experience was similar, though the thought that kept running through my mind was: "More isn't necessarily better." By my estimate, approximately one hour of the 159-minute film consisted of undecipherable dialogue and randomly colored motion-blurred polygons fighting each other. For the remaining hour and a half I could mostly tell what was going on, but the majority of that time also involved giant fighting robots. Don't get me wrong, I like movies about fighting robots, I really do. Hell, I gave the first Transformers three and a half stars. But this film simply failed to live up to my summer movie cheeseburger standards. I became bored halfway through and as the explosions, plot holes, weak characterizations, racism, sexism and misogyny ran together, my mind began to wander toward more interesting territory, like my weekend grocery list. (Gotta remember that dishwasher detergent!) Put another way, as of this movie I am no longer an apologist for Michael Bay.

An Evening With Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin (6/23/09) Los Angeles Ahmanson Theater (2009 ***1/4) This show demonstrated that you don't need big production values for an entertaining night at the theater. It was just Patti, Mandy and two talented musicians on piano and upright bass. I'm a little embarrassed I didn't recognize more songs than I did. Possibly I'm not as versed in Broadway musicals as I'd thought. There was no denying that Patti and Mandy were two very talented vocalists. The highlight of the program for me was definitely LuPone's rendition of "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" from Evita.

Batman: The Dark Knight Adventures (6/25/09) Comics (1994 ***) Written by Kelley Puckett, illustrated by Mike Parobeck. This volume contained stories originally published in serial form in issues 7-12 of The Batman Adventures. As I wrote in my review of the first collection, this was a fairly enjoyable -- if not challenging -- series, and I would recommend it, though particularly for younger readers. My favorite story in the collection was the last, which focused on a young Barbara Gordon going to a costume party dressed as her favorite hero.

ABBA The Music and Super Diamond (6/27/09) Hollywood Bowl (2009 ***1/2) Two tribute bands, one fun and memorable night under the stars at the Hollywood Bowl. Super Diamond, led by "Surreal Neil" opened. Having seen The actual Neil Diamond in concert a few years back, I was amazed by the vocal similarities. Also, I was far less concerned that this "Diamond" was in danger of permanently injuring himself with his gyrations. After the intermission, we were treated to a trip back to the seventies with the awkwardly named "ABBA the Music." They were considerably more authentic, even down to an eerie replication of the original video choreography of many of the songs. I had way more fun than I had any business having, and for days afterward I had the song "Waterloo" stuck in my head.

July

The Sand Pebbles (7/2/09) TV-FMC (1966 ***1/2) Directed by Robert Wise, starring Steve McQueen, Richard Crenna, Candice Bergen and Richard Attenborough as French Burgoyne. Set in 1926 China, The Sand Pebbles follows the story an engineer/machinist aboard the Yangtze River gunboat The U.S.S. San Pablo. This was a very strong film, one I'd never seen before. Steve McQueen was stunningly good at times. The story contained equal parts character study, drama (but never melodrama), and military adventure. It was a long film, nearly three hours, but none of it was dull. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, but received none, and I think I know why. I believe it was penalized because of its incredibly downbeat, fatalistic message. Also, its anti-military, anti-war themes were probably a few years too early for the general public to accept. In 1966 the public sentiment toward the war in Vietnam hadn't quite shifted yet.

Astonishing X-Men Vol. 2: Dangerous (7/4/09) Graphic Novel (2005 ***1/4) Written by Joss Whedon, illustrated by John Cassaday. Since the X-Men's earliest days their "Danger Room"¯ has been a fixture. In this story-arc, Joss Whedon explored what would happen if the room itself became self-aware and decided to kill the X-Men. It was a wonderful premise, and the reveal was strong. However, something was missing, and I found my interest waning. Perhaps the problem was that a conflict like this was only as strong as its antagonist and the Danger Room was never very compelling as a villain.

Astonishing X-Men Vol 3: Torn (7/4/09) Graphic Novel (2007 ***1/2) Written by Joss Whedon, illustrated by John Cassaday. The Hellfire Club is back, or are they? Emma Frost finally shows her true corners and the X-Men must fight for their lives against enemies that attack from without and from within. A highlight of this book was the psychic attack on Beast and Wolverine, which turned them respectively into a raging... well, beast and a self-described "Percy Dovetonsils." (Extra points to Whedon for that delightful Ernie Kovacs reference, by the way!) The momentum that had faded somewhat in the second volume was back in force in this one, and I truly felt the characters were being put through their paces.

Alec: Three Piece Suit (7/5/09) Graphic Novel (2001 ***1/4) Written and illustrated by Eddie Campbell. This volume collected three previously-published works: Graffiti Kitchen, Little Italy and The Dance of Lifey Death. In the past I've read and reviewed several of Campbell's books, and I have appreciated the intelligence and honesty of his largely autobiographical material. As I read this book I was once more reminded of the potential of comics as a storytelling medium, of how there's plenty of room for exploration outside its conventional limits. I recommend this book to those seeking a challenging, intelligent read, though I acknowledge that some may find it dull at times and possibly a little hard to follow.

1939: Hollywood's Greatest Year (7/5/09) TV-TCM (2009 ***) Directed by Constantine Nasr, written by Nasr and Gary Leva, narrated by Kenneth Branagh. The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind were only the twin peaks of the cinematic iceberg of the year that included Stagecoach, Of Mice and Men, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Love Affair, Ninotchka and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. What was going on in Los Angeles seventy years ago as the Hollywood movie factories produced its finest material? That was the central question this documentary attempted to answer.

Taps (7/6/09) TV-TCM (1981 ***1/2) Directed by Harold Becker, starring Timothy Hutton, Sean Penn, Tom Cruise and George C. Scott. "It's beautiful, man!" This was one of those films that played repeatedly in the early days of cable TV. I hadn't seen it in years, but there was still something so gripping about the premise of young students at a military academy seizing the grounds of their school to keep it from being shuttered. Granted, some of the scenes of 12-year-olds armed with rifles in "foxholes" required the suspension of disbelief. Still, I loved this movie. Timothy Hutton, who'd just starred in Ordinary People the year before, was especially terrific. It was also great fun to see a young (and slightly chunky) Tom Cruise as the gung-ho red beret, David Shawn.

The Sugarland Express (7/6/09) TV-TCM (1974 **1/2) Directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Goldie Hawn, Ben Johnson, Michael Sacks and William Atherton. This film has the distinction of being Spielberg's first theatrical feature, and it was for that historical reason that I watched it. It was based on a true story about a woman who broke her husband out of a Texas prison so they could rescue their child from a foster home. I never really got into the story, mostly because I never knew where it was going. At times it tried to be a comedy, and with multiple scenes of police cars running into each other I was frequently reminded of John Landis' The Blues Brothers. Though I was ultimately disappointed, it was interesting how much the film felt like an early Spielberg movie, with the casting of non-actors in support roles and several scenes that featured overlapping dialogue.

Lolita (7/6/09) TV-TCM (1962 **1/2) Directed by Stanley Kubrick, screenplay by Vladimir Nabokov (based on his novel), starring James Mason, Peter Sellers, Shelley Winters and Sue Lyon. A middle-aged literature professor marries his landlady so he can get closer to her young daughter. How this movie ever got made in 1962, I have no idea. According to Turner Classic Movie's Robert Osbourne, Lolita was a mere age twelve in the book, and her age was never mentioned in the film. Apparently Lyon was fourteen at the time she starred in the film, though she looked closer to sixteen. All that aside, this film was very, very weird and made me feel dirty just for watching it. There was a strange, uneven mix of melodrama and comedy that never quite worked. James Mason as the protagonist was too creepy to be sympathetic, but at the same time I never was able to take much pleasure from his extended torture at the hand of Peter Sellers' character Clare Quilty. While I don't particularly recommend this film, it still may be worth watching just for the opening scene in which Mason shot his slippery nemesis as well as the generally weird sexual innuendo throughout. I mean, "Camp Climax?" Really?

Hans Zimmer Rooftop Concert (7/7/09) DWA Parking Garage (2009 ****) Featuring Hans Zimmer, John Powell, Harry Gregson-Williams. Sometimes I feel like Dreamworks is the best place in the world to work. One of my co-workers said this was the best event we've had in the nine years he's worked at the studio, and I agree wholeheartedly. In honor of the opening of our expanded parking garage, our studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg invited Hans Zimmer (who's scored many of our films) to put on a show. And what a show it was! Performing on the top level of the structure, we were treated to songs from within the Dreamworks catalog as well as without. The songs came from the movies Shrek, Driving Miss Daisy, Pirates of the Caribbean, Kung Fu Panda and many more. Zimmer and the others were backed by more than a dozen musicians and were "fronted" by several vocalists, including Danny Jacobs, who plays the voice of King Julien on Nickelodeon's The Penguins of Madagascar, as well as Delores Clay and Lisbeth Scott, who sang "Hallelujah" as a lovely encore. It was truly a night to remember.

The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story (7/8/09) DWA Screening (2009 ****) Directed by Gregory V. Sherman and Jeff Sherman. This documentary about songwriters Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman was directed by their sons. Their fathers Bob and Dick (as they came to be known in the film) wrote some of the most memorable songs in movie history, primarily for Disney but for a few other films as well, like Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang and Charlotte's Web. Some of the songs they wrote, like "The Age of Not Believing" from Bedknobs and Broomsticks were terribly important to me growing up. Put another way, they pretty much wrote every song that made me cry as a kid. The two brothers had a special relationship with Walt Disney, and their first big "Disney gig" was writing the Oscar-winning songs for Mary Poppins. The Disney behind-the-scenes material was very interesting, although it's hard to know how accurately it was portrayed since the film was released by"¦Disney. The story behind the story was that the brothers didn't really like each other and, though they worked together, they grew increasingly distant as they got older. The film was in many ways a study in contrasting characters: Dick, the younger brother, was generally upbeat and slightly manic and loved writing songs, while his brother Bob was more introverted and self-reflective and interested in writing and painting. The final message of the film was that sometimes great work comes out of conflict. That's a good lesson for anyone involved in collaborative creative endeavors.

The Girl Can't Help It (7/9/09) TV-FMC (1956 **1/2) Directed by Frank Tashlin, screenplay by Tashlin and Baker, starring Tom Ewell, Edmond O'Brien, Jayne Mansfield and Jayne Mansfield's breasts. In the words of the immortal bard, this was one strange mamma-jamma of a movie, Daddy-O. It wasn't a particularly good movie (the story was flat-out dreadful), but it still had its high... er, points. In a strange, somewhat awkward introduction, Tom Ewell explained that The Girl Can't Help It was a story about music, and there was rock 'n' roll a-plenty, including performances by Fats Domino, Little Richard and The Platters. The use of music was unusual in that the songs were mostly presented as nightclub or TV acts. Unfortunately, the progression of the story came to a screeching halt with each musical interlude. But seriously, let's not kid ourselves; this film was clearly designed as a star vehicle for Mansfield and her hourglass silhouette. I occasionally wondered if her tiny waist wasn't being featured to differentiate her from Marilyn Monroe's more voluptuous figure. Also, I'm not sure what kind of Army Corps of Engineers support structure she had going on under her top, but there were a few times when Ms. Mansfield turned in profile and my eyes nearly popped out of my skull like Tex Avery's wolf.

Echo Hill (7/10/09) DWA Starbucks Courtyard (2009 ***1/4) Yes, that's right, our studio campus actually has a Starbucks. My friend and co-worker Matt Steele's band came to Dreamworks to play during our lunch hour. They regularly play up in Valencia at Wine661, an establishment Matt has described as a cool wine bar. I've been meaning to make it up there to hear them play but haven't yet. Matt played drums for the trio while Ron Suffredini fronted on bass and vocals and Tom Strahle played guitar. Their set was a mix of crowd-pleasers, including songs from The Beatles, U2, Bob Marley and The Eagles. They put on a nice show, though they had a few technical microphone difficulties which made it a bit hard for me to judge Suffredini's singing abilities accurately. It was still a nice show and I hope my wife and I are able to make it up to Valencia to hear Echo Hill play again.

The Parallax View (7/11/09) TV-TCM (1974 **) Directed by Alan J. Pakula, starring Warren Beatty, William Daniels and Hume Cronyn. Beatty starred as an investigative reporter unraveling the conspiracy behind the assassination of a U.S. Senator. While that's nominally the plot, this 1974 movie was really about the 1963 death of JFK and the erosion of American idealism. I'd never seen this film before, though I'd been aware of its existence. Honestly, I expected it to be better. In particular, I felt the film's action sequences often felt arbitrarily inserted and the film lost virtually all its energy in the third act. Also, its ending (which I won't reveal) made me so irritated I wanted to pick up my TV and throw it across the room.

LA Phil Presents Ultimate Mancini (7/11/09) Hollywood Bowl (2009 ***1/4) This was our second time at "The Bowl"¯ this summer, and as always it was a lovely experience. Bill Conti, who appeared to have worshiped the late Henry Mancini, directed the L.A. Philharmonic. Mancini's daughter joined in, singing a couple of her father's songs. The evening began with the theme from The Pink Panther (which I feel was the best thing in that film) and ended with "The Days of Wine and Roses" and "Moon River." While I certainly respect Mancini's achievements as a composer, in addition to his film work he did a lot of work for television, a fact that was kind of glossed over in the program. For a long time I've felt his themes for Newhart and Mork and Mindy were virtually identical.

Moulin Rouge (7/13/09) TV-TCM (1952 **1/2) Directed by John Huston, starring Jose Ferrer, Suzanne Flon and Zsa Zsa Gabor. This biopic related the sad tale of French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. 1950s era biopics certainly were a very different animal than their modern counterparts; watching this film with 21st Century eyes, I was very aware of a lot of unintentional humor. Toulouse-Lautrec broke his legs in a fall as a child and they never mended properly, resulting in a physical deformity as an adult. This was tragic for him, twisting his psyche and affecting his artistic development. However, in the film version he was frequently shown walking like one of Jim Henson's Muppets, something that provided comic fodder for years afterwards. In addition, some of the scenes in which Ferrer played both himself and his father reminded me a little of Mike Meyers in Austin Powers.

On the Town (7/13/09) TV-TCM (1949 ***1/4) Directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, starring Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Ann Miller and Vera-Ellen. "The Bronx is up and the Battery's down! / The people ride in a hole in the ground!" My wife loves this film nearly as much as Singin' In the Rain (1952), but I never got into it quite as much. I think I know why, too: Compared to the later film, which Donen and Kelly also co-directed, the situations in On the Town felt contrived and artificial. As a result, I never really cared about any of the characters. Also, I felt the songs (with the exception of "New York, New York") weren't nearly as memorable. Still, it was a good film, if not a great one, and there was a lot of fancy dancing. It was also chock-full of more topical references than a Bugs Bunny cartoon, ranging from Dr. Kinsey and Dinah Shore to Goodbye, Mr. Chips and The Lost Weekend.

