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A word about the ratings system used

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

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

****

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

***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

Introducing Postmodernism: A Graphic Guide to Cutting-Edge Thinking (1/1/10) Nonfiction (2007 **) Written by Richard Appignanesi & Chris Garratt with Ziauddin Sardar & Patrick Curry. A long, long time ago when I was a graduate student working on my Masters of Art, I took a required seminar taught by the chair of the department. While it was nominally a contemporary survey class, one of the main topics of was Postmodernism, as it related to art. In it, I formed what I thought was an understanding of the components of Postmodernism, particularly commodification and appropriation. For the past two decades I've been bothered by the fact that I still didn't feel I had a good working definition of what Postmodernism really was. I was first introduced to the "Introducing" / "Graphic Guide" series when I saw a few of the books in the series in an airport bookstore. Nonfiction in graphic form has appealed to me since the "Big Book" series by Paradox Press in the 1990's. When I first began reading Introducing Postmodernism, I realized within a few pages that my comprehension of the dense material was pathetically slim. Before I reached its midway point I'd already decided that I would read the book a second time in the hopes of understanding it better. Now, having read it twice, I am frustrated and not much closer to a definition or understanding of Postmodernism. While I'll accept some of the blame for not having the philosophical or political background necessary, I also feel that the structure of the material left much to be desired. As a consequence, this book has piqued my continued interest in Postmodernism, but I certainly couldn't recommend it for someone looking for a simplified introduction to a complicated topic.
Love Boats (1/3/10) Nonfiction (1998 **1/2) Written by Jeraldine Saunders. One day while sailing on the Sapphire Princess in the Mexican Riviera, I saw in the "Princess Patter" newsletter that the speaker that day was Ms. Saunders, the woman responsible for The Love Boat. She was (according to her lecture) the first female cruise director in the industry and she wrote the book and treatment on which the first Love Boat TV-movie was based. Her presentation consisted of about a half hour of somewhat fragmented stories from her book and travels. Afterwards, she offered autographed copies of her book for sale, complete with a complimentary palm-reading. I'll keep her palmistry-based insights to myself, but not my thoughts on her book. My main observation as I read Love Boats, was that writing standards have sure changed a great deal since 1974 when the book was first published. As a writer, Saunders frustrated me for a number of reasons, and in general I felt the book was in need of far more editing than it received. The most interesting content of the book centered on saucy tales from the high seas, most of which related to the sexual adventures of passengers and crewmen. Unfortunately, her stories often felt incomplete and this material was frequently interrupted by far less interesting "travel writing" about what to buy in various ports and general advice about cruising. She also frequently drifted into what I'll kindly call "New Agey" territory, which often took her away from the central subject of the book.
Bacall on Bogart (1/3/10) TV-TCM (1988 **) Directed by David Heeley, written by John L. Miller, featuring interviews by Lauren Bacall, Peter Bogdanovich, Katharine Hepburn and John Huston. Lauren Bacall hosted and narrated this marginally-interesting documentary covering the life and acting career of Humphrey Bogart. Unfortunately, it was primarily a showcase for clips from Bogie's films, without much in the way of any real in-depth commentary, either about the films or about Bogart as a man. As a documentary, it was particularly weak and when it was over I wished I'd watched a Bogie-centered episode of Biography instead.
Julie & Julia (1/9/10) Netflix (2009 ***Ĺ) Written and Directed by Nora Ephron, based on books by Julie Powell, Julia Child and Alex Prud'homme, starring Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci and Chris Messina. This film tells two parallel stories of two different women separated by time and space, both trying to discover meaning in their lives. One of the common comments from friends and reviewers has been that one half of this film was stronger than the other. I can't help but wonder if that may be a function of the age and background of the viewer. Personally, I probably preferred the Julie Child half, but found them both to be engaging. The film as a whole was stronger than I'd expected and was in fact quite moving at times. I was particularly touched by the way the relationship between Julie Child and her husband was portrayed. Streep's performance was Oscar-worthy and Tucci was superb in his supporting role. Of the films Nora Ephron has directed, this is probably my favorite.
Superman / Shazam!: First Thunder (1/10/10) Graphic Novel (2006 ***1/2) Written by Judd Winick, illustrated by Josh Middleton. Superman meets Captain Marvel for the first time as they join together to battle Eclipso and Sabbac. Make no mistake: I bought this book because I wanted to witness the dynamics between these two related characters. In the real world, back in the 1950's, DC Comics sued Fawcett, claiming Captain Marvel infringed on Superman's copyright. The basis of this lawsuit, which DC won, was that "The Big Red Cheese" bore too close a similarity to "The Man of Steel." Later, in the 70's, DC acquired the rights to Fawcett's library and the two heroes found themselves residents of the same DC universe. Certainly the two heroes had similar powers, but anyone who's ever read comics knows there's a big difference between Clark Kent and Billy Batson. The real heart of First Thunder was that it focused not on the similarities of the two, but on their differences, and I was genuinely touched by the end of this book.