Hard Candy (7/14/09) Netflix (2005 ***1/4) Directed by David Slade, written by Brian Nelson, starring Patrick Wilson and Ellen Page. This film was singled out for praise by Ebert and Roeper when it was first released, and I've had it drifting upwards in my Netflix queue for quite some time. I liked it considerably more than my wife did, though I had some reservations of my own. I was especially impressed by two things: (1) Ellen Page's ability to hold her own in what was essentially a two-person drama -- this was clearly the movie that earned her the title role in Juno; and (2) The stylish and smart execution of what was clearly a low-budget indie film. It's true that both characters were deeply flawed and hard to identify with, but I admired how the screenplay revealed layers of characterization progressively through the film. At various times each was sympathetic to a degree, and the audience had to continually ask themselves whether the "Big Bad Wolf" really deserved to be tortured at the sadistic hands of "Little Red Riding Hood." Do I need to watch it again? Probably not, but I'm not sorry I rented it. On another note, throughout the film I kept trying to figure out why Patrick Wilson looked so damned familiar. After we finished watching I ran to the computer to look him up: He recently played "Nite Owl" in Watchmen.

Dreamboat (7/17/09) TV-TCM (1952 **1/2) Directed by Claude Binyon, starring Clifton Webb, Ginger Rogers, Anne Francis and Jeffrey Hunter. A straight-laced college professor's past as a silent screen heartthrob gets exposed when his old films are shown on TV. This was strictly minor fare. I loved the premise, but was disappointed with what the script did with it. The ending was especially abrupt, and almost felt as though the filmmakers attempted to set up a sequel with Webb and Rogers. On a weird note, I was struck several times by how much Jeffrey Hunter looked like Captain Marvel! He would have been perfect for the part, and if CG actors ever get to the level I hope they do in my lifetime, his appearance in this film could provide excellent reference material. Shazam!

ZAP! POW! BAM! The Superhero: The Golden Age of Comic Books, 1938-1950 (7/18/09) Skirball Cultural Center (2009 ***1/2) Art exhibit, presented by guest curator Jerry Robinson. I'd been meaning to make the drive over to the Skirball. I'd never been there, but it was conveniently located off the 405. For me, it was a special delight to see the presentation of so many pieces of golden age comic book art, many of them covers, often presented in close proximity to copies of the comics for which they were created. This wasn't a particularly large exhibit, but it was worth the effort, especially for the opportunity to get close to the individual pieces and admire the brushwork from so long ago. Artists included some huge names from the history of comics: Will Eisner, Joe Kubert, Mort Meskin, Sheldon Moldoff, Frank Frazetta, Dick Sprang, Bill Finger and others. A second exhibit took place across the hall: Lights, Camera, Action: Comic Book Heroes of Film and Television. The emphasis of this exhibit (which also featured some original comic art) was on heroes and characters who had made the transition the printed page to the silver screen and television. This show included the Batcyle from the Batman TV show, as well as "super" costumes worn by Christopher Reeve and Michael Keaton. One item had me especially curious. Under the glass of one case was what appeared to be a copy of Action Comics #1, arguably the biggest (and most valuable) comic collecting wet dream of all time. It appeared to be the genuine article, and even showed signs of tape discoloration along its spine. Some of the other comics in the exhibitions were clearly reproductions, so I wondered: Was it the real deal? If it was, I feel as though I have been in the presence of comic book royalty.

The Shaggy Dog (7/18/09) Netflix (1959 ***1/2) Directed by Charles Barton, starring Tommy Kirk, Fred MacMurray, Tim Considine and Annette Funicello. According to the DVD extras, The Shaggy Dog was the highest-grossing film of 1959. Just think about that for a minute. It is hard to imagine a world where that was the case. When people talk about a lost innocence, I think that's a prime example of what they mean. Still, I can see why the film was so popular. It took some of the featured players from The Mickey Mouse Club and put them on the big screen. It was also really well made. My only beef with it was that as soon as the "foreign spies" subplot took over the film in the middle of the second act it turned into a slapstick chase and my interest waned. That said, I'm very glad I rented it and watched it again after all these years.

I Know Where I'm Going! (7/18/09) TV-TCM (1945 **1/2) Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, starring Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey. A woman engaged to a "rich fool" attempts to join her fiancé on a hard-to-get-to isle in Scotland for their wedding. With each delay, she's forced to reevaluate her choices... and her certainty. God, how I wished this film had been subtitled! I felt as though I were catching a glimpse of a thoroughly British cinema, an alternative to the Hollywood-dominant film history I've come to know. I only wish I'd been able to comprehend more of the thick-accented dialogue.

PostSecret: Extraordinary Confessions from Ordinary Lives (7/18/09) Art / Nonfiction (2005 ***1/4) Edited by Frank Warren. This book is one of a series using postcards sent in anonymously to the postsecret.com blog. It began as an art installation and became a veritable internet sensation; my wife is a regular visitor. It was fascinating turning the pages and bearing witness to so many examples of anonymous honesty. It's impossible, of course, to be human and not have secrets. And yet those secrets can carry such weight and be such a burden for those who hold them. This book provides an excellent way to reconnect with one's own humanity and to be reminded that you're not alone.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (7/19/09) La Canada AMC (2009 ***1/2) Directed by David Yates, starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, with Jim Broadbent as Professor Horace Slughorn. Harry Potter's sixth year at Hogwarts puts him face-to-face with danger, heartache and tragedy. Like many, I look forward to each new installment in the franchise, and this was no exception. I was not disappointed, either. Hearing that familiar sequence of musical notes as the film's title logo was enveloped in clouds was all it took to transport me to a familiar place that is always a joy to revisit. Someday the series will come to an end, and I'll be sad"¦ but happy that it will have maintained such a consistently high level of quality and energy.

Superheroes in My Pants (7/19/09) Essays (2004 ***1/2) Written by Mark Evanier. This was another collection of Evanier's POV columns from The Comic Buyer's Guide. There was a wide spectrum of topics covered, sometimes with comic books only providing a jumping-off point. It saddens me a bit to acknowledge that this book may have somewhat limited appeal. Not everyone would be interested in reading multiple columns devoted to the late DC comics editor Julius Schwartz, but fortunately I am very much in that demographic. Over the course of his career in comics and animation, Mark Evanier has interacted with some real legends. It was a pleasure reading about them and living through those experiences vicariously. I read the bulk of this book on a sleepy Sunday afternoon shortly after seeing an exhibit of golden age comic art at the Skirball Cultural Center. As was the case in Evanier's two prior POV column collections, the comics-related essays performed a sort of magic, transporting me to a state of mind that reminded me why I began collecting comics as a kid. That was worth every penny. Thank you, Mark!

A Matter of Life and Death (7/20/09) TV-TCM (1946 ***1/2) Written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, starring David Niven, Kim Hunter and Roger Livesey. An RAF pilot facing certain demise slips through Death's fingers and later stands trial to win his life and newfound love. Released in the United States as Stairway to Heaven, I first saw this film as part of a film series at the University of Nebraska at Omaha when I was in high school. For me, it was an eye-opening movie. The combination of its WWII-era British film aesthetic and afterlife fantasy elements spoke to me. There are a handful of films I'll never be able to judge completely objectively, and this is one of them. It wasn't a perfect film: There was a political subtext during Niven's trial that I thought was a bit over-emphasized and the transitions from black and white to color weren't always consistent. But even with its faults, it was still a fun, romantic film to watch.

Wild Strawberries (AKA Smultronstället) (7/20/09) TV-TCM (1957 ***1/4) Directed by Ingmar Bergman, starring Victor Sjöström and Bibi Andersson. An aged professor of medicine reflects upon his life as he drives to Lund University to receive a great honor. I pride myself on having watched most of film history's greats. I'm embarrassed that it took me so long to watch this film. But perhaps waiting to see it during my mid-40's was for the best. The messages of the film were fairly simple: (1) The decisions we make along the path of our life affect who we are at the end of it; and (2) it's never too late to make a change for the better, especially when it comes to embracing life and loving those around you. Apparently the film came from a poignant question Bergman asked himself: What if you were to return to your childhood home and suddenly the past came alive? That was an intriguing notion indeed. While I enjoyed the film, it didn't entirely speak to me, and the use of dreams as a motivation for change in the main character wasn't entirely satisfying. Perhaps I'll feel differently ten or twenty years from now.

The Shaggy D.A. (7/22/09) Netflix (1976 **1/2) Directed by Robert Stevenson, starring Dean Jones, Tim Conway, Suzanne Pleshette and Keenan Wynn. The 1959 film The Shaggy Dog was such a success, it's no wonder Disney decided a sequel was in order, albeit 17 years later. Though it was well-executed and populated with what seemed like dozens of familiar, likable faces, I'm afraid it was somewhat of a disappointment. What was missing, I'm afraid, was heart. We were never given much of a reason to like or root for Wilby Daniels (Jones) and his family, and most of the film was devoted to one madcap chase after another. Maybe it's silly, but in my mind there was a far more satisfying sequel that might have been made.

The Seventh Seal (AKA Det sjunde inseglet) (7/23/09) TV-TCM (1957 ***1/4) Directed by Ingmar Bergman, starring Max von Sydow, Nils Poppe, Bibi Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand and Bengt Ekerot as Death. Set against the backdrop of the black plague, a knight (Sydow) returning from the crusades plays chess with Death. I watched this film once before, in college, though I didn't recall any of the particulars. It's a good film, a true classic, one that has the audacity to ask one of the fundamental questions of human existence: What is the nature of God? Beyond that, I didn't really understand the film or what hidden meaning motivated many of its scenes. It wasn't completely inscrutable, but I confess it did leave me scratching me head a few times. Why did some characters escape Death while others did not? Was it a matter of belief? Perhaps.

The Barefoot Executive (7/25/09) Netflix (1971 ***) Directed by Robert Butler, starring Kurt Russell, Joe Flynn, Harry Morgan, Wally Cox and John Ritter. In spite of my recommendation, I beg you: Do not watch this movie! Its theme song will become lodged in your brain and there will be no escape. Its awful lyrics are not even available on the internet, they're so toxic! If you do choose to watch it, consider yourself warned. Okay, infectious theme song notwithstanding, I actually liked this movie quite a lot. Not only was Kurt Russell imminently likable, but the premise of a chimpanzee who picks top-rated TV programs provided plenty of fodder for satirical commentary about American society.

Peter Bogdanovich's Movie of the Week (7/26/09) Nonfiction (1999 ***1/4) My purpose in reading this book was as research for a writing project I'm considering. The premise of Movie of the Week (Bogdanovich recommends a classic film for each week of the calendar year) was a little flimsy. The material was a revised form of short weekly columns originally published on the TV page of New York Observer magazine. Though clearly written for a broad audience, I still found Bogdanovich's writing a little dry at times. However, he had the advantage of having interviewed several well-known directors for his previous book, Who the Devil Made It?, and that first-hand contact often informed and added weight to the essays in this collection. Also, I couldn't help but notice that Bogdanovich appeared obsessed with long, continuous shots, and whenever a director employed that technique he pointed it out.

Some Came Running (7/26/09) TV-TCM (1958 ***1/2) Directed by Vincente Minnelli, based on the novel by James Jones, starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine. Sinatra played an Army veteran / disillusioned writer who returns home and finds himself torn between a woman too good for him and a woman he treats more or less like a faithful dog. This film was one of the 52 recommended in Peter Bogdanovich's Movie of the Week, which I read recently, and I was lucky enough to already have it on my DVR. As a drama, Some Came Running occasionally drifted into melodrama, but that was really a product of the period in which the film was made. It was still compelling throughout, and even though Sinatra and Dean Martin's characters had a lot of despicable traits, I still cared about what happened to them.

Friends with Money (7/26/09) Netflix (2006 ***1/4) Written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, starring Jennifer Aniston, Joan Cusack and Frances McDormand. Aniston played a former teacher with a wealthy circle of friends making a living cleaning other people's homes. While I liked this film, I'm not really sure what it was ultimately about except that some people are miserable regardless of how much money they have. There were multiple storylines and not all of them intersected or were thematically linked. There were even a few story elements (Aniston stealing expensive cosmetics from a client, for example) that were introduced but not resolved.

Angel on My Shoulder (7/27/09) TV-TCM (1946 **1/2) Directed by Archie Mayo, starring Paul Muni, Anne Baxter and Claude Rains. A gangster shot by his partner goes to hell and makes a deal with a guy named Nick. There's probably a Master's thesis in an in-depth examination of why there were so many "afterlife" fantasies in the 1940's. Certainly it had something to do with servicemen who didn't return from WWII. This was an occasionally fun entry in that subgenre, but it was weakened by a central character (Muni) who wasn't very likable for 2/3 of the film. Somehow the story managed to pull it off, though, and the film ended strongly.

Jules and Jim (7/27/09) TV-TCM (1962 ***1/4) Directed by François Truffaut, based on the novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, starring Jeanne Moreau, Oskar Werner and Henri Serre. Set before, during and after World War I, two friends, one French, the other German, share a friendship and a woman named Catherine. This was a charming film, though watching it with my jaded modern eyes I had a harder time appreciating it than I undoubtedly would have if I'd watched it in 1962. Also, I feel this is a film I should have viewed for the first time in my teens or twenties. As a man approaching 45, I kept thinking: "Man, what a lot of unnecessary drama. Find another girl, Jules and Jim! She's seriously f--d up!"

Shopgirl (7/29/09) Netflix (2005 ***) Directed by Anand Tucker, screenplay by Steve Martin (based on his novella), starring Steve Martin, Claire Danes and Jason Schwartzman. I liked this film considerably better than the novella on which it was based, which I found too dry for my tastes. It was definitely a small film and was beautifully shot. The red/green color motif showing Mirabelle the shopgirl's development and affinities was a little obvious, though, and I found myself with each shot looking at the color composition. Ultimately the life messages of the film were subtle, but I got the impression from the book that was kind of the point.

F for Fake (AKA Vérités et mensonges) (7/30/09) Netflix (1974 **1/2) Written and Directed by Orson Welles, featuring long lingering shots of Oja Kodar's anatomy. "This is a promise: For the next hour, everything you hear from us is really true and based on solid fact." This documentary (that's not really a documentary) began with an examination of art forger Elmyr de Hory and his biographer, Clifford Irving. Irving went on to write the well-known autobiography of Howard Hughes, which was, of course, a hoax. Who better to explore this world of fakery, than the man whose 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast sent people running scared into the night? The quick cutting editing style Welles used throughout the film was probably ahead of its time and reminded me of the beginning of Oliver Stone's JFK. (Caution: Spoilers ahead!) I rented this film because I'd read that it was actually a trick in and of itself. Though true to Welles' "one hour of truth" promise, after the one hour lapsed (following a somber consideration of Chartes Cathedral), what followed was a surreal fabrication (presented as fact until it's revealed to be fiction) about a young woman who slept with Picasso in exchange for 22 paintings. The story was just bizarre enough to be plausible, but that was the point. Ultimately I wish I could give this film a higher recommendation. I admired the technique, but it wasn't an easy film to watch and was frequently confusing.

August

Star Trek: Countdown (8/1/09) Graphic Novel (2009 **1/2) Written by Mike Johnson and Tim Jones, illustrated by David Messina. The fun of this 4-issue graphic novel was that it connected the dots between Star Trek: The Next Generation and the beginning of the J.J. Abrams' reboot of the James T. Kirk Star Trek series. Unfortunately, those dots were connected in a fashion that wasn't particularly dramatic. While it was fun to see (old) Spock, Data, Picard and Worf and to see the roles they played in this "re-envisioning" of the classic series, the story was pretty dull.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard (8/1/09) Fiction (2008 ***) Written by J. K. Rowling. What bedtime fables would young wizards grow up with? That was the premise behind this cute book that Rowling wrote largely as an act of charity for "The Children's Voice." The slim volume was "edited" by Hermione Granger, with "commentary" following each story by Professor Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore. This commentary had an interesting effect: While the stories were written on a level for children, the analysis was clearly written for adults and fans, and occasionally I wondered who the audience really was. The material intended for grown-ups surely must have had younger readers scratching their heads. Still, the concept was an interesting one, and the execution was good. The fact that it was created for charity saved it from feeling like Rowling had dipped into her Harry Potter "pot-o-gold" again after her seventh (and well-publicized as final) book.

Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies: The Screenwriter's Guide to Every Story Ever Told (8/7/09) Nonfiction (2007 ***1/2) Written by Blake Snyder. This book took the 10 genres ("Monster in the House," "Dude With a Problem," etc.) introduced in the first Save the Cat! book and broke down the story beats of several films in each category. My beef with Snyder's first book was that he spent too much time with ballyhoo ("You're not going to believe what brilliant thing I'm going to tell you next!") when he could have been conveying useful information. I found Goes to the Movies to be a stronger, meatier book than the first, and as I read it I frequently wondered what Snyder had up his sleeve for a follow-up in the series. Sadly, we'll never know: Blake Snyder passed away on August 4, 2009, while I was in the middle of reading his book! When I learned of this fact (from a short mention in Nikki Finke's Deadline Hollywood blog), I was disturbed by it. An author's words have a life beyond his own, so what does it mean if he expires while a reader is mid-sentence?

My Life as a Dog (AKA Mitt liv som hund) (8/7/09) TV-IFC (1985 ****) Directed by Lasse Hallström, starring Anton Glanzelius as Ingemar. A young Swedish boy with a dying mother learns that life (and love) can be beautiful. I have loved this film since I first saw it when it was originally released, and have always especially appreciated Hallström's deft hand as a director. So much of the success of a film like this relied on its star, and Glanzelius was adorable throughout. In spite of some of the weightier elements in its subject matter, My Life as a Dog remains an upbeat film that has left me feeling good about life every time I've watched it.

Adrian Zmed"¦ in Concert (8/12/09) Coral Princess (2009 ***1/4) I began this year with a review of this show, which my wife and I saw during our 2-week Panama Canal cruise. It obviously made an impact, since I wanted to see it again. The backup singers were all different this time around, but Adrian Zmed was still out of breath for most of the show. At one point during a medley of minor songs he put on a pink wig and asked the audience what Broadway show it was from. My wife (who had of course seen the show before) yelled out "La Cage aux Folles!" to which he replied with an astonished smile: "Did you say 'La Cage Aux Folles?' Nobody ever gets that one!" In a small way I felt we contributed some positive energy to the show. I was on the lookout for any production changes that had been made in the intervening eight months, but the only one I noticed was that the memorably creepy rendition of the Love Boat theme was slightly less disturbing this time around. I didn't mention it in my previous review, but it was odd that during the "Grease" portion of the show -- Zmed played Danny Zuko thousands of times on Broadway -- they didn't actually use any of the music from Grease, but instead used rock-and-roll songs from the 1950s. I can only assume that was because of the relative expense of licensing those songs.

Dance! (8/15/09) Coral Princess (2009 **1/2) It was the second formal night for our cruise and so I wore a tuxedo and my wife wore an evening gown during this performance. I honestly couldn't remember if we'd seen this minor extravaganza during our Panama Canal cruise, but it turned out we had. The ship was traveling through rough seas, making its way to Glacier Bay, and I must admit I was morbidly curious how the dancers would do under the circumstances. They did fine, of course. The show was okay, but was clearly a minor production built around cheaply-licensed music and designed for a cruise ship. As I watched, I became fascinated by two of the dancers -- one male, one female -- who were clearly out of their depths. I wondered if they were substitutes for the night. The woman, a diminutive blonde, seemed to have absolutely no sense of rhythm. She made up for it, however, with the biggest smile I'd ever seen.

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir (8/16/09) Nonfiction (2006 ****) Written by Bill Bryson. Bryson was born in Iowa in 1951 and lived a near-idyllic childhood in Des Moines during the most prosperous decade America has ever known. A friend at work recommended this book to me, telling me he thought Bryson's writing would be right up my proverbial alley. He was right, and I'll definitely have to check out some of Bryson's many other books. In Thunderbolt Kid, I particularly appreciated the unapologetic (and self-indulgent) relish with which he interleaved his favorite childhood memories with historical information. I got the impression that Bryson had a stack of old Life, Look and Saturday Evening Post magazines next to his writing desk, and the stories and references he pulled from them really added context.

White Fang (8/22/09) Novel (1906 ***1/2) Written by Jack London. A half-breed wolf that is a quarter dog endures hardship after hardship on the road to love and domesticity. Appropriately enough, I read most of this book during an airplane trip from Anchorage, Alaska to Los Angeles. I was inspired by all my wife and I had seen during our 2-week Alaska vacation to buy the book in the Fairbanks Princess Lodge gift shop. Jack London's book is a classic, obviously, and considering it was written more than a century ago it was a fairly accessible and easy read. The copy I read was the "Scholastic Classics" edition and its (somewhat superficial) introduction by Animorphs writer K. A. Applegate intimated that many have felt that White Fang's story was largely symbolic. I don't know about that, but it was apparent that many of the standards of the novel have changed since it was written. In particular, I kept waiting for some meaning to be attached to the casket carrying a wealthy man that was introduced in the first gripping 30 pages of the book. I fully expected the story to come "full circle" and to return in some sense to its beginning, but it never did.

Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List, Season 5 (8/22/09) TV-Bravo (2009 ***1/2) My wife and I have been following this series since the second season. I'm not particularly a fan of reality programming, but I really love Kathy Griffin and the only disappointment in this season was that it was over way too fast. It was particularly fun to watch her rub elbows with A-listers (and a few B-listers) like Don Rickles, Betty White, Paris Hilton, Bette Midler, Lily Tomlin and Suzanne Somers. I think one of the things I have enjoyed about the show is its ongoing message about how much hard work goes into achieving fame, and how humbling and fickle fame can be. Case in point: The fifth season ended with an episode in which Griffin was immortalized in wax at Madam Tussaud's in Las Vegas, then was denied a star on the "Walk of Fame" in Hollywood and had to settle for one in Palm Springs.

The Time Traveler's Wife (8/23/09) Glendale Mann 10 (2009 ***1/4) Directed by Robert Schwentke, based on the novel by Audrey Niffenegger, starring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams. A woman loves a man whose genetic anomaly causes him to become dislodged in time. I absolutely loved Niffenegger's book and had been looking forward to this movie ever since seeing the trailer. Imagine my horror when I returned from my vacation and saw it had received a lower Tomatometer score on RottenTomatoes.com than G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra! It's often a good thing to see a film with properly set expectations, and that was probably the case here. In spite of its weak reviews, I enjoyed the movie, though I felt the directing could have been stronger in a handful of scenes. The story itself is a real tear-jerker, though, and I did an embarrassing amount of crying during The Time Traveler's Wife, though it's unclear if I was reacting to material in the movie or to material I read in the book.

Bigger Than Life (8/23/09) TV-FMC (1956 **) Directed by Nicholas Ray, starring James Mason, Barbara Rush and Walter Matthau. Based on a true story, a teacher with a life-threatening disease does a lousy job of managing his meds. James Mason not only starred in but also produced this spectacularly melodramatic 1950's equivalent of a Lifetime Channel original movie. It was so over-the-top at times I couldn't tear my eyes away from watching. Boy, times sure were different back then, back when we didn't realize the serious side-effects of taking too much of that miracle drug, Cortisone. One fun bit: Jerry Mathers of Leave It To Beaver fame appeared briefly in an uncredited role.

My Kid Could Paint That (8/24/09) Netflix (2007 ***) Directed by Amir Bar-Lev. Four-year-old Marla Olmstead is a painting prodigy. Or is she? That's the central question of this documentary that asks more questions than it answers. I found the film interesting, though when the Olmstead family's story took a darker turn (after a damning piece by Charlie Rose on 60 Minutes), I felt my intestines contract, fearing what would follow. In addition to its subject, the film also raised some basic questions about the nature of abstract art, though it never explored them in any real depth.

Doctor in the House (8/25/09) TV-TCM (1954 ***) Directed by Ralph Thomas, based on the book by Richard Gordon, starring Dirk Bogarde. Simon Sparrow hijinks his way through medical school at London's St. Swithin's teaching hospital. I have memories of buying and reading the original book when I was in my mid-teens. Yeah, I was a weird kid. This British medical comedy was a forerunner not only of M*A*S*H (the film and the TV show), but also Scrubs. In spite of myself, I found the madcap and slightly racy antics of Sparrow and his fellow students to be -- forgive me -- infectious, and Bogarde was certainly charismatic. I wish the film had been close-captioned, however; I missed much of the dialogue because of the thick mid-1950's British accents.

Die Hard (8/27/09) TV-FMC (1988 ****) Directed by John McTeirnan, screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza, based on the novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp, starring Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman. New York cop John McClane takes on heavily-armed high-tech kidnappers/terrorists/bank-robbers holding hostages in an L.A. office building, and he does it barefoot! I was astonished to see just how well this film has held up in the 20 years since it was first released. What's even more amazing is that this was really Willis' first leading role if you don't count 1987's Blind Date. There's no doubt that John McClane was the role that made his career. The film continues to work incredibly well as an action film, but there was plenty of humor ("Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker") and even a hint of self-awareness as well, what with the references to John Wayne, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Finally, they say a film like this is only as good as its villain, and Alan Rickman certainly delivered on that front.

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (3D) (8/28/09) DWA Screening (2009 **1/2) Directed by Carlos Saldanha and Mike Thurmeier, featuring the voices of Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary, Queen Latifah and Simon Pegg as Buck. I remember generally enjoying the first film (which was directed by Chris Wedge), but I never saw the second one in the franchise. Unfortunately I was never completely engaged by the central conflict in which the "herd" must travel into a land time forgot to rescue Sid the sloth from dinosaurs. Part of the reason I felt apathy creeping in was that the characters kept talking about how Sid was a smelly pain-in-the-ass and I wondered why they were risking their lives to save their "friend." The story was also interrupted periodically by B-story running gag comedy antics featuring "Scrat" and "Scratte," which were only mildly funny and were completely unrelated to the main story.

Taking Woodstock (8/28/09) Glendale Americana 16 (2009 ***) Directed by Ang Lee, starring Demetri Martin, Imelda Staunton, Henry Goodman, Emile Hirsh, Liev Schreiber and Eugene Levy as Max Yasgur. Based on a true story, a young man stuck working at his family's run-down Catskills motel becomes a catalyst for the most important rock concert ever, which took place August 15-18, 1969 in White Lake, New York. Martin was consistently likable as Elliot Teichberg and he did a good job as the film's somewhat ambiguous central character, though it often seemed he was just playing himself. Or at least the version of himself as seen on The Daily Show and Important Things with Demetri Martin. While I enjoyed much of the film (including several scenes of gratuitous hippy nudity), it felt uneven, particularly in scope. The challenge of the film was to capture the magnitude of the historic event. Some scenes did that quite well, but the scene in which Elliot and his friend Billy (Emile Hirsh of Into the Wild) slid through the mud felt like it had been filmed in someone's backyard.

Schlock! The Secret History of American Movies (8/29/09) Netflix (2001 ***) Written and directed by Ray Greene. This documentary examines the origins and history of the exploitation film, a chapter of Hollywood's history rarely discussed in polite company. Independently-produced made-for-DVD documentaries like this can either be very polished or decidedly amateurish, and this one fell somewhere in between. Its apparent production values were elevated, however, by a strong (and apparently uncredited) narrator as well as interviews with Peter Bogdanovich, Roger Corman and others. I found the film as a whole, particularly the original footage, interesting, though I did have a strange compulsion to wash my hands afterwards.

Showcase Presents: Ambush Bug (8/29/09) Comics (2009 [stories 1982-1992] ***1/4) Most stories plotted & penciled by Keith Giffen (official creator of the character), scripted by Robert Loren Fleming and inked by Bob Oksner. Back in the mid-1980's when I was still buying comics in that flimsy pamphlet form, there was a period when Justice League took a cue from the TV show Moonlighting and got silly. Writer Keith Giffen (along with J.M. DeMatties) was one of the people responsible for that. It's probably fair to say that this was was a natural reaction to the Crisis series and generally served as a needed break from comics taking themselves way too seriously. Giffen took his comedic sensibilities into the pages of various Ambush Bug titles, which mostly existed as one-shots and limited-run series. The result was a self-aware, stream-of-consciousness anarchy that worked more often than it flopped. It is probably worth noting that the plotter/stenciler comic production structure was (and still is) an unusual one, but it was a natural for this kind of book.

Enemy Mine (8/30/09) TV-FMC (1985 ***1/4) Directed by Wolfgang Petersen, screenplay by Edward Khmara, story by Barry Longyear, starring Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett Jr. The director of Das Boot presents the touching story of two space pilots -- one human, one alien -- whose battle leaves them stranded on an unforgiving planet; these "enemies" must work together to survive. Also, there's a "mine." This film got off to a shaky start, but I'll be damned if it didn't manage to get to me somewhere along the way. Enemy Mine was actually kind of a love story between its two male co-stars, and as such it was really ahead of its time. Imagine, if you will, a contemporary remake in which those homosexual themes are explored, directed by Ang Lee.

Must Love Dogs (8/30/09) Netflix (2005 **) Directed by Gary David Goldberg (who wrote the screenplay based on the novel by Claire Cook), starring Diane Lane and John Cusack, with Elizabeth Perkins and Christopher Plummer. Two neurotic divorced people almost don't wind up together, yet somehow they do. I knew after the first ten minutes that this romantic comedy was -- please forgive me -- a real dog. It consistently felt like warmed over Nora Ephron, with unmotivated "quirky" characters and lapses in story and character logic. For example, Cusack played a divorced guy (who we're told is paying alimony) who builds hand-crafted boats that nobody wants to buy. What was the source of his income? As far as I could tell, he only ever built one boat! There was also very little real sexual chemistry between Lane and Cusack. Still, I kept watching, hoping against hope that the film would get better. And you know what? It actually kind of did! In the final half hour the writing seemed to improve dramatically and I began to care about the characters. Crazy! However, that last-minute uptick wasn't enough for me to recommend the film.

Funny People (8/31/09) DWA Screening (2009 ***1/4) Written and directed by Judd Apatow, starring Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen, with Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman. A famous funnyman (Sandler) learns he's dying and hires a fledgling comic (Rogen) as his assistant. I'm a little worried about what this says about me, but this film really got under my skin. I found it to be both funny and depressing, sometimes alternating, sometimes at the same time. As I watched, I was reminded of two films for different reasons: (1) Punchline (2008 -- Directed by David Seltzer, starring Tom Hanks & Sally Fields) which explored the serious side of being funny in front of a live audience and the fragile egos involved; and (2) Terms of Endearment (1983 -- Directed by James L. Brooks, starring Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine). I may be wrong, but I wondered as I watched the film if Apatow, the hottest comedy director to hit the movie business in a long time, may be aspiring to become a modern James L. Brooks, finding a way to combine the best of comedy and drama. If that is in fact his intended goal, he's well on his way with Funny People.

September

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (9/1/09) TV-FMC (1947 ***1/2) Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, screenplay by Philip Dunne, based on the novel by R.A. Dick, starring Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison, with little Natalie Wood as Anna Muir. A widow decides that a seaside cottage haunted by the ghost of a ship's captain suits her perfectly. There was a definite literary romanticism in this story of a woman who is only able find true love... in death. I doubt this story would work for a modern audience, though. As I watched the ending, I wondered to what degree this film had influenced, at least tonally, the 1980 movie Somewhere in Time. Finally, isn't it bizarre that this gothic, dramatic film was used as the basis for a late-1960's situation sit-com made in the fantasy mold of Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie?

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (9/2/09) TV-TCM (1947 ***1/4) Directed by Irving Reis, story and screenplay by Sidney Sheldon, starring Cary Grant, Myrna Loy and Shirley Temple, with Rudy Vallee. The teenage sister of a judge falls in love with an artist old enough to be her father and hilarity, not statutory rape, ensues. There's a lot to like about this film: Grant was brilliant as always and Shirley Temple certainly did grow up to be an adorable teen. Sidney Sheldon's Oscar-winning premise was so audacious and ludicrous (the family of the "bobby-soxer" decides the "bachelor" should pretend to date her... for her own good), it's no wonder he went on to TV greatness with The Patty Duke Show and I Dream of Jeannie. Even though this film was made over 60 years ago, there was a surprisingly modern sensibility at work and it often felt like a contemporary romantic comedy.

Norma Rae (9/3/09) TV-FMC (1979 ***1/2) Directed by Martin Ritt, written by Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch, starring Sally Field, Ron Liebman and Beau Bridges. A Jewish New York union organizer encounters resistance to unionizing a southern textile factory (Shocking!), but he finds an unexpected friend and secret weapon in the form of a diminutive dynamo named Norma Rae. Sally Field's best actress acceptance speech ("You like me! You really like me!") became so well-known that it unfortunately eclipsed the terrific job she did in a very challenging role. I definitely have a new respect for Field after seeing this gutsy performance, which undoubtedly helped pave the way for actresses like Meryl Streep in Silkwood and Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich. A lot of people might be turned off by the film's subject matter, which was based on a true story, but it wasn't nearly as depressing as I'd feared. Norma Rae is one of those films I'm embarrassed I never got around to watching before now, but I'm glad I finally did. I'm not surprised it was nominated for Best Picture, even though it lost to Kramer vs. Kramer.

Rope (9/3/09) TV-TCM (1948 ***) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring James Stewart, John Dall and Farley Granger. Two men strangle a classmate, put his body in a chest, then hold a cocktail party... for kicks! Inspired by the Leopold and Loeb case, the historical significance of this film was its gimmick: Hitchcock filmed the entire movie as if it were (more or less) one continuous shot, limited primarily by how much film the camera could hold. Because of the presentation technique, many have remarked about how much it felt like a play. However, the carefully-planned camera was very active, with compositions and movement heavy with meaning. To my modern eyes, it was more like a play taking place in a virtual reality, where the audience's point of view floated around the stage as an invisible presence. I last watched this film when I was in college -- more than twenty years ago -- and I think I liked it a bit less then than now. It was a good film, but far from Hitchcock's best. The drama devolved into melodrama at times, and James Stewart demonstrated his occasional tendency to over-act. Ultimately, however, it was the subject matter that kept me at arm's length: While the premise of two vaguely homosexual sociopaths engaged in a "thrill kill" was mildly interesting in a sick humor kind of way, the film's central Nietzsche "Superman" question/theme didn't really resonate much with me.

2000 Color Combinations (9/4/09) Nonfiction (2009 **1/2) Written by Garth Lewis. This seems an odd book to review, but review it I shall. Though mostly comprised of (as the name suggests) color combinations, this was not quite as quick a read as one might think. The text was fairly dense, and it took several lunch hours to read the entire book. I've always had a "seat of your pants / instinctive" approach to using color and I somehow managed to get through college without taking an actual color theory course. Recently I've been working on a series of posters, and color plays an important role. I thought this book would provide a good overview. I can't really recommend it for that purpose, though it did expose me to some concepts like "split complementaries," and it's clear I have a lot more to learn. The book concluded with a section in which 10 artists selected a 10-color palette, then discussed their approaches to using color. At the risk of accusing the emperor of wearing no clothes, to my eye at least five of the 10 palettes appeared to be general-purpose random selections, and I wasn't quite sure what the point was.

District 9 (9/4/09) Glendale Mann 10 (2009 ***1/4) Directed by Neill Blomkamp, screenplay by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, starring Sharlto Copley as Wikus Van De Merwe. 20 Years ago aliens arrived in South Africa and from the way the government handled the situation it was clear they'd learned nothing from apartheid. I liked the "intelligent Sci Fi" approach of the premise and especially appreciated that the main character was painted as just unsympathetic enough that his eventual fate was very much up for grabs. District 9 was definitely a great accomplishment for a director still in his 20's and I wondered how much Peter Jackson was involved in the film's creation. The cinéma vérité approach invited a comparison with Cloverfield, and for more than one reason: My enjoyment of District 9 might have been greater had I not be concerned for my wife, who left the theater twice because the film's shaky camera movement and graphic imagery made her sick.

John Williams and the Music of the Movies (9/5/09) Hollywood Bowl (2009 ***) Legendary actress Lynn Redgrave commented on the musical selections for the first half of the show, all of which were taken from the Harry Potter films. Williams mixed things up in the second half, playing some "greatest hits," some music he didn't even write ("As Time Goes By" from Casablanca), and some esoteric choices that really had me scratching my head. I imagined a conversation that went something like this: Hollywood Bowl: "You can play whatever you want, John, so long as you end with Star Wars and Raiders." J.W.: "Great! I've been waiting for a chance to feature music I wrote for Catch Me If You Can and the 1978 version of Dracula."

The Big Picture: Rodgers and Hammerstein at the Movies (9/6/09) Hollywood Bowl (2009 ***1/2) It's true: The hills are alive and there's nothing like a dame. Turner Classic Movies' frontsman Robert Osborne provided interstitial commentary for this "night at the movies" that featured music from all seven Rodgers & Hammerstein's movie musicals: Oklahoma!, Carousel, The King and I, State Fair, South Pacific, Flower Drum Song, and (of course) The Sound of Music. These "Big Picture" shows at the Bowl always strike me as a little like going to a really expensive drive-in movie, but I inevitably love every minute. The encore had the audience singing merrily along with "Do, a Deer" from The Sound of Music.

The Goon Volume 1: Nothin' but Misery (9/7/09) Comics (2003 ***) Written and illustrated by Eric Powell. A friend at work loaned me several volumes of the Goon saga. I had only been mildly aware of the character previously, so this was really my introduction. The titular character is an ugly cuss who spends his days not taking shit from anybody and his nights inviting zombies to take dirt naps. I loved the art, which reminded me immediately of Will Eisner's best Spirit comics, but it took some time before I got into the characters and situations. In all honesty I wasn't all the way there by the time I finished this first volume. Much of the action seemed random and the characters were often unsympathetic.

High Anxiety (9/8/09) TV-FMC (1977 **1/2) Directed by Mel Brooks, starring Mel Brooks, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman and Harvey Korman. Mel Brooks does to Alfred Hitchcock what he did to Westerns in Blazing Saddles. The premise of a Hitchcock parody surely seemed like a natural, but unfortunately the concept was stronger than this film's execution. The humor generally felt cheap and uneven and frankly I never really thought it was very funny. I can't help but think the makers of Airplane (1980) saw this film and thought "We can do a lot better." In one of the oddest cameos I think I've ever seen, Barry Levinson (one of the four credited writers) demonstrated the limits of his acting abilities in his role as an exceptionally annoying Bellboy.

Time After Time (9/9/09) TV-FMC (1979 ***) Directed by Nicholas Meyer, starring Malcolm McDowell, David Warner and Mary Steenburgen. H.G. Wells chases Jack the Ripper across time from 1893 to present-day (well, late-1970's at least) San Francisco. I hadn't seen this film in years, and I regretfully must admit that it's not nearly as good as I'd remembered. It's still a fun film, though, and McDowell and Steenburgen were likable enough. However, I did notice a few times when character motivations were noticeably weak and plot points didn't hold up to close examination. I also have a hunch that Mary Steenburgen (who I've always liked) may have invested the money she made from this film on acting lessons.

Kramer vs. Kramer (9/9/09) TV-HDNET (1979 ****) Written and Directed by Robert Benton, based on the novel by Avery Corman, starring Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep and Justin Henry. When a career-driven man's wife leaves him and his 5-year-old son, he must learn how to be a good parent and a good man. This film deservedly won five Oscars: Best Actor, best actress, best adapted screenplay, best director and best picture. What a terrific, honest 4-star movie, and there's little I can say other than see it if you haven't already.

The Goon, Volume 2: My Murderous Childhood (and Other Grievous Yarns) (9/9/09) Comics (2004 ***1/4) Written and Illustrated by Eric Powell. The saga of The Goon continue. This volume (largely comprised of stand-alone stories) started digging into The Goon's backstory, and I began to feel as though he was a character I wanted to get to know. The collection also contained a delightful story with a photo-comic framing device that featured Powell's own son.

The Frighteners (9/10/09) TV-HDNET (1996 ***1/4) Directed by Peter Jackson, starring Michael J. Fox, Trina Alvarado, Dee Wallace-Stone and Jake Busey. Psychic investigator Frank Bannister discovers serial killers don't necessarily stop accumulating a body count when they're electrocuted. This was an odd, quirky little mishmash of fun ideas. I was frequently reminded of other films, including Ghostbusters, the Back to the Future trilogy (Robert Zemeckis was Executive Producer) and The Sixth Sense, which was released three years later but also featured a character who saw "dead people." Even when I first saw it in the theater I thought it felt as though it was produced in an alternate universe, and in a way it was, since it was shot in New Zealand. If you're looking for a fun roller-coaster of a movie and another chance to see Michael J. Fox in his physical comedy prime, I recommend this film.

Lord of the Flies (1963) (9/11/09) TV-IFC (1963 **1/2) Written and directed by Peter Brook, based on William Golding's 1954 novel, starring James Aubrey, Tom Chapin and Hugh Edwards as Ralph, Jack and Piggy. When a scrappy tribe of adorable British schoolboys get shipwrecked on a tropical island, who knows what madcap shenanigans those scamps will get up to? This film was decidedly crude and frequently amateurish. The editing drove me absolutely crazy: Excruciatingly long edits around scenes of stilted dialogue did little to reduce the awkwardness of the delivery. Still, I kept watching because of the story: There's something intrinsically fascinating about watching a group of little boys devolve into savages.

Who Killed the Electric Car? (9/11/09) Netflix (2006 ***) Written and directed by Chris Pain, narrated by Martin Sheen. Believe it or not, back in the mid-1990's, GM and other car companies developed fully rechargeable electric vehicles and leased them to the general public. And yet they disappeared almost as mysteriously as they appeared. Who was responsible for their demise? Was it Big Oil? The Federal Government? General Motors? Ed Begley Jr.? Or was it YOU??? This was a solid documentary about a strange detour taken along the road to oil independence. Unfortunately, while the film did reinforce my desire to make sure my next car is a hybrid, its conclusion wasn't particularly satisfying and the subject matter didn't really lend itself to gripping drama.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (9/12/09) Netflix (1965 ***) Directed by Martin Ritt, based on the novel by John le Carré starring Richard Burton, Claire Bloom and Oskar Werner. Baby, it's cold out there for a spy. Alec Leamas (Burton) is an alcoholic British agent who must pretend to defect in order to... well, you'll just have to see for yourself, won't you? I shan't blame you if you don't: Even though the film was thoroughly gripping with plenty of psychological tension and the script kept me guessing about where it was headed, it was still mighty bleak. Bleak, bleak, bleak, bleak, bleak.

The Goon, Volume 3: Heaps of Ruination (9/13/09) Comics (2005 ***1/2) Written and illustrated by Eric Powell. I mentioned in my review of the first volume how much I was immediately reminded of Will Eisner's The Spirit when I first started reading this series. Apparently I'm not alone: Screenwriter/director/producer Frank Darabont suggested in his foreword to this volume that the adventures of The Goon take place in the same world as The Spirit, that Wildwood Cemetery is right around the corner from Lonely Street. I think that was a brilliant observation and I'm quite content to accept it. The series as a whole seems to be growing on me with each successive volume, and a high point of this third collection was a fun cameo by Hellboy in which the character was drawn by Hellboy's creator, Mike Mignola.

Ponyo (AKA Gake no ue no Ponyo) (9/14/09) DWA Screening (2008 ***1/2) Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, with American voice talent by Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett and Noah Cyrus as Ponyo. A five-year-old boy named Sosuke finds a fish named Ponyo who turns out to be the runaway daughter of an evil wizard who lives under the sea. For the first five minutes of this film I had no idea what was going on. I enjoyed the film but felt throughout that I wasn't its intended audience -- that it would be a great movie for children of preschool age. The story, which had a weaker-than-expected resolution, got pretty freakin' weird at times, but it was never particularly scary or intense. Still, I walked out of the theater feeling mentally altered, as if strange chemicals had been injected directly into my brain. I've heard similar reports by adults who have watched Teletubbies.

Compulsion (9/15/09) TV-FMC (1959 ****) Directed by Richard Fleischer, screenplay by Richard Murphy, based on the novel by Meyer Levin, starring Bradford Dillman, Dean Stockwell, Orson Welles, E.G. Marshall and Martin Milner. "I want to do something really dangerous, something that will have everybody talking, not just a few guys!" Artie and Judd are two rich brainy pals who kidnap and off a punk kid... for kicks. Based on the Leopold and Loeb case, the same source inspiration for Hitchcock's Rope which I reviewed recently, this film started strong and never let up. Orson Welles' death penalty denouncing courtroom monologue at the film's end was powerfully written and powerfully delivered.

Surf's Up (9/16/09) Netflix (2007 ***1/4) Directed by Ash Brannon and Chris Buck, featuring the voices of Shia LaBeouf, Jeff Bridges, Zooey Deschanel and James Woods. An Antarctic penguin named Cody Maverick learns a lot about surfing, life and himself as he competes in the Penguin World Surfing Championship. This was a good film and was rightly nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Unfortunately, it never found the audience it deserved and made less than $60M domestically. Its faux surf documentary angle, inspired by The Endless Summer (1966), was original, though it may have limited its appeal. I enjoyed the film but was never fully engaged in the characters emotionally, possibly because the stakes weren't particularly high.

The Goon, Volume 4: Virtue and the Grim Consequences Thereof (9/16/09) Comics (2006 ***1/2) Written and illustrated by Eric Powell. Eric Powell and The Goon take on Dickens' A Christmas Carol and something is terribly wrong with Dr. Hieronymus Alloy. There's even a hilarious text story at the end written by Reno 911's Thomas Lennon. As I've indicated in my reviews of previous volumes, this series got off to an uneven start writing-wise, but it seems to have found its rhythm, and I definitely recommend it to comic readers looking for a good time.

Office Space (9/17/09) TV-IFC (1999 ***1/2) Written and directed by Mike Judge, starring Ron Livingston, Jennifer Aniston and Gary Cole. Cubicle rat Peter Gibbons hates his job and hates his life until a hypnotist opens an escape hatch in his brain. Anyone who's ever worked in a cubicle farm (including yours truly) or has sat in meetings playing "Buzzword Bingo" or has fantasized about beating the crap out of a "paper jam"-prone printer can appreciate this movie. Mike Judge did an excellent job of capturing a snapshot of corporate culture in the late-1990's. The take-away message of the film was that most people don't like their jobs and if you're one of them it's up to you to figure out what's tolerable and what you can change.