Confessions of a Superhero (1/10/10) TV-Sundance (2007 ***1/2) Directed by Matthew Ogens, featuring Superman (Christopher Dennis), Batman (Maxwell Allen), Wonder Woman (Jennifer Wegner) and The Hulk (Joseph McQueen). For some, dressing in costume and being photographed for tips in front of Mann's Chinese on Hollywood Boulevard is as close to fame as they'll ever get. This documentary focused on four individuals working the streets, constrained by a set of rules, making rent money a dollar at a time. I'm always a little skeptical about documentaries like this, because I know the key to their effectiveness is to paint a version of the truth via the editing process. Based on the "truth" presented, two of the subjects were obviously divorced from reality to a significant degree. Christopher Dennis (who claimed to be the son of deceased actress Sandy Dennis) was delusional and obsessive but apparently harmless. George Clooney look-alike Maxwell Allen (Batman) was a more serious case, with self-admitted anger issues, and as the documentary progressed I worried for his mental health and for the safety of anyone around him. You may find this documentary depressing (as my wife did), but I thought its exploration of the relationship between the fragility of dreams and delusion made it well worth watching.
Final Crisis (1/10/10) Graphic Novel (2009 *) Written by Grant Morrison, illustrated by various. Normally I would provide a plot summary, but in this case I'm not even going to try. You know what I miss? I miss the days when "event" comics were comprehensible. If you search on Amazon.com for "Final Crisis," there are about a dozen different volumes, including a "Final Crisis Companion," which I guess is supposed to make the rest of it understandable. Here's the bottom line: I read this book but I have no idea what happened in it, really. I understood neither the "resolution" nor the events that led up to it. You may find it hard to believe that a comic book could leave a grown man so flummoxed, but I dare you to give it a shot yourself and then let me know what you figure out. As for me, I was completely unable to wrap my head around the incomprehensible mess that was Final Crisis.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid (1/11/10) Fiction (2007 ***1/2) Written and illustrated by Jeff Kinney. "Zoo-Wee Mama!" Middle school student Greg Heffley somehow manages to make it through an entire school year in this often hilarious story presented in illustrated diary form. Even though I was not the target demographic (this book was aimed straight between the eyes of thirteen-year-old boys), I still found it highly entertaining. One thought I had while reading the book: Its young protagonist Greg Heffley was effectively a sociopath right up until a few pages from the end, and if you think about it, it's a pretty solid narrative model for any book targeted at young boys. I predicted this arc early on, knowing that as maladjusted as Greg was, he had to "undergo a change" in order for the book to be satisfying.
Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1/11/10) Netflix (1997 **1/2) Directed by Errol Morris. This documentary interweaves the stories of a wild animal trainer (Dave Hoover), a topiary gardener (George Mendonca), an expert on mole rats (Raymond A. Mendez) and an M.I.T. robot scientist (Rodney Brooks). This is an odd film in that the link between the four men profiled was a thematic stretch. My wife didn't care for this film at all, but even though I was occasionally bored I still found much of the film's imagery beautiful and captivating, particularly the footage of the topiary garden during a thunderstorm. I read somewhere that the true subject (and point) of this documentary film was an exploration of the nature of the documentary film, but I'm not sure if I believe that.
Stein on Writing (1/15/10) Nonfiction (1995 ****) Written by Sol Stein. If I were only allowed a handful of books as part of an "arm's reach writing reference library," this would be part of that select group, along with David Madden's Revising Fiction. I don't make that statement lightly. In the past ten years I've read dozens of books on the art and craft of writing, and Stein on Writing is the best one I've read in a long time. What made it so great was Stein's clear presentation and absolutely authoritative voice. His "no-bullshit" standards are high and he didn't sugarcoat his feelings about lazy or imprecise writing. In addition, the book is stocked with hundreds of carefully-selected examples of published material that either met or failed to meet his threshold of quality. If you've got the requisite experience and courage and you're serious about improving your writing, I highly recommendation this book.
Birdman of Alcatraz (1/16/10) TV-TCM (1962 ***1/4) Directed by John Frankenheimer, screenplay by Guy Trosper, based on the book by Thomas E. Gaddis, starring Burt Lancaster, Karl Malden, Thelma Ritter and Telly Savalas. A killer spends a life behind bars and finds spiritual escape in the form of birds. For the first half hour or so I thoroughly enjoyed this film, particularly the tough and gritty prison realism. However, as Burt Lancaster's character softened, his manner took on a slow-moving, robotic quality and the movie became slightly preachy and redundant, with the same emotional notes repeated over and over. But I don't want to give you the wrong impression: the film was still well worth seeing.