RESUME

The Goon, Volume 5: Wicked Inclinations (The Goons) (9/18/09) Comics (2006 ***1/2) Written and illustrated by Eric Powell. The tone seemed to have shifted in this fifth volume, with the story (in which the Priest has created a horde of baby ghouls) taking itself a bit more seriously. The book ended with a set of short-short Goon stories written and illustrated by various artists.

Pink Martini (9/19/09) Hollywood Bowl (2009 ****) Featuring founder and pianist Thomas M. Lauderdale and vocalist China Forbes. It's not often I see a band and immediately want to own some of their material, but this was one of those times. In fact, at one point during the first half of the show I slipped down to the gift shop and bought their first two CDs as a gift for my wife's birthday. A friend described Pink Martini's music this way: Imagine spending an evening at the Cocoanut Grove in the 1930s. I'm embarrassed to admit a sense of dismay that this band I've never heard of before had enough fans to fill the Hollywood Bowl. That's really saying something. This Portland, Oregon band has evidently been around for over a decade, and now that I've experienced them firsthand I can see why they have so many fans. In addition to songs sung in Spanish, French and Portuguese, Pink Martini has a modern, quirky side too: Late in the show they were joined by a familiar and unexpected friend, Emilio Delgado (Luis from Sesame Street), for a lovely sing-along rendition of "Sing (Sing a Song)."
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (9/21/09) TV-TCM (1939 **1/2) Directed by Wiliam Dieterle, based on the novel by Victor Hugo, starring Charles Laughton, Cedric Hardwicke and (in her first role) Maureen O'Hara. The year 1939 produced some classic films, including Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz and this one. I'd never seen it before and expected to be blown away. But I wasn't. In fact, I found Monsieur Hugo's story to be meandering, dipping frequently into outdated political rhetoric. For me, Hunchback never added up to a compelling story, and I wasn't sure how I was supposed to feel about many of the characters. For instance, King Louis XI (played by familiar-faced Harry Davenport) was likable most of the time, but when he pulled that "trial by ordeal" bullshit at Esmeralda's trial, he was clearly a royal ass. Also, I know we were supposed to feel sympathy a-plenty for Laughton's Quasimodo, but when he poured a hundred gallons of hot molten metal onto the crowd trying to break their way into Notre Dame Cathedral, I felt it was a disproportionate response to their actions.
Master Spy: The Robert Hanssen Story (9/21/09) Netflix (2002 **1/2) Directed by Lawrence Schiller, written by Norman Mailer, starring William Hurt, Mary-Louise Parker and David Strathaim. FBI traitor Robert Hanssen was a pretty weird and creepy guy. Not only did he sell secrets to the Soviets for years, he also planted hidden video cameras and photographed his wife without her knowledge, then shared the results with his voyeur-loving buddy. Schiller and Mailer were the team behind The Executioner's Song (1982) and from the behind-the scenes featurette, I got the sense they used that fact to get access to Hanssen's family, friends and former co-workers at the FBI. I have to say, I wasn't very impressed with this production. Between the material and William Hurt's affected impression of a borderline sociopath, I was turned off. Part of it was the limited production values. Master Spy was originally created as an HBO made-for-TV movie, which allowed a certain amount sex and nudity which was presented in a largely gratuitous fashion.
High School Confidential! (9/22/09) TV-TCM (1958 ***) Directed by Jack Arnold, starring Russ Tamblyn, John Drew Barrymore, Mamie Van Doren and Jerry Lee Lewis, with a small role by Michael Landon. "If you flake around with the weed, you'll end up using the harder stuff." Weedheads and hopped up kittens alike turn their heads when a crazy new hep cat is grazin' for grass, dig? What was it about movies about teenage drug abuse that brought out the crazy in middle-aged filmmakers back in the fifties and sixties? That's a question for the ages. And why was it so hard to find actors to play teenagers who looked like they were under 30? This film was just well made enough to be watchable and just bad enough to be riveting. Highlights included a weird teen lingo version of Christopher Columbus' discovery of America and a nihilistic beat poem -- neither advanced the plot, but they sure were weird.

Howl's Moving Castle (9/24/09) TV-IFC (2004 ****) Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, based on the novel by Diana Wynne Jones, featuring the voices of Jean Simmons, Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall and Blythe Danner. Against the backdrop of an ongoing war, a shopgirl named Sophie meets a wizard named Howl and shortly afterwards the Witch of the Waste puts a curse on Sophie that turns her into an old woman. I think this may be my favorite Miyazaki film yet. It's fantastic, yet very accessible. Like some of his other films, the story motivations aren't always clear, but it was still quite satisfying.

October

Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction (10/4/09) Nonfiction (2005 ***) Written by Nick Montfort. I bought and read this book because I'm in the planning stages on a "Choose Your Own Adventure"-style book project. "Interactive Fiction" is, apparently, far more narrowly defined, and the variety discussed in this book was limited to the text adventure games mostly created in the late 1970's through the 1980's. Players navigated the world of the game by typing in words, which were interpreted by the game and responses were given. Over time, language parsers became more sophisticated, though from the overview provided in this book, not by much. The title "Twisty Little Passages" comes from the granddaddy of these games, called "Adventure," which was later reworked and renamed as "Colossal Cave." Montfort's writing was very dry and far more academic than the writing I'm accustomed to reading. I frequently wished he would "loosen up," but yet something kept me reading. I think I may have been driven by my own nostalgia, honestly. The timeframe and coding methods described reminded me of my very first excursions into the world of programming, though even from the beginning I was more interested in graphics than text. There was also a little sadness and a hint of archeology to the works described. These games were the precursors to the modern graphic adventure games, and along the way they fell by the wayside. Montfort hinted that they had evolved toward a form of legitimate literature, and perhaps that development path has been truncated. Maybe someday others will pick it up once again.