(500) Days of Summer (1/16/10) Netflix (2009 ***1/4) Directed by Marc Webb, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel. A young man falls in love with a co-worker but -- as the narration at the film's beginning tells us -- this is not a love story. If I were twenty years younger I probably would have given this movie an enthusiastic four stars. I can easily imagine that for some young men and women this may even become a personal favorite. As for me, I find on more and more occasions that I'm not as appreciative of the visions of contemporary youth as I once was. While I enjoyed the gentle, non-linear presentation of a "near-miss" of a relationship, it ultimately didn't speak to me, and I frequently found the writing to be immature, and not on purpose. I was reminded a bit of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, another film I thought could have been great if it had only lived up to its potential.
The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb's Book of Genesis (1/17/10) Hammer Museum Exhibit (2009 ***1/4) A friend at work recommended this exhibition at the Hammer Museum, and so I took my wife on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The concept was simple: The original art for all 200-plus pages of R. Crumb's Genesis book, which evidently took five years to complete, was displayed sequentially, allowing visitors to admire and even read the work a page at a time. I wanted to see it, not because I'm the biggest R. Crumb fan, and not because I have a special affinity for The Old Testament, but because last year I went to an exhibition that included original comic book from the 1940's and I got a special kick out of seeing the meticulous ink-work. I also wanted to experience the effect of a graphic novel hung in an art museum in close proximity to Rembrandts and Monets. Evidently I wasn't alone in that desire: I anticipated low attendance, but when we arrived there were a couple dozen other patrons already enjoying the show. My take-away thoughts afterwards were: (a) I had far more admiration for R. Crumb as an artist than before; (b) I wondered if he was motivated to tackle such a monumental undertaking by a desire to leave behind a "master work" that people would continue to reference long after he was gone and (c) was the frequent application of his trademark "nipple bumps" to female biblical figures a deliberate (and commercial) attempt to provoke controversy despite claims to the contrary in his introduction to the book?
Avatar (3D) (1/18/10) UA La Canada Flintridge 8 (2009) ****) Written and directed by James Cameron, starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Lang. A crippled former marine takes over his brother's contract, travels to a far-away world called Pandora, falls in love with a native girl and makes billions of dollars for James Cameron. A month after Avatar's release, I finally saw this phenomenal, though far-from-perfect, movie. I'd been hearing for the previous year and a half how much of a "game-changer" this film was, and I'll be damned if the blasted thing didn't live up to its hype! Much of my hesitation to see it had been its 260-minute running time, and it did drag a bit in spots. The story was fine, but with a film like this, who's going for the story? At this point everyone has heard the "Dances With Smurfs" jokes and comparisons to Ferngully, Delgo and Dances With Wolves. You know what? I couldn't have cared less. The visual effects for the film were stunning, and the CG Na'vi characters in particular were artfully executed. Their realistic-but-stylized, non-human designs kept them well out of Masahiro Mori's dreaded "uncanny valley" that has swallowed CG humans whole ever since Final Fantasy and as recently as (I'm told) A Christmas Carol. If you haven't yet seen Avatar, I strongly suggest you see it. It certainly is a landmark, game-changing, film.
The Miracle Worker (1/19/10) TV-TCM (1962 ***1/2) Directed by Arthur Penn, screenplay by William Gibson (based on his play), starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. "T-E-A-C-H-E-R." Based on a true story, near-blind firebrand Annie Sullivan struggles to reach the shielded psyche of a deaf-blind "wild child" named Helen Keller. Of course I'd seen this before; nearly everybody has at one time or another. It's a great film, winning Oscars for both Bancroft and young Patty Duke (who went on to even greater fame playing identical cousins on a self-titled TV show). I wonder if some audience members didn't take the film's pro-discipline message a little too much to heart. If you're one of the few people who haven't seen this film, I simply must insist that you... Hey! Don't you DARE walk away from me while I'm talking to you!
Meet John Doe (1/21/10) TV-TCM (1941 ***1/4) Directed by Frank Capra, screenplay by Robert Riskin, starring Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward Arnold and Walter Brennan. A down-on-his-luck pitcher gets mixed up with a newspaper hoax leading all the way to The White House. I thought I'd watched this film more recently, but apparently I'd confused it with another Capra/Cooper classic, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. This is a good film, and worth seeing, though it didn't quite pack the emotional wallop of Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or It's a Wonderful Life. Two minor, random notes: (1) I'm embarrassed to admit that I thought for the entire film that Walter Brennan (who played Cooper's buddy) was Jack Albertson of Willy Wonka and Chico and the Man fame; (2) There were a few shots when the resemblance between Gary Cooper and a young Harrison Ford was uncanny.
Monterey Pop (1/21/10) TV-Sundance (1968 ***) Directed by D.A. Pennebaker, featuring performances by The Mamas and the Papas, Janis Joplin, Simon & Garfunkel, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and Ravi Shankar. Aside from the wonderful music and "of an era" filmmaking, much of the fun my wife and I had watching this documentary was searching each and every shot of the audience for my mother-in-law, whose young face is supposedly visible somewhere in the footage. Alas, we never found her. Apparently she can also be found in some old Beatles' documentary footage as well.
Don't Look Back (1/22/10) Netflix (1967 ***) Directed by D.A. Pennebaker. This behind-the-scenes documentary of Bob Dylan's 1965 visit to London shows he was many things: A young man, a folk singer, a poet, a chain-smoker and -- quite frequently -- an asshole. But then, aren't we all? It had been many years since I last watched Don't Look Back, and I enjoyed it a bit less now that I'm older than I did when I was in my mid-20's, roughly the same age Dylan was in 1965, and I remembered it as far more powerful than I found it this time around. It's still required watching for any Bob Dylan fan. It was pure coincidence that I'd watched Pennebaker's Monterey Pop the day before, but it was interesting to observe a continuity of style: Swish-pan, cut!
Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (1/23/10) Netflix (2003 **1/2) Directed by Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill. Aileen Carol Wuornos was the inspiration for the Charlize Theron movie Monster. This documentary, Broomfield's follow-up to his 1992 film Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, covers the period leading up to the state of Florida carrying out the execution of Wuornos. It was clear from the footage that Aileen was a sociopath who killed people in cold blood and changed her story multiple times. There were times as she was interviewed by Broomfield when she became highly animated and her eyes opened wide and she was truly terrifying. I honestly thought I was going to have nightmares. Was Wuornos mentally fit for execution? Well, based on this film she was either crazy or she did an excellent job of playing the part of the criminally insane serial killer. Most likely the truth lay somewhere in-between.
The Walking Dead, Vol. 1: Days Gone Bye (1/24/10) Graphic Novel (2006 ***1/2) Written by Robert Kirkman, illustrated by Tony Moore. An injured deputy comes out of a coma in an empty hospital and finds himself in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. His Invincible series made me a fan of Robert Kirkman, and the writing in this series is quite strong. However, I was surprised that the main character's reunion with his family wasn't delayed more for purposes of dramatic tension and also that it was as coincidental as it was. Some fans of zombie movies may be disappointed there's not more horror or intense action, but I actually enjoyed the leisurely pace at which the story unfolded, and there were several unexpected and highly satisfying plot twists. I look forward to reading more installments in the series.
A Farewell to Arms (1/25/10) Novel (1929 ***1/2) Written by Ernest Hemingway. An American serving in the Italian army during WWI is injured in the battlefield and falls in love with his nurse. This book was assigned to us when I was a Junior in high school. I'm ashamed to admit that at the time I read the Cliff's Notes instead of the actual book. I still remember the young lady who sat behind me raising her hand and asking Mrs. Berstein how "they did it" while wearing a cast. My teacher's memorable response: "I don't know, but my husband had a slipped disc once." Though I'm familiar with the fact that Hemingway is best known for his minimalist prose, I haven't read much of his work. Last year I started reading a collection of his short stories and lost interest early on. With this book, I found the writing so stiff and unnatural at first that I had a hard time reading it. As I "soldiered on," (no pun intended) it got easier. So what changed, the writing or my brain? The ending of the book, which I won't reveal here, was far more devastating than I'd expected, and it substantially raised my estimation of the book's greatness.
Irredeemable: Volume 1 (1/25/10) Graphic Novel (2009 ***1/2) Written by Mark Waid, illustrated by Peter Krause. What if Superman went batshit crazy and became the world's greatest super-powered nightmare? That's the premise of this compelling story. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and so it may surprise you that I'm hopeful this series will be a limited, self-contained story instead of an ongoing drama. I was far more interested in the scenes in which The Plutonian played the part of super-sociopath than in the scenes of heroes scrambling to avoid his wrath. I look forward to the next book in the series.
Twilight (1/26/10) Netflix (2008 ***) Directed by Catherine Hardwicke, screenplay by Melissa Rosenberg, based on the novel by Stephenie Meyer, starring Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. A Phoenix girl moves to the Pacific Northwest and discovers the Goth kids at her new high school are really hardcore. Twilight is a cultural phenomenon and has become a gigantic cash machine, and so I wasn't sure what to expect. I'd heard from some of my friends that it was pretty dreadful, and so I joked I'd be watching it while wearing a lab coat and holding a clipboard. But you know what? I actually enjoyed it! That was assisted tremendously by the fact that Twilight is essentially a mash-up of Smallville and Dark Shadows, two of my guiltiest pleasures. So what's not to like? Besides, some of the actors were so over-the-top and goofy with their performances that I got a nice side order of unexpected laughter.