The Horse's Mouth (10/4/09) Netflix (1958 ***1/2) Directed by Ronald Neame, screenplay by Alec Guinness, based on the novel by Joyce Cary, starring Alec Guinness and Kay Walsh. "Of course you want to be an artist. Everybody does, once. But they get over it, like measles and chicken pox." Gulley Jimson is a William Blake-quoting painter of the first order, but his devotion and obsession doesn't always make him beloved. My father, also a painter, told me recently that this film changed his life. Its message is that the pursuit of art can be a blessing (in the sense that it allows glimpses of the divine) but also a curse. The Horse's Mouth is a charming film, and while it's nominally a comedy, there was a real depth beneath its surface and Alec Guinness delivered a performance that was quite moving at times.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (10/6/09) TV-TCM (1939 ****) Directed by Frank Capra, screenplay by Sidney Buchman, based on a story by Lewis R. Forster, starring James Stewart, Jean Arthur and Claude Rains. Idealistic young Jefferson Smith is appointed senator and gets himself a heaping mouthful of dirty Washington politics. 1939 was a big year in the history of films, and this was one of its best. Call me a sap, but I absolutely love this movie. In addition to containing one of Stewart's best performances, every word of its script was packed with energy. It's not a perfectly structured film, though, and is probably one of the few great films where the story's climax occurs (and the film ends) while the main character is unconscious!
The African Queen (10/7/09) TV-TCM (1951 ***) Directed by John Huston, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Set in Africa during the first world war, a missionary and a rascal make odd bedfellows as they plot to destroy a German warship. I watched this classic film sometime in my early 20's, but it didn't make much of an impression on me then, nor did it now. The whole film seemed contrived and artificial, and never once did the characters truly come alive. I love Bogart and Hepburn, but they certainly delivered far better performances than they did in this film. More than anything else, it reminded me of a high-concept Hollywood film that never quite lived up to its full potential.
How to Steal a Million (10/7/09) TV-FMC (1966 **1/2) Directed by William Wyler, starring Audrey Hepburn and Peter O'Toole. The daughter of an art forger asks a burglar to help steal a sculpture from a French museum. Characters aside, the key to making a "caper" film work is that the heist itself has to be compelling. That definitely wasn't the case in this film, where at least fifteen minutes were devoted to the process of getting out of a locked janitor's closet. In addition, with a running time of 123 minutes, the film was at least a half hour too long. Its slow, plodding pace drove me crazy. Hepburn and O'Toole were certainly likable enough, but everything else in this film smacked of insincerity. I couldn't help but wonder if this film wasn't produced to cash in on the success of other, better heist films.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (10/7/09) TV-TCM (1948 ***1/2) Directed by John Huston, screenplay by John Huston, based on the novel by B. Traven, starring Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston and Tim Holt. "We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinking badges!" This classic is a hard film to watch; by the time the movie is over, the viewer feels they've gone to hell and back themselves. Bogart gave one of his best performances as a man who began with simple, honest intentions but lost a measure of his soul with every ounce of gold dust collected in an unforgiving land. It wasn't exactly a linear progression, either, though the descent to madness, greed and paranoia rarely is.
Lucifer, Volume 1: Devil in the Gateway (10/8/09) Comics (2001 ***) Written by Mike Carey, illustrated by various. What does the lord of the underworld do after he's given up the keys to his kingdom? This incarnation of Lucifer was introduced in one of the first few issues of Neil Gaiman's Sandman. I was loaned this volume by a friend at work along with the reassurance: "It starts out slow but gets better." Almost immediately I knew it would probably be a book I would come to like; I found Carey's writing to have a tone and lyricism reminiscent of Gaiman. However, I also noted a shared affinity for ambiguity, so I hope there's less of that on the road ahead. At any rate, I enjoyed this book enough to continue along on Lucifer's journey.
The Muppet Movie (10/8/09) DVD (1979 ***1/2) Directed by James Frawley, screenplay by Jack Burns & Jerry Juhl, music by Paul Williams & Kenny Ascher, featuring the voices of Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Jerry Nelson. How did the Muppet gang really get together? As Kermit tells his nephew Robin at the beginning, this movie tells "sort of approximately how it happened." I loved this film when it was originally released; I must've seen it three times in the theater back in the summer of 1979. I'll be honest: I was a little afraid to watch this film after all these years. I knew my affection for it was largely sentimental. Would the film itself hold up? What if it didn't? Well, the sad truth is that it didn't hold up as well as I'd hoped. Kermit singing "Rainbow Connection" and Gonzo singing "I Hope to Go Back There Someday" didn't pack near the emotional wallop they once did. Still, it was a joy to ride along with Jim Henson's Muppets as they cornballed their way from the Florida Everglades to Hollywood. It was also great fun seeing cameo appearances by so many great performers, many of them no longer with us. You know what? After all these years, I still love this film, even in spite of its limitations.
Weather Girl (10/8/09) TV-Lifetime (2009 ***1/4) Written and directed by Blayne Weaver, starring Tricia O'Kelley, Patrick J. Adams, Mark Harmon and Jon Cryer in an inexplicable cameo. You must be wondering: What the hell was Terran doing watching a Lifetime Original Movie? Well, my reason was simple: My friend Donovan Miller contributed two songs to the soundtrack, and I wanted to record and watch it as a show of support. But you know what happened? I actually got drawn into this cute little romantic comedy, in spite of being a little bugged by its necessarily limited production values. Call me a snob (I've been called worse), but I was actually pretty surprised by how well-written Weaver's script was -- I look forward to seeing what he does in the future. And the music was pretty good too! Hi Donovan!
Shrek the Musical (10/9/09) Broadway Theater (2009 ***1/2) Music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire, starring Brian d'Arcy James (Shrek), Sutton Foster (Fiona), Daniel Breaker (Donkey) and Christopher Sieber (Lord Farquaad). I knew we were going to see this on the first night of our NYC trip -- my wife assisted with the production's marketing and even has a credit in its Playbill -- so I prepped by listening to the soundtrack on my Ipod several times prior to our trip. I'm so glad I did, both because the familiarity with the material added to my enjoyment of the show and also because the music really grew on me. The performances were terrific, particularly by the actors playing Fiona, Donkey and Farquaad. Having worked on the original film, I was very familiar with the source material, and I loved how the stage version took the opportunity to expand on the backstories of Shrek, Fiona and Farquaad. The funny and touching song "I Know It's Today" featured Fiona at different ages, and by giving much of the show's emotional focus to her, the love relationship between Fiona and Shrek was made all the more credible. At one heart-melting point early in the show, we even got to see a seven-year-old Fiona waving to a seven-year-old Shrek as she was led away to her castle prison. My only minor reservation with the show was that it relied so heavily on lines taken directly from the film, such as: "I'm a donkey on the edge! I have a loaded dragon and I'm not afraid to use it!" This direct lifting from the source material was obviously a deliberate choice, and I'm really not sure why it bothered me as much as it did. Perhaps it was because it took me out of the experience. I have yet to see the musical adaptation of The Lion King, so I'm not sure if they did the same thing in that show.
Saturday Night Live (10/10/09) 30 Rockefeller Center (2009 ****) Hosted by Drew Barrymore, with musical guest Regina Spektor. My wife and I really are quite the Hollywood couple. Thanks to my wife's contact at Shrek the Musical, we got two tickets to the live show as well as a backstage tour and an invite to the cast party, courtesy of one of the show's writers. The historical significance of this particular night was that Drew Barrymore hosted for the sixth time, breaking the previous record for shows hosted by a woman. I have been watching SNL more or less regularly since it first began -- almost 34 years ago to the day -- on October 11, 1975. It was a real honor and a thrill to have the experience. When I was much younger, being a writer on SNL was one of my many aspirations. But my dream went one direction and I went another. At the after-party we sat in the corner and chatted with our hosts. As we sat there I saw many of the cast members, including Andy Samberg, Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis and Fred Armisen. I knew that if I wanted to I could introduce myself, but knew I had little to say other than "I love your work -- thanks for making us laugh." It was sobering to listen to the writer describe the grueling production schedule, and it was clear from listening to him and by watching the crew during the taping that comedy was a very serious business. Just a few years younger than I, he was living my old dream and I must admit to feeling a twinge or two of envy. My wife and I later walked around the club (Asia de Cuba) and fell into a nice conversation with Nasim Pedrad, one of the new featured players (along with Jenny Slate). Like Kristen Wiig, Nasim had come from L.A.'s Groundlings and her youthful enthusiasm and apparent innocence was touching and provided a nicely optimistic note on which to end our evening.
Wishful Drinking (10/11/09) Studio 54 (2009 ***1/4) Written and performed by Carrie Fisher, directed by Tony Taccone. This show was high on the list of shows we wanted to see while we were in the city. Getting tickets was kind of a last minute decision, and my wife and I practically ran from the TKTS booth at Times Square to the Studio 54 box office (located, oddly enough on 54th Street), arriving just a few minutes before show time. We got (I was told) the last two adjacent seats for the matinee. Fisher began the show by stumbling into the mock living room set and kicking off her shoes. The first act was devoted, more or less, to talking about her dysfunctional show business family, headed by Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. The high-point was a diagram on a blackboard that was essentially a flow chart of who married, divorced, remarried and/or boinked whom. Fisher's life-changing role in Star Wars became sort of a running theme, and Fisher talked about the ramifications of having your likeness owned by George Lucas. Presented as exhibit "A" was what she described as a life-sized Princess Leia sex doll. After the intermission, Fisher dove into the heady waters of her marriage to and divorce from Paul Simon ("If you ever have a chance to have Paul Simon write a song about you, DO IT!"), her substance abuse struggles and her experiences with manic depression. All in all, it was a very entertaining show. I loved how she engaged her audience and how she was able to talk about some pretty heavy issues while keeping it airy. However, while I enjoyed the show, it seemed fairly "one-note," with a consistent cadence throughout. While there were plenty of funny lines (all delivered at equally-spaced intervals), none particularly stood out as show-stoppingly hilarious.
Woody Allen & the Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band (10/12/09) Cafe Carlyle, Carlyle Hotel (2009 ****) I make no secret of the fact that I am a huge fan of Woody Allen. It's probably one of my defining characteristics. I saw him in person once before back in 2005 at a Variety Magazine screening of Match Point. This was different though, and not only because I wasn't distracted this time around by Scarlett Johansson's cleavage. Allen's identity and persona as a jazz musician borders on the autistic. When he performs at the Carlyle -- which he does regularly on Monday nights when he's not off making his annual movie -- he makes minimal eye contact with the audience. At first was a little weird, but after thinking about it, I realized why it was necessary: If he were to begin to engage the crowd (such as the drunk woman at the bar who kept yelling "I LOVE you, Woody!"), his personality as a comedian would necessarily take over. The music was great and the place was packed, with latecomers paying $100 cover charges for their shoulder-to-shoulder "standing room only" slots. We felt pretty smug about having made reservations and getting there early, and our table was only about fifteen feet away from Woody himself. However, when our bill arrived I felt as if I'd stepped off the edge of a cliff; my mind reeled knowing that our dinner and drinks cost more than my first car! I was in shock for several minutes but slowly returned to enjoying the remainder of the show, though I did begin to wonder what Mr. Allen's cut of the house take was! Afterwards, as we walked down Park Avenue back toward our hotel, my wife reminded me that in less than an hour it was going to be my birthday and it had been a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience. And she was right. According to Google, Woody Allen was born on December 1, 1935, making him 73. Who knows how much longer he'll be playing at the Carlyle or, for that matter, making his movies? You know what? That lady at the bar was onto something. I love you, Woody!
Family of Spies (10/16/09) Netflix (1990 **1/2) Directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal, based on the books by Howard Blum and Pete Earley, starring Powers Boothe, Lesley Ann Warren and Lili Taylor. Based on a true story, John A. Walker sold U.S. secrets to the Soviets for twenty years and enlisted friends and family members to do the same until his alcoholic ex-wife turned him in. Nearly three hours in length, this was originally aired as a TV miniseries. I told my wife and myself I wasn't going to get sucked into watching the whole thing, but yet somehow I was. The material was just engaging enough to keep my interest in spite of scenery chewing all the way around. I've always found Powers Boothe (as an actor) to be creepy and disturbing, the kind of guy I'd go out of my way to avoid in real life. That's probably why he's best remembered for playing the lead in the 1980 TV movie Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones.
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (10/19/09) DWA Screening (2009 ***1/2) Written and Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, based on the book by Judi and Ron Barrett, featuring the voices of Bill Hader, Anna Faris, James Caan, Andy Samberg and Mr. T. Flint Lockwood, his town's answer to Thomas Edison, invents a machine that turns water into food, and he becomes a local hero... at first. I loved this movie, and it's definitely my favorite Sony Animation film yet. Much of its quality came from the script, which seemed to sparkle with freshness and originality throughout. I got the sense that it was deliberately commercial, but that's not all bad. After some less-than-successful offerings by the studio (Monster House, Beowulf, Surf's Up), I sincerely hope Sony can continue making family-friendly animated films of this caliber.
Almost Infamous (10/21/09) DWA Screening (2008 ***1/4) Directed by Ken Bielenberg, produced by Alonzo Ruvalcaba. This documentary follows The Kinsey Sicks -- a quartet who dresses in drag and sings politically-charged songs -- as they take the uneven path to Vegas and potential stardom. Unfortunately, that description, while accurate, makes it all too easy to dismiss their act sight unseen, and it makes them (and this film) a bit of a hard sell. After watching Almost Infamous and witnessing the journey taken by The Kinsey Sicks, I have far more respect for the performers than I expected to have and I hope I get the chance to see them live someday.
Videodrome (10/22/09) TV-TCM (1983 **1/2) Written and directed by David Cronenberg, starring James Woods, Sonja Smits and Deborah Harry. A sleezeball TV executive stumbles upon a hallucination-inducing S&M TV show called Videodrome. Also, you get to see Blondie's Debbie Harry semi-nude! Believe it or not, the one and only time I watched this film previously was as part of a college class, around 1986 or so. David Cronenberg was (and perhaps still is) a pretty twisted guy. At the point in his career when he made Videodrome his writing skills were clearly still developing, but with characters with names like "Brian O'Blivion," its apparent he was having a lot of fun. I can't actually recommend this film in good conscious, but if you want to see just how weird and morally ambiguous the 1980's could be, give it a shot.
Monty Python: Almost the Truth -- The Lawyer's Cut (10/24/09) TV-IFC (2009 ***1/2) Directed by Bill Jones (son of Terry Jones), Alan G. Parker and Benjamin Timlett. This six-part documentary follows the origins and arc of Monty Python's Flying Circus. I was a big Python fan when I was a teenager and into my early 20's, but I haven't really watched their TV shows or any of their films since then. Part of the pleasure I got from this documentary was seeing some of that material again after so long. As documentaries go, this was well-executed and went into a depth I appreciated. The conflicts between members of the group were apparent, but they were neither dwelled upon nor coated with sugar. It was clear that an invisible line was drawn subject-wise around Monty Python as an entity. Solo efforts, such as Terry Gilliam's subsequent career as a film director, weren't really discussed. While I appreciated the need for focus, I wish some of that tangential material had been touched upon, especially since members of Python often worked with each other.
The Picture of Dorian Gray (10/26/09) TV-TCM (1945 ***) Written and directed by Albert Lewin, based on the novel by Oscar Wilde, starring George Sanders, Donna Reed, Angela Lansbury and Hurd Hatfield as Dorian Gray. An enchanted portrait reveals the scars and blisters of depravity earned by its subject. This was a strange film in that it began as a drama, painting (so to speak) a sympathetic portrait (so to speak) of a man who began as an innocent but gradually descended the staircase of sin. Around the halfway point of the film there was a tonal shift in the story (from drama to horror) and the final shots were quite horrific. It's worth noting that while the film was shot in black and white, there were several inserted shots showing the titular painting in color, primarily for shock value. I can only imagine it must have elicited an audible gasp from the 1940's audience.
The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (10/26/09) TV-TCM (1953 **1/2) Directed by Don Weis, screenplay by Max Shulman (based on his book), starring Debbie Reynolds, Bobby Van, Barbara Ruick and Bob Fosse. "All I do the whole day through is dream of you..." Dobie Gillis, a young man more interested in fooling around than studying goes to college and falls in love with Debbie Reynolds. When I was a teenager I went on something of a Max Shulman kick and I read his "Dobie Gillis" book, which I thoroughly enjoyed. This movie was strictly lightweight fare, and unfortunately it never really elevated above that. Dobie Gillis as a character, of course, went on to further success on the small screen for four seasons in the series starring Dwayne Hickman and Bob Denver.
Barefoot in the Park (10/27/09) TV-TCM (1967 ***) Directed by Gene Saks, screenplay by Neil Simon (based on his play), starring Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, Charles Boyer and Mildred Natwick. Two newlyweds start their lives together in a small fifth floor apartment in a building inhabited by colorful characters. As with many films based on plays, it was easy to see the play in the film. This was a pleasant enough story, though it wasn't particularly complex or deep. I owe the fact that I enjoyed it as much as I did to strong performances by its four stars.
Strategic Air Command (10/29/09) TV-TCM (1955 **) Directed by Anthony Mann, starring James Stewart and June Allyson. A ball player / air force reservist is reactivated and forced to give up his career and return to the service. My grandfather and uncle both served in the air force and I have the utmost respect for that branch of our armed services. However, this movie, which consisted largely of beautiful shots of beautiful bombers, was essentially a recruitment film, and it was hard for me to get past that. There was some melodrama thrown into the mix, but the propagandistic anti-communistic agenda of the film remained clear. It just occurred to me: This would be an excellent film to show in a class teaching future generations about the cold war.
Life of Brian (10/29/09) TV-IFC (1979 ***1/4) Directed by Terry Jones, starring Graham Chapman and the rest of the Monty Python troupe. Born the same day as Jesus, Brian of Nazareth follows a path similar to that of the messiah, all the way to Golgotha, the hill where Christ was crucified. I was inspired to watch this film after watching the 6-part documentary, Monty Python: Almost the Truth -- The Lawyer's Cut. In fact, that documentary actually contained this film virtually in its entirety, or at least that's the way it seemed. I loved Life of Brian when I was in high school, and I can remember happily singing Eric Idle's "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." I acknowledge that doing a New Testament-themed comedy was a pretty gutsy move in 1979. While I enjoyed watching it again after all these years, it seemed to have lost some of its potency.
Breakfast at Tiffany's (10/30/09) TV-HDNET (1961 ***1/4) Directed by Blake Edwards, screenplay by George Axelrod, based on the novel by Truman Capote, starring Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard. A "kept" man falls for Holly Golightly, a woman who takes "powder room" money from men in exchange for... favors. I've watched this film a few times over the years, and it's never quite spoken to me in the way it has for many people. I think that's had a lot to do with the moral mid-ground on which the main characters stood. Watching it now at age 45, I liked it a bit more, possibly because I may be less rigidly judgmental than I once was. Even with that, it's still a very hard film to love, unreservedly: Audrey Hepburn's strong performance made Peppard's weaknesses as an actor all the more apparent. There were also a lot of strange directorial choices made, with the strangest being Mickey Rooney's off-the-charts offensive portrayal of Japanese photographer Mr. Yunioshi. It was often unclear whether Blake Edwards thought he was directing a drama or a comedy, with tones shifting on scene-by-scene basis.