House of Mystery, Vol. 1: Room and Boredom (1/27/10) Graphic Novel (2009 **1/2) Written by Matthew Sturges and Bill Willingham, illustrated by various. A woman finds herself trapped in the house of her dreams, literally. I have fond memories of the old House of Mystery comics, a lightweight horror anthology hosted by Cain (The House of Secrets was hosted by Cain's brother Abel). Neil Gaiman's Sandman series elegantly incorporated Cain and Abel and their respective houses as territories within "The Dreaming." This new series left me a little cold, though. There was an overall story-arc in which a young woman enters the world and attempts to leave. I didn't really buy the idea of the "House of Mystery" as a tavern. Occasionally the narrative was interrupted by smaller stand-alone stories illustrated by different artists, but I never found myself particularly interested in any of the stories being told or any of the characters involved.
Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) (1/28/10) TV-Sundance (1972 ***) Directed by Luis Bunuel. Three couples attempt to have dinner, but are continually interrupted. Oh, the poor middle class. They simply cannot catch a freakin' break! If you've ever wanted to watch a film that may or may not have a plot and may or may not be nothing more than a series of "it was all a dream" moments, this is the one for you. This film started out slow, but after about a half hour it grew on me. Even with the conventional story structure constraint replaced by an overriding dream motif, there was still clearly-defined action and conflict within each individual scene, and so it wasn't boring like some surreal films tend to be.
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1/29/10) TV-TCM (1939 ***1/2) Directed by Sidney Lanfield, screenplay by Ernest Pascal, based on the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, starring Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce and Richard Greene. The world's most famous consulting detective and his sidekick take many leisurely strolls on the moors as they investigate a family cursed by a big ol' dog. This film (the first in the series featuring Rathbone as Holmes) is yet another example of why 1939 truly was a banner year in film history. Though Holmes and Watson had appeared on the silver screen prior to this incarnation, the pairing of Rathbone and Bruce proved to be the definitive one. One final note: The Hound of the Baskervilles concluded with Holmes saying: "Oh, Watson -- the needle!" a reference to his literary counterpart's appetite for cocaine. Apparently this line was edited out of prints for many years but was returned in the 1970's.
Invincible: Books 9-11 (1/30/10) Comics (2008-2009 ***1/2) Written by Robert Kirkman, illustrated by Ryan Ottley. The Invincible saga continues. Rather than review each volume separately, this review includes Book 9 (Out Of This World), Book 10 (Who's the Boss?) and Book 11 (Happy Days). The most significant and memorable development in this trio of books was the evolution of Mark Grayson's half-brother as Kid Omni-Man. In part because of the costume change that occurred halfway through, I was reminded of the character development (the gradual descent into assholery...) of Batman's second Robin, Jason Todd, in the months leading up to his "death." Yeah, it was like that... only with superhuman strength. The power of this series seems to be the contrast between the innocence of youth and the often horrific ramifications of misjudging the magnitude of one's super-strength. It's a terrific series.

February

Smallville: Absolute Justice (2/7/10) TV-CW (2010 ***) Directed by Tom Welling and Glen Winter, written by Geoff Johns, starring Tom Welling, Allison Mack, Erica Durance and Justin Hartley. Chloe is saved from an icy end by a star-spangled member of a team called The Justice Society of America. Let me be brutally honest here: This Smallville/JSA "event" had the potential of being a fanboy's wet dream, but it must have had non-comicos scratching their heads. Though I understood by the story's end that this episode was mainly set-up for a future "Suicide Squad" story arc, my opinion is it was seriously handicapped story-wise by focusing on Jack Frost (AKA Icicle) as its villain, rather than a heavyweight like Vandal Savage. Geoff Johns is no slouch, of course, but surely there was a less obviously derivative way of introducing the JSA into the world of Smallville. My wife, who only watched about a half hour of this 2-hour event, said she felt like she was watching Watchmen. I'm pretty sure Smallville has jumped the shark a few times by now, and I almost get the sense that the producers have decided that since the show is going to be canceled eventually anyhow that they may as well see what kind of DC Universe shenanigans they can get away with in the meantime. In a way, I kind of admire that.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (2/9/10) TV-TCM (1939 ***1/2) Directed by Alfred L. Werker, screenplay by Edwin Blum and William Drake, based on the play by William Gillette, starring Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Ida Lupino and Alan Marshal, with George Zucco as Professor Moriarty. Holmes' greatest nemesis plots to use Holmes' poor multiprocessing and time management skills against him. One of the most interesting things about this film is that it was not based on a story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. As the Turner Classic Movies introduction explained, William Gillette was an actor who wrote the original play as a vehicle for himself. I must admit the gimmick of Moriarty executing a series of murders in order to throw Holmes off his true target was a clever one. One personal note: I'm reasonably sure that when I was a senior in high school I saw a production of this play at The Omaha Community Playhouse.