November

Inside Deep Throat (11/1/09) Netflix (2005 ***) Written and directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, narrated by Dennis Hopper, featuring interviews with Gerard Damiano, Harry Reems and (via archive footage) Linda Lovelace. Deep Throat was the X-Rated movie that changed how people viewed pornographic films. It did this not because it was a great piece of art but because it was made at the right time and somehow generated sufficient buzz to break into the popular consciousness. This documentary covered the film and its creators from all angles. It's amazing that the movie made an estimate $600 million for the mob but the people who made the film ended up with virtually nothing. Though it was occasionally a little too cute for its own good stylistically, Inside Deep Throat also provided a history of porn films, from the dimly-lit 42nd Street theaters of the sixties and seventies to the home video explosion to the internet. While pornography is not exactly a business I'd choose as a career, it certainly is an fascinating one.
Astro Boy (11/2/09) DWA Screening (2009 ***1/4) Directed by David Bowers, featuring the voices of Freddie Highmore, Nicolas Cage and Donald Sutherland. Set in a futuristic utopia, a famous scientist loses his son in a tragic accident and in his profound grief sets out to build a replacement. Imagi, the studio who made this film, has come a long way since its roots as a maker of Christmas trees and Dreamworks' short-lived Father of the Pride TV series. I had previously been very impressed with much of Imagi's first theatrical, TMNT, and was consistently amazed by the quality of Astro Boy, especially given its production constraints. The film was made start-to-finish in 20 months and with a budget that was probably a fraction of that of it's big-studio counterparts. I also liked that the writers didn't pull punches with the "death" of their young main character, and that emotional dynamite fueled the story quite nicely.
The Tingler (11/2/09) TV-TCM (1959 **1/2) Directed by William Castle, written by Robb White, starring Vincent Price and Darryl Hickman. Ever wonder why you feel a "tingling" sensation whenever you're afraid? It turns out you've got a creature living inside you, a creature that feeds on fear but shrinks at the sound of your screams. This movie scared the crap out of me when I was a kid, watching it on Creature Feature. It's definitely one of those films with writing so bad it became entertaining on that MST3K level, even without the wisecracks. It also has a place in film history for its in-theater gimmickry, which included electrical buzzers placed in some of the chairs. There was also a sequence where the black and white film briefly included a sink and bathtub filled with very, very red blood.
War of the Worlds (1953) (11/3/09) TV-TCM (1953 ***) Directed by Bryan Haskin, produced by George Pal, based on the novel by H.G. Wells, starring Gene Barry and Ann Robinson. The Martians are coming! The Martians are coming! A ruggedly-handsome scientist and a woman with a penchant for tight sweaters find themselves in the center of an alien invasion. When I was a kid, this film played occasionally on network TV and I remember it being presented as an event, much like The Ten Commandments or Gone With the Wind. I can see why Steven Spielberg wanted to do a modern remake. At the risk of giving too much away, the ending of H.G. Wells' story has always seemed like a terrible cop-out: Mankind only managed to survive their "war" with a foe invulnerable even to our best nuclear weapons thanks to some serious deus ex machina on Wells' part.
Of Mice and Men (1939) (11/4/09) TV-TCM (1939 ***1/4) Directed by Lewis Milestone, screenplay by Eugene Solow, based on the novel by John Steinbeck, starring Burgess Meredith, Lon Chaney Jr., Charles Bickford and Betty Field. Two itinerant farmhands, one a "simple soul" with the strength of an ox, dream of a life with a home to call their own and rabbits to tend. Made in the banner year 1939, this film was produced by Hal Roach, the man behind the Laurel and Hardy and Our Gang comedy series, which may explain why the staging of so many of its scenes reminded me of silent movies. Much like Lennie, Steinbeck's original short novel was powerful in its simplicity. While I know it's a classic, with strong performances throughout, I couldn't help but feel the execution of the film could have been stronger. The directing and pacing felt "flabby" for much of the film. Considering the sad and tragic nature of the story, it's a little twisted to realize that Warner Brothers based multiple cartoon characters (including an abominable snowman) on Chaney's Lennie: "I will hug him and love him and call him George..." It's equally disturbing that, near the end of his life, Chaney effectively reprised his famous character for an episode of The Monkees.
The Grand Illusion (AKA la grande illusion) (11/5/09) Netflix (1937 ***1/2) Directed by Jean Renoir, starring Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay and Eric von Stroheim. Set during the first world war, two French officers are shot down behind enemy lines and placed in a P.O.W. camp, where they are treated with decency and respect by their German captors. However, they keep trying to escape because, as one prisoner tells another: "Tennis courts are for tennis, prison camps are for escaping." I had heard about The Grand Illusion throughout my life and finally got around to watching it. I had sort of been dreading it, actually, expecting two hours of exquisitely depressing storytelling. I was delighted by how upbeat it was. Still, I was a little puzzled by the film's political point of view, especially considering the year in which it was made. The Germans in the film (particularly Stroheim's character) were portrayed as anti-Semitic but otherwise entirely sympathetic and even compassionate. I've become so accustomed to portrayals of German soldiers as monsters, a part of a greater evil, that seeing them painted otherwise was a great shock.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (11/6/09) TV-TCM (2000 **1/2) Directed by Joel Coen, written by Ethan and Joel Coen, starring George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson. Set during the great depression and based (at least according to the credits) on Homer's epic poem The Odyssey, three convicts escape from a chain gang and have a series of trials and adventures, many of them involving bluegrass music and spirituals. George Clooney was amusing, doing kind of an extended Clark Gable impression. This was not one of the Coen brother's best films, but it was still pleasant enough, nearly enough to make me overlook serious plot problems. Its title was a reference to a fictional film in the 1941 Preston Sturges screwball comedy, Sullivan's Travels. Between that and the running Homeric theme, O Brother, Where Art Thou? seemed like a series of in-jokes and mildly entertaining set pieces, at the expense of telling a unified story populated with characters worth caring about.
Nights of Cabiria (AKA Le notti di Cabiria) (11/6/09) TV-Sundance (1957 ***1/2) Directed by Federico Fellini, starring Giulietta Masina and Francois Perier. A prostitute from the streets of Rome fights against circumstance to be true to her inner self. A month or so ago I watched a documentary called The Magic of Fellini, which included scenes from this film. Something about it and Giuletta Masina's character intrigued me. This was a delightful and memorable film, one that said much about how the resilience of the human heart: People who have earned the right to be quite jaded may still maintain an inner core of innocence. At the center of the film was Cabiria herself, and from the opening scene in which her boyfriend stole her purse and pushed her into the river, she was wholly sympathetic without being too precious.
Porn Star: The Legend of Ron Jeremy (11/9/09) Netflix (2001 **1/2) Written and Directed by Scott J. Gill, featuring interviews by Ron Jeremy, Al Lewis, Seymore Butts and Larry Flynt. This documentary looks into the background and life of the man who is arguably the most well-known porn actor of all time. As a documentary, this film wasn't great, either in structure or technique. Its subject, however was a pretty fascinating character. I loved how Ron Jeremy's father and sister, well-respected professionals, were so open-minded and supportive of their son and brother. Because this documentary is 8 years old, it doesn't include Ron Jeremy's recent work in the world of reality television, so perhaps a sequel or update is in order.
Toy Story in 3D (11/10/09) DWA Screening (1995 ****) Directed by John Lasseter, featuring the voices of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen. Woody's place as Andy's favorite toy is threatened by a plastic space ranger named Buzz Lightyear. This is the film that changed the world of animation; Toy Story has the distinction of being the first theatrical computer animated film. Thanks to wonderful storytelling and directing, it set the bar high and was the first in a string of critical and financial successes for Pixar. If I sound like a fan, that's because I am. The summer before Toy Story was released, I was in Los Angeles at the Siggraph computer graphics conference and I saw John Lasseter sitting by himself. I went over and introduced myself and I'm embarrassed to admit my voice actually cracked. Mr. Lasseter was quite nice and he told me they'd been working on Toy Story and he thought I would probably like it. And the rest is history.
Toy Story 2 in 3D (11/10/09) DWA Screening (1999 ****) Directed by John Lasseter and Ash Brannon (co-director), featuring the voices of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen. Woody is stolen by a middle-aged toy collector and his plastic pals must brave the outside world to save him. The story behind the story of this film is that Toy Story 2, made partially in parallel with A Bug's Life, was originally supposed to be released as a direct-to-video film. Somewhere along the line, they decided to rework the story and release it as a theatrical. John Lasseter took over as director and much of the story was completely re-worked. The production schedule was compressed, much of it finished in the last nine months. The result was a fun movie that was also very satisfying emotionally. Randy Newman's song "When She Loved Me" provided a particularly heartfelt backstory for Jesse the cowgirl, voiced by Joan Cusack.
Young Mr. Lincoln (11/11/09) Netflix (1939 **1/2) Directed by John Ford, screenplay by Lamar Trotti, starring Henry Fonda and Alice Brady. A young Springfield Illinois lawyer named Abraham Lincoln must defend two brothers accused of murder. Another movie from Hollywood's "greatest year," 1939. I wanted to like this film more, but Henry Fonda's portrayal of Lincoln was a little too saintly and affected. Also, I was deeply disturbed by the scene in which "Honest Abe" won a game of tug-of-war by cheating. Normally I like movies with old-fashioned stories, and I'm willing to overlook minor flaws, but I felt this one didn't hold much water. The courtroom drama at the center of this movie was resolved in a way that simply wasn't credible.
The Owl and the Pussycat (11/12/09) TV-TCM (1970 ***) Directed by Herbert Ross, screenplay by Buck Henry, based on the play by Bill Manhoff, starring Barbra Streisand and George Segal. A nebbish writer gets a hooker kicked out of her apartment and she returns the favor. There must have been a time when film producers went to every Broadway and off-Broadway play in search for material. I don't necessarily mind that, and I've watched a number of "talky" movies in my life, especially recently. I remember this occasionally risqué film from my childhood, and I'm sure I must have watched it edited-for-television a few times. There were parts of it I really enjoyed, largely due to Streisand and Segal's abilities to deliver witty dialogue. I liked the third act somewhat less, mainly because Segal's character revealed some kind of ugly cruelty, which made him considerably less sympathetic as a character. Even though that was resolved by the film's conclusion, it had left a bad taste in my mouth.
A Fish Called Wanda (11/13/09) TV-FMC (1988 ***) Directed by Charles Crichton, written by John Cleese, starring John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline and Michael Palin. The sexy getaway driver for a jewel heist becomes romantically entangled with an uptight British barrister named Archie Leach. "Archibald Leach" was, of course, the real name for screen legend Cary Grant. I absolutely loved this film when it was first released and watched it several times subsequently. I was saddened to see it hadn't held up as well as I'd hoped. It was still smart, and it still sparkled, but it simply didn't shine quite as brightly as I'd remembered.
The Men Who Stare At Goats (11/14/09) Glendale Mann 10 (2009 **) Directed by Grant Heslov, screenplay by Peter Straughan, based on the book by John Ronson, starring George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey. Set in Iraq in 2003, days after the start of our most recent war, a heartbroken journalist befriends a former member of an elite squad of super-soldiers with psychic powers. With a premise like that and a star-studded cast like this movie had, how was it possible that it was such a disappointment? I believe the answer lay in the storytelling: No opportunity to piss away the promise of the story was passed by. Knowing this movie was based on a book made me wonder what the book was like. Is it possible that story elements that worked on the printed page fell flat onscreen?
Lucifer, Vol 2: Children and Monsters (11/15/09) Comics (2002 **1/2) Written by Mike Carey, illustrated by various. Lucifer battles Japanese god-demons to reclaim his wings and there's also a monster in a bottle. I'm afraid I read this volume in short bits over a period of a couple of weeks, which probably diminished my enjoyment. I honestly didn't follow much of it; there were a lot of random storylines that more or less came together in the end but weren't terrifically satisfying. If you're thinking this is a particularly lazy and flimsy review, you'd be right.
Zombieland (11/16/09) DWA Screening (2009 ***1/2) Directed by Ruben Fleischer, starring Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin. When civilization succumbs to a zombie virus, a set of rules is all that stands between you and survival. Inspired by Shaun of the Dead and filmed entirely in Georgia, this was one of those rare films that lived up to the promise of its premise. Bill Murray appeared as himself in the middle of the film in an unforgettable cameo. There is apparently something in the zeitgeist that is fascinated by the walking dead. Why that is, I don't know, but Zombieland fed that insatiable hunger and was a hell of a lot of fun to boot.
A Thousand Clowns (11/17/09) TV-TCM (1965 ***) Directed by Fred Coe, screenplay by Herb Gardner, based on his play, starring Jason Robards, Barbara Harris, William Daniels, Martin Balsam and Barry Gordon. When his suitability as a guardian is questioned, an out-of-work TV writer must choose between his nephew and continuing to give the establishment the finger. It's a sad day for me when a film doesn't live up to my fond childhood memories of it. I'm not sure why -- especially considering its subject matter -- but I watched this film on TV several times when I was a kid. At the time I absolutely identified with Barry Gordon's Nick, a 40-year-old man trapped in a 12-year-old body. As an actor, Gordon was also like a miniature version of Woody Allen, so undoubtedly I had an affinity there as well. While the film had several strong performances, the main reason for my disappointment after watching A Thousand Clowns again after all these years had to do with its downbeat message: In real life, non-conformists must eventually grow up and learn to conform. Jason Robards' character began the story as an eccentric iconoclast, but ended it wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. Not surprisingly, that was (and is) a rarely-conveyed message.
After Hours (11/18/09) Netflix (1985 ***1/2) Directed by Martin Scorsese, screenplay by Joseph Minion, starring Griffin Dunne, Rosanna Arquette, Terry Garr and Catherine O'Hara. Upper East sider / word processor Paul Hackett meets a girl in a coffee shop and ventures to a circle of hell South of Houston Street. After An American Werewolf in London I became a big fan of Griffin Dunne, and so I saw this film when it was first released and several times afterwards on video. I hadn't watched it in years, but it was one of those rare films that was even stronger than I'd remembered it being. That may be because I appreciate Scorsese's skills as a director more now that I'm older. Also, it's easier now than when I was in my early 20's for me to identify with Griffin's main character. I'm not sure what that says about me.
Wizards (11/20/09) TV-FMC (1977 **) Written and directed by Ralph Bakshi, featuring the voices of Bob Holt and Jesse Welles. Centuries from now, after the earth has been ravaged by nuclear war, two wizard brothers, Avatar and Blackwolf battle it out for the future of humanity. My college roommate, a big fan of Ralph Bakshi, introduced me to this film back in the early 1980's. My memory of it had faded over the years and mostly I remembered two things: (1) The heavy use of rotoscoped WWII footage of German Nazis and (2) Elinore the fairy's ever-present... er, how do I phrase this delicately?... nipple bumps. Watching it again after all these years, I was struck by how much Holt's voice sounded like a George Burns impression.
Showcase Presents: Robin the Boy Wonder, Vol. 1 (11/21/09) Comics (2008 **1/2) Written and illustrated by various, but featuring many stories by Mike Friedrich. From the sixties to the mid-seventies, Batman's sidekick was featured in many solo adventures, often in the back pages of Batman and Detective comics. Thanks mainly to Burt Ward's version on the Batman TV show, Robin was my favorite character when I was a kid. The only thing more satisfying than imagining I was Batman's sidekick was imagining I was a teenaged hero out on my own. Many of the stories in this volume were written at a time when America was in turmoil and the generation gap was the size of the Grand Canyon. Comics made during this period struggled with their social relevance. Not surprisingly, Robin frequently found himself torn between the law-abiding values of the establishment and his identity as a young college student.
The Blob (11/23/09) TV-TCM (1958 **1/2) Directed by Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr., starring Steve McQueen, Aneta Corsaut and Earl Rowe. Steve McQueen sees an amorphous monster devour a doctor and nobody will believe him -- because he's nothing but a no-good troublemaking teenager! This was not a particularly well-written or well-directed film. McQueen, being the only actor with any talent at all, really shined, even in spite of half-assed direction which was completely incompatible with his approach to acting. Even with its faults, it was still fairly entertaining to watch, mainly because it remains such an archetypal 1950's Sci-Fi monster movie.
Justice League of America, Vol. 1: The Tornado's Path (11/23/09) Graphic Novel (2008 ***1/2) Written by Brad Meltzer, illustrated by Ed Benes. JLA's favorite android (and Pinocchio), The Red Tornado, gets a chance to be a "real boy," only to get smashed to a pulp by Solomon Grundy. I've honestly lost count of the number of Justice League "reboots" there have been. That is a phenomenon that simply baffles my mind. I guess what's happened in the past has been that it's been difficult to assemble a JLA roster and have it sustain over several years. Or perhaps the membership is disrupted by whatever this year's "DC event" occurs. This incarnation, thanks to Brad Meltzer's writing (he also wrote the superb Identity Crisis) felt like it honestly has a chance of having a decent run. Hopefully that's the case.
Lucifer, Vol. 3: A Dalliance with the Damned (11/26/09) Graphic Novel (2002 ***) Written by Mike Carey, illustrated by various. The centerpiece of this compilation is a story set in hell, in which a demon seductress grows bored and selects one of the damned as her sexual plaything. In my lukewarm review of the previous volume I noted that my difficulty following its storyline and my general lack of enjoyment was probably the result of reading it in piecemeal fashion. This time around I read Dalliance With the Damned in a couple of sittings and enjoyed Carey's writing somewhat more, though it was still not on the same level as the Neil Gaiman Sandman series from which Lucifer was spun off.
Miracle on 34th Street (11/30/09) TV-FMC (1973 **) Directed by Fielder Cook, starring Sebastian Cabot, Jane Alexander and David Hartman, with a supporting cast worth mentioning: Roddy McDowall, Jim Backus, James Gregory, Conrad Janis, David Doyle and Tom Bosley. A friendly old gent named Kris Kringle gets a job at Macy's and goes on trial to prove he's really the one and only Santa Claus. Make no mistake, this made-for-TV film was not the "good" 1947 version that starred Edmund Gwenn and Maureen O'Hara. But where else can you see David Doyle AND Tom Bosley in the same film? I have the vaguest memories of watching this borderline abomination when it was originally aired. Ripe for MST3K treatment, this film demonstrated why David Hartman's acting career never quite took off as well as David Doyle’s impressive capacity for over-acting.

December

Up in the Air (12/1/09) Grauman's Chinese 6 (2009 ***1/2) Directed by Jason Reitman, based on the novel by Walter Kim, starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick. The director of Juno presents a story about a man whose career as a corporate axe-man requires him to travel constantly, leaving no time for genuine personal relationships. I'll say this for Up in the Air: No other film this year has inspired so many conflicted thoughts and conversations. Clooney gave his best performance since Michael Clayton, but there seemed to be some significant story flaws. The scenes in which Clooney and Kendrick met with people to tell them their jobs were "no longer available" struck a chord, but as powerful as that story element was, it didn't seem well integrated with the emotional path of Clooney's character. Curiously, one the main characters dropped out of the picture early and there was a plot twist involving another that wasn't entirely motivated. Finally, depending on your interpretation, the final image of Clooney's character was pretty ambiguous. In spite of all of these critical observations, I'm still rating it highly, an indication of just how strong the rest of the film was. I'm curious to see how this film fares in the future, both at the box office and in the upcoming awards season.
Twentieth Century (12/2/09) TV-TCM (1934 **) Directed by Howard Hawks, starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. A Broadway actress and the egomaniacal man who "made her a star" scream nonstop at each other, first on stage and then on a train called "The Twentieth Century." There was definitely a period in film history when yelling was in fashion. There's little to recommend this film, except possibly to students of historical acting styles who might want to study Barrymore's over-the-top performance. Story-wise, this film broke one of the fundamental laws of storytelling: The two main characters remained virtually unchanged and were just as annoying at the end of the film as they were at the beginning.
The Call of the Wild (12/3/09) TV-FMC (1935 ***) Directed by William A. Wellman, based on the novel by Jack London, starring Clark Gable, Loretta Young and Jack Oakie. Jack Thornton braves the Alaskan wilderness in search of gold with the help of a big mutt. Watching this movie, it's easy to see why Clark Gable was such a star. While I've never read the original book, I was inspired to record and watch this film by our recent trip to Alaska, during which I read London’s White Fang, which apparently was the thematic flip-side of The Call of the Wild. I enjoyed the film for the most part, but was dismayed and disgusted by the last few lines of dialogue in which an Eskimo woman was referred to twice as "it." Why in God's name was that necessary, even in 1935?
Lopez Tonight (12/7/09) Live Taping -- Warner Brothers Studios (2009 ***1/2) In our presence, George Lopez welcomed guests Kathy Griffin and 11-year-old Rico Rodriguez from the TV show Modern Family. Musical guest Sean Paul performed "Hold My Hand" (which sounded nothing like the version by Eric Idle and The Rutles). The show also featured a special appearance by Kato Kaelin in which he advised "Tiger Wood's Girls" how to effectively spend their 15 minutes of fame. My wife and I have been enjoying George Lopez's new talk show and we're also fans of Kathy Griffin, so it was nice to be able to combine the two. I actually managed to score the tickets at the last minute thanks to being "Facebook friends" with Griffin. I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I really enjoy watching the behind-the-scenes mechanics of nationally-televised tapings. I was a little saddened that because of our ages and Caucasian ethnicity, my wife and I were seated high in the back of the audience. The seats were still pretty good, though -- George Lopez started the show by running up right next to me. Watching the show later we were visible in a couple of short shots. All in all, we had a great afternoon, in spite of standing in the cold for a couple of hours before being let into the studio. As audience members, we contributed so much energy to the proceedings that my hands hurt the next day from clapping so much.
Hair: Let the Sun Shine In (12/10/09) TV-Sundance (2007 ***) Written and directed by Wolfgang Held and Pola Rapaport, featuring interviews with James Rado, Galt MacDermot, Keith Carradine and Milos Forman. This documentary covers the genesis and earliest days of the great tribal rock musical Hair. I actually learned a lot, since I had very little knowledge of this particular show. As a "talking heads" documentary, it was limited by its 55-minute length and its visual materials, many of which were second-rate. Sadly, while I loved the Milos Forman film, I have yet to see the original stage show. On our recent trip to NYC in October my wife and I had tickets for the revival, but a family emergency took priority over attending.
Zack and Miri Make a Porno (12/11/09) Netflix (2008 **1/2) Written and directed by Kevin Smith, starring Elizabeth Banks and Seth Rogen, with Jason Mewes, Brandon Rough, Justin Long and Traci Lords as Bubbles. Two housemates in Pittsburgh get drunk and decide the best way to pay their delinquent bills is to create -- and star in -- a pornographic video. Five minutes into this film my wife turned to me and said "I keep feeling the writing." I like Kevin Smith, I really do. He deserves credit for laying so much of the groundwork for that young upstart named Judd Apatow. But now it seems the apprentice has surpassed the master, and Smith suffers by comparison. While I applaud the audacity of the premise, its execution left much to be desired.
The Death of Captain America, Volumes 1-3 (12/13/09) Graphic Novel (2008 ***) Written by Ed Brubaker and illustrated by Steve Epting, with design and other art by Alex Ross. When the heroic personification of the American spirit (at least in the Marvel Universe) is assassinated, who will fill his shoes? This 3-volume set included material originally published in 18 issues of Captain America, beginning with issue #25. Ah, the "event" comic book story. Where would we be without them? In 1992, DC Comics decided to kill Superman. In 2007, immediately following the Civil War event, Marvel did the same with Captain America. Reading these three volumes, Cap's death itself seemed anti-climactic, and what happened afterwards moved at a glacial pace for the first 100 pages. Character motivations and actions seemed... er, unmotivated and inactive. The story only really took off when Cap's resurrected sidekick Bucky (AKA The Winter Soldier) decided to take up his mentor's star-spangled shield. While I generally found this story mildly engaging, I probably would have appreciated it if I'd read more Captain America comics when I was a kid.
The Princess and the Frog (12/13/09) ASIFA Screening, Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (2009 ***1/2) Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, featuring the voices of Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David and Michael-Leon Wooley. Set in 1920's New Orleans, a young black woman kisses a talking frog... with unexpected results. As I watched this film, I was dazzled by the high quality of its visuals and animation. It has been far too long since anyone has created a hand-drawn animated film of this caliber, and after a steady diet of CG, it was a real treat. Sadly, as I write this review the day after the screening, some of its flaws have begun to present themselves: First, the story structure was a bit bumpy. One example: There was a memorable scene in which the frog prince rescued his amphibian lady from a trio of Cajun yokels. While this set piece provided an opportunity for plenty of physical humor, it only advanced the plot about three inches. Secondly, Randy Newman's songs, while pleasant enough, simply weren't memorable on the order of the show-stoppers from Beauty and the Beast. Still, even with these reservations, The Princess and the Frog was still one of my favorite animated films of 2009, along with Coraline and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.
Art of Modern Rock: Mini #2 Poster Girls (12/13/09) Rock Posters (2008 ***1/2) Edited by Dennis King. Many of Rock's sexiest babes of the past decade appeared on concert posters, rendered with loving care by some very talented graphic artists. I picked up this book in my favorite used book store at a nice used book store price and I'm glad I did. Loosely grouped into somewhat arbitrary categories, the quality of the posters was quite high. As I'd hoped, the variety and intensity of this volume's collected eye candy was entertaining, even inspiring: Hell, someday I may want to create a sexy rock poster or two of my own!
Whatever Works (12/13/09) DVD (2009 **1/2) Written and directed by Woody Allen, starring Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood and Patricia Clarkson, with supporting appearances by Michael McKean and Ed Begley Jr. An aging New York genius and curmudgeon with a tendency to directly address the audience takes in a woman several decades his junior and they fall in love... sort of. It's unfortunate that so many of my reviews of Woody Allen's recent movies read as if I'm an apologist for being a Woody Allen fan, but this is another one. I was troubled more than anything by the uneven quality of the acting. Larry David -- who is certainly a funny guy -- seemed to be stumbling over his lines, frequently flubbing the dialogue. I frequently wondered why Allen didn't request additional takes. There were also several problems with the writing, including lines of dialogue that were purely expository and/or redundant. There was also a point of view problem: Larry David -- who we were reminded was a certifiable genius about every five minutes -- was established as the main character, but then at several points in the second half of the film I found myself wondering whose story it was. This was especially evident in the case of an exceptionally scene , all delivered in a single take, whose only point was to reveal that Ed Begley Jr. had homosexual leanings. Whatever Works was certainly not the worst Woody Allen film of the past two decades, but it's on the list. As much as I love him and admire Allen's output, I wish he'd take more time during the screenwriting phase and release a new film every other year instead of annually.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (12/14/09) DWA Screening (2009 ***1/2) Directed by Wes Anderson, screenplay by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, based on the novel by Roald Dahl, featuring the voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray. In order to pay the mortgage on their above-ground digs, reformed criminal Mr. Fox plans one final heist. I was delighted by how artfully Wes Anderson managed to translate his trademark directorial style to the medium of stop motion animation. There were many delightful touches in the dialogue and the characterizations. This is definitely high on my list of my favorite animated films of 2009. The only thing keeping me from giving it a 4-star rating is that I wish the main story had been stronger, even though this was probably a function of the simplicity of the original source material.
Crimes and Misdemeanors (12/15/09) TV-IFC (1989 ****) Written and directed by Woody Allen, starring Woody Allen, Martin Landau, Alan Alda, Anjelica Huston, Sam Waterston and Jerry Orbach. In two almost entirely independent storylines, a loser directs the filmed biography of a "great" man he despises, while a respected ophthalmologist goes to moral extremes to keep the life he's made from going down the toilet. Are the ever-penetrating eyes of God watching our every move? Or is moral structure a man-made illusion? This is a great film and one of Woody Allen's best. A few days ago I watched Allen's 2009 offering, Whatever Works, and there were times when I was nearly nauseated by its many moments of sloppy writing, acting and directing. It was a virtual shrug of a film. By contrast, Crimes and Misdemeanors, produced 20 years before, had real thematic depth, tight and funny writing and award-worthy performances, especially by Landau. This film is definitely one of the reasons I remain a Woody Allen fan.
The Goon Volume 7: A Place of Heartache and Grief (12/16/09) Comics (2009 ***1/4) Written and illustrated by Eric Powell. While on his way to blow up the burlesque house, The Goon is forced to fight a colossal transvestite, and later on Goon nemesis Labrazio apparently returns from the dead to kill Momma Norton. You know what? Attempting to describe the plot of one of Powell's Goon books is an exercise in futility. Let's just say while I was reading I didn't worry about the story so much, alright?
The Goon Volume 8: Those That Is Damned (12/16/09) Comics (2009 ***) Written and illustrated by Eric Powell, with several additional Goon stories by various writers and artists. If you've ever wondered what would happen if you betrayed a guy like The Goon, this volume provides the delicious and gruesome answer, making it worth the price of admission. The last third of the book, however, was filled with stories written and illustrated by "special guests," a dessert sampling not nearly as satisfying as the main course.
Piano Man (12/21/09) Princess Theater, Sapphire Princess (2009 **1/2) Musical revue, featuring the music of Billy Joel, Elton John, Barry Manilow, Neil Sedaka and Liberace. Sadly, this was one of the weaker shows I've seen aboard Princess Cruises, and it made me wonder several times about the licensing budget for their shows. One number had me puzzled: Two men sang Neil Sedaka's "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do," evidently to each other, while borderline softcore images of a woman posing before an animated calendar were projected in the background. "Calendar Girl" was performed immediately afterwards. While it could have been a technical snafu, I think the more logical explanation is that someone realized that the number came across as a homosexual love ballad and they decided to "fix it" with the addition of the sexy female cheesecake images. I would love to know the real story behind that number.
A Time to Kill (12/21/09) Fiction (1989 ***) Written by John Grisham. Set in the deep south, young lawyer Jake Brigance must defend a black man who takes the law into his own hands after his 10-year-old daughter is brutally raped by two rednecks. Sometime in the early 1990's I read and enjoyed lawyer-turned-writer Grisham's The Firm, though its main effect was to temporarily turn me into an workaholic. A Time to Kill was Grisham's first novel, and I generally found it to be a good, if imperfect book. If nothing else, his fluid writing kept me reading all 500+ pages.
Variety Showtime: Dan Bennett (12/22/09) Princess Theater, Sapphire Princess (2009 ***1/4) Dan Bennett is a juggler/comedian, though some would consider him a comedian/juggler. He has performed on cruise ships for nearly two decades, and I can see why he's a favorite. Early in his act he called attention to his name as a kind of mock-curse one would utter when hammering a thumb or stubbing a toe. ("Dan Bennett!") Throughout his act, whenever he'd drop balls, pins, rings or other juggling objects he would shout out his name in what I thought was a rather clever act of brand-recognition. Much of his verbal material was nicely geek-intellectual, which naturally appealed to me. I only wish I'd heard more of it, as he tended to mumble a bit. Several days after seeing him on-stage, I was walking the Promenade deck and saw him walking the other direction. He was unshaven and looked a bit sad, immediately suggesting a possible title for his next project: "Dan Bennett, Suicide Risk."
Do You Wanna Dance (12/23/09) Princess Theater, Sapphire Princess (2009 ***) Dance-focused musical revue. You may find this hard to believe, but this is actually the third time I've seen this show. What makes it especially crazy is that I didn't realize the second and third times that I'd seen it previously. Had we not been traveling with my wife's 86-year-old grandmother, my wife and I would have bailed. The show included a number of dances and styles from around the world, including Latin, East Asian, and American. The show ended with what could best be described as "Star Trek Meets Riverdance." The dancing itself was generally solid and the dancers on the Sapphire were generally superior to those on the Coral Princess, where we'd seen the show twice previously.
The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century (12/24/09) Fiction (2005 ***) Edited by Harry Turtledove with Martin H. Greenberg. As the particularly astute amongst you might conclude from the descriptive title, this anthology was comprised of time-travel themed stories originally written between 1941 (Theodore Sturgeon's "Yesterday Was Monday") and 1994 (Ursula K. Le Guin's "Another Story or A Fisherman of the Inland Sea"). The most famous story was probably Ray Bradbury's renowned 1952 dinosaur-hunting causality piece "A Sound of Thunder." I've always had an inexplicable affinity for time travel stories, and so this book was a natural choice. As I've gotten older and more cynical, I've come to recognize that the word "best" in the title of any anthology is usually pretty subjective and far more likely to be determined by licensing availability than by an independent panel of objective judges. As with any short story collection, I was more affected by some stories than others, though it was nice to read a cross-section of thematically-linked literary styles written across several decades.
I Got the Music (12/24/09) Princess Theater, Sapphire Princess (2009 **1/2) Musical revue, featuring Bruce Smith, Anthony McQuirter, Tracy Dawdy and Carola Eriksson with music provided by Doug Tan and the Sapphire Princess Orchestra. While the focus of Do You Wanna Dance was fancy footwork and the focus of Piano Man was artists best known for their ivory-tinkling, I Got the Music focused on a prescribed set of vocalists (male and female), including Carole King, Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand. The show was good, though not particularly memorable.
Christmas Variety Show (12/25/09) Princess Theater, Sapphire Princess (2009 ***1/4) This was a special Christmas program that was a smorgasbord of other shows. It was emceed by comedian Scott Harris and featured comic/juggler Dan Bennett, with songs by Sapphire Princess singers Bruce Smith and Tracy Dawdy. The high point of the show was undoubtedly Ray Coussins playing Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."
Comedy Showtime: Scott Harris (12/27/09) Explorer's Lounge, Sapphire Princess (2009 ***) Harris is a 55-year-old Canadian and his comic delivery was crisp and professional. He was new to the cruise ship circuit, having been aboard only a few weeks. His set consisted of a lot of jokes about upper middle age, something much of his audience could appreciate, and a lot of his jokes followed a "when we were kids we didn't wear bicycle helmets" thread. The energy of his act was augmented by the presence in the front row of a 6' 2" former marine with the unlikely first name of Hazel.
Dialogue (12/28/09) Nonfiction (1989 **1/2) Written by Lewis Turco, part of the "Elements of Fiction Writing" series. Turco took the unusual approach to writing a book about dialogue by presenting the entire text in the form of a dialogue between the author and a fictional character named Fred Foyle. It was a slightly gimmicky approach to the subject, and it's probably not the approach I would have preferred. The book, only 114 pages not including the index, was a short read, and when I got to the end I'm afraid I hadn't learned much, if anything.
Ray Coussins (12/29/09) Crooner's Lounge, Sapphire Princess (2009 ***) Coussins played with (and for) Frank Sinatra for 32 years. At one point he lived in Sinatra's house and performed a role similar to that of a live-in chauffer, but with a piano instead of a car. He began his set by explaining that he'd been sick for several days and that he would be taking "requests" later. He then told a story about playing the theme from Phantom of the Opera for Andrew Lloyd Webber at a dinner party, which was a segue for telling how Princess had received a letter on behalf of Webber that forbade the playing of any of his music onboard their ships. His first number was a tribute to Sinatra in which he played "My Way" intermixed with the theme from The Godfather. Other songs included "The Entertainer" by Scott Joplin and John Barry's theme from Somewhere in Time. Coussins then played Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," which we'd already heard at the Christmas Variety Show but it was a pleasure to hear it again. He closed his set with Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind" and "Piano Man," the latter of which was a strange choice. While he did a fine, sincere rendition, my mind drifted toward a book on Postmodernism I've been reading. It seemed so self-reflective, a true old-school "piano man" playing that song. The situation virtually dripped with irony, and I worried that if I thought about it too much my mind would get sucked into some kind of endless irony feedback loop.
Comedy Showtime: The Comedy of Musician Steve Moris (12/31/09) Explorer's Lounge, Sapphire Princess (2009 **1/2) According to the brief video montage before the show, Moris used to perform rhythm guitar with The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean and other musical acts. Like Scott Harris, who we'd seen a few nights before, Moris is in his mid-fifties which, if you think about it, is probably a good age for a comedian performing aboard a cruise ship. While Moris was likable enough, his "funny lyrics" / guitar-based surfer dude comedy wasn't nearly as sharp or funny as the other two funnymen on board.