Operation Petticoat (2/9/10) TV-TCM (1959 ***1/2) Directed by Blake Edwards, starring Cary Grant and Tony Curtis. A WWII Navy commander takes a broken-down submarine into battle and winds up with more than he bargained for. This is another one of those movies (along with Father Goose) that played constantly on TV when I was a kid. You know what? It's really a terrific film -- probably one of the best comedies of the era -- and there was a real chemistry between Tony Curtis and his idol, Cary Grant.
Shazam!: Power of Hope (2/9/10) Graphic Novel (2000 **1/2) Written by Paul Dini, illustrated by Alex Ross. An overworked Billy Batson sits down to answer some of Captain Marvel's fan mail and learns a lesson about friendship and facing adversity. This book, along with Superman: Peace on Earth (1998) and Batman: War on Crime (1999) (neither of which I've read) seemed intended to capitalize on Alex Ross's meteoric success after Kingdom Come (1997). Though intrigued, I'd avoided the books in large part because of the awkward oversized format. It was clear from the tone of Dini's writing that this series was intended for younger readers, and it occupies a peculiar halfway zone between children's picture books and graphic novels. As such, it exists as a not-entirely-successful publishing experiment.
Babes in the Woods (2/10/10) Netflix (1962 **) Directed by A.A. Krovek, written by Edmund Kerwin. Three young "respectable busy business girls" head out to a retreat in the Canadian wilderness, where they have considerable difficulty keeping their clothes on. God only knows what movie I had added to my queue that Netflix recommended this early sixties softcore stag film. While it was marginally entertaining from an anthropological perspective, I can't really recommend it. The production values reminded me of my own 16mm film efforts back in college and there were several scenes when I really wished the cinematographer had known how to use a light meter.
South Pacific (2/11/10) TV-TCM (1958 ***) Directed by Joshua Logan, screenplay by Paul Osborn, based on James Michener's book, starring Rossano Brazzi, Mitzi Gaynor, John Kerr and Ray Walston, with Juanita Hall as Bloody Mary. Two men on an island fall in love at first sight (but not with each other) and help turn the tide of the war in the Pacific. Is there in fact "nothing like a dame?" Is it really possible to "wash that man right out of your hair?" My feelings about this film were mixed. It was certainly beautiful: Unlike my wife, I have never seen this film on the big screen, and I would like to someday, mostly for the jaw-droppingly gorgeous scenery. South Pacific featured some beloved music by Rodgers and Hammerstein, though it also contained several other forgettable songs. My biggest issues with the film were related to its story: I frequently felt the best scenes were ones that occurred before the film began or off-screen. It's only late in the film that we discover the theme of the story was the consequences of prejudice: Nellie Forbush doesn't want to marry Emile De Becque, not because she'd only met him a few weeks before and not because he left France because he'd killed a man, but because he had been married to a Polynesian woman who had died. Racial prejudice was an important theme fifty years ago when the film was made, but for a modern audience it was far more difficult to accept Nellie's conflicted emotions as a plausible motivation.
A Study in Terror (2/12/10) TV-TCM (1965 **1/2) Directed by James Hill, screenplay by Donald and Derek Ford, starring John Neville, Donald Houston and Anthony Quayle, with a very young Dame Judi Dench as Sally Young. Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson tackle their greatest case: A series of prostitutes brutally slain by a mysterious figure known as... Jack the Ripper. For the first ten minutes I came close to deleting this film and moving on to the next movie on the DVR. I was turned off by the limited production values and harsh mid-sixties lighting design in which the streets of Victorian London frequently resembled the studio sets from I Dream of Jeannie. However, there was something in the premise and in Neville and Houston's performances that hooked me and I watched it through to the end. A Study in Terror is not a great film by any means, but for fans of Sherlock Holmes (or of Jack the Ripper, I suppose) it may be worth watching.
The Public Enemy (2/18/10) TV-TCM (1931 ***1/2) Directed by William A. Wellman, starring James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods and Joan Blondell. Tommy Powers is a wise guy, see? And he don't take no lip from nobody, see? And when he gets tired of a dame he shoves a grapefruit half in her face, see? Anyone could clearly... see... after watching this film why Cagney became the star he became. He really was a charismatic fella, and he effortlessly outshone everyone he shared the screen with. This film might be most interesting as a cultural artifact for its subtext, in which Cagney's hoodlum was sympathetic and eventually remorseful, yet he still -- in accordance with the codes of morality of the time -- met with a brutal end. And what an end it was! Even nearly 80 years after its release, the final scene of The Public Enemy was still quite shocking, so much so that I rewound the DVR and played it a couple of times.
Air, Vol. 1: Letters From Lost Countries (2/20/10) Graphic Novel (2009 **1/2) Written by G. Willow Wilson, illustrated by M.K. Perker. A plucky flight attendant falls for a man who may be a terrorist and finds herself in a country that doesn't appear on any maps. I bought this book because it was offered as a 4-for-3 deal on Amazon. I had a hard time getting into this story, mostly because its genre seemed to change every thirty pages or so. I was also frustrated by the apparent limitations of Perker's illustrative abilities. There was nothing in this volume that enticed me to buy future ones.
The Dead (2/20/10) TV-Sundance (1987 ***1/4) Directed by John Huston, screenplay by Tony Huston, based on the story by James Joyce, starring Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann. Set in turn-of-the-century Ireland, a song sung at the end of a Christmas dinner evokes painful memories. This was John Huston's final film, and I must admit I chose it mainly for that reason and because of its source material. I watched much of it in a state approaching boredom, wondering when something was going to actually happen. Foolish me. This wasn't that kind of movie. I was profoundly moved twice, however: Once during the dinner toast Gabriel Conroy gave and then during the final intimate scene that took place between Conroy and his wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston) in their hotel bedroom. The film's final effect was to make me want to read James Joyce's writings, something I've never done.
The Enchanted Cottage (2/21/10) TV-TCM (1945 ***) Directed by John Cromwell, starring Dorothy McGuire, Robert Young, Herbert Marshall and Mildred Natwick. An ugly woman and a disfigured man discover a true and magical beauty in a special cottage. I frequently thought as I watched that they don't make this kind of movie anymore. It was old-fashioned in the sense that it was based on a single simple idea, which it proceeded to tell in a simple way. It had a definite charm and may give hope for anyone who has ever experienced the sad stigma of homeliness. I imagine this film might make a good double-feature with Marty (1955), which explored a similar theme.
Sergeant York (2/21/10) TV-TCM (1941 ***1/4) Directed by Howard Hawks, starring Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan and Joan Leslie. A conscientious objector from Tennessee mows down 20 "Heinies" and becomes one of the most decorated heroes of WWI. Gary Cooper made his career playing the kind of simple-minded, plain-spoken characters you didn't want to get into get into a fist-fight with. Released in 1941, the message of this film was clear: Even if you believe war is contrary to the teachings of Jesus, you'd still better be willing to fight, kill and die for your country. That message was understandably thick and sometimes hard to swallow.
Man On Wire (2/22/10) TV-IFC (2008 ***) Directed by James Marsh, based on the book by Philippe Petit. In 1974 a man did the impossible, walking on a wire strung between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. This film won the Oscar last year for Best Documentary Feature, and while I enjoyed it, I didn't get pulled into it as much as I thought I would. Part of the problem for me was I had a hard time trusting which film footage was real and which had been re-enacted. I'm not entirely sure why that affected my enjoyment of the film. Perhaps it's because I found it distracting.
Foreign Correspondent (2/23/10) TV-TCM (1940 ***) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Joel McCrea, Laraine Day, Herbert Marshall, George Sanders and Robert Benchley. On the eve of WWII, a newspaper reporter is sent to Europe and he falls into a plot that can only be described as arbitrarily diabolical. This film exists as a prototype for far better Hitchcock films that followed. Also, as I watched I was frequently reminded of Steven Spielberg's directorial style and his relationship to Hitchcock. Much of the film's weaknesses lay in its script, which committed the cardinal sin of having a protagonist who was often passive because his role as leading man was shared. As enjoyable as he was, the George Sanders character probably should have been cut.
The Walking Dead, Vol. 2: Miles Behind Us (2/23/10) Graphic Novel (2007 ***1/2) Written by Robert Kirkland, illustrated by Charlie Adlard. In this, the second installment of the series, Rick and company find an oasis in the form of a farm, but safety comes at a high price. Kirkland stated in the introduction to the first volume that with this series he wanted the luxury of time, allowing the story to unfold slowly. Knowing that helped to alleviate some pacing frustrations I might have otherwise had. It seemed that his narrative style was to let the characters slowly unfold, then to wallop the reader with an unexpected twist. On the art front, I must agree with other reviewers who have written that Adlard's illustrations -- though appropriate to the source material -- are not quite as strong as Tony Moore's work in the first volume. In particular, I often had trouble telling characters apart, a fact that was complicated by how many new characters were introduced in this volume.
Rock Springs (2/24/10) Short Fiction (2009 ***1/2) Written by Richard Ford. This collection of short stories was assigned as part of a UCLA Extension class taught by Wayne Harrison. In the class, over a five-week period, we read two stories each week, analyzing the stories and commenting on aspects of the dialogue. Some of the students in class found Ford's stories to be depressing and repetitive. While those views were valid, I chose to look at the stories in Rock Springs as variations on a common theme. It's true the characters often shared similar traits and the stories all took place in the same space, either physically or psychologically. Still, the writing was strong (according to the book's front cover, Ford won a Pulitzer for his novel Independence Day), and though the inter-story similarities made Ford's technique more apparent, that was quite helpful for purposes of my class. Based solely on this book, since it's my only exposure to his work, Richard Ford may be a bit more downbeat than the writer I hope to be someday, but as far as short story construction goes, one could pick a worse writer to emulate.
The Walking Dead, Vol. 3: Safety Behind Bars (2/25/10) Graphic Novel (***1/2) Written by Robert Kirkland, illustrated by Charlie Adlard. In a world filled with zombies, the operative word in the phrase "maximum security penitentiary" becomes "security." Since I wrote about Adlard's illustrative limitations at length in my review of the previous volume, I won't here. One of the things I admire about this series is that each "volume" really does contain an element that sets it apart from the rest of the series. This volume was about making a home in a prison. Like previous books, it introduced new characters and contained quite a few dramatic twists. This series is definitely growing on me.
The Walking Dead, Vol. 4: The Heart's Desire (2/25/10) Graphic Novel (***1/4) Written by Robert Kirkland, illustrated by Charlie Adlard. Rick and company continue to build a life in a prison where only a chain link fence separates them from the zombie herd. While I'm still very actively engaged in this series, I was a little more aware in this volume of the limits of Kirkland's skills in writing dialogue. Perhaps that's because so much of this particular book was made up of scenes of people screaming and cursing at each other. Still, there were enough unexpected plot twists to make me keep reading. In fact, I've already placed an order for the next three books in the series.
The Player (2/26/10) TV-Sundance (1992 ***) Directed by Robert Altman, screenplay by Michael Tolkin (based on his novel), starring Tim Robbins and a dozen recognizable Hollywood faces, many playing themselves. A studio executive harassed by a threatening writer accidentally kills an innocent man. I have to make a terrible confession: I've always admired Robert Altman but haven't always enjoyed his work. This film is one of the most accessible of his films, and I appreciated the attempt to incorporate recognizable celebrities as a legitimate motif. Unfortunately, the effect was occasionally awkward, as in the case in a scene set at a Hollywood party, where Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows looked a little uncomfortable as the human equivalent of set decoration. I also had a lot of trouble feeling that Tim Robbins had the acting gravitas for the film's lead. While I've always found him likable, throughout The Player I kept feeling he was in over his head as an actor.
Preacher, Vol. 1: Gone to Texas (2/27/10) Graphic Novel (1996 ***1/4) Written by Garth Ennis, illustrated by Steve Dillon. When the spawn of heaven and hell breaks loose, it's up to a man of God, a female hit-man and a vampire to straighten things out. This is a fun series, with strong writing and art by Ennis and Dillon. This book definitely favored characterization over plot, and the character introductions seemed a tad bit engineered, but I didn't as annoying as I initially thought I would. Mind you, the world of Preacher is definitely adult-oriented, and not for the timid.
Preacher, Vol. 2: Until the End of the World (2/27/10) Graphic Novel (1997 ***1/4) Written by Garth Ennis, illustrated by Steve Dillon. This book featured two stories: "All in the Family" and "Hunters." Continuing the energy of the first volume, Ennis managed to crank up the outrageous dial, and some of the adult-oriented situations were pretty extreme. With this volume I got the sense that Preacher is one of those road trips where the destination is far less important than the company you're with.
Road House (2/28/10) TV-KTLA (1989 ***) Directed by Rowdy Herrington, screenplay by David Lee Henry and Hilary Henkin, starring Pattrick Swayze, Kelly Lynch and Sam Elliott. Dalton is a bouncer who takes troubled roadside taverns and slaps 'em upside the head and kicks 'em in the kneecaps until they behave themselves, andthen he moves on to the next one. My terrible confession of the week: The main reason I watched this film was so I could better appreciate a running gag on Family Guy in which Peter Griffin kicks people, then says: "Road House." Boy, the things I'll do for cultural context. What surprised me was how damned entertaining and brutally archetypal this film was. It was so representative of a type of films made during an era in film history that it should be shown in universities and studied. It is that pure. "Road House."

March

Heathers (3/1/10) TV-IFC (1988 **1/2) Directed by Michael Lehmann, screenplay by Daniel Waters, starring Winona Ryder, Christian Slater and Shannen Doherty. Some teens solve their dissatisfaction with high school's unfair social structure by committing murder. I saw this film when it was first released, and it's even possible I saw it in the theater. But in 1988 I was already well past my high school years and even though some of my best friends (like Harold and Maude) are black comedies, something about Heathers bugged the hell out of me, and I didn't like it much. Over the years, the film went on to become a Generation-X cult classic, and I wondered if there was something wrong with me. Watching it again, years later, I was disappointed to discover that the film still rubs my sensibilities the wrong way. Draw your own conclusions.
Adaptation (3/1/10) TV-Sundance (2002 ****) Directed by Spike Jonze, screenplay by Charlie (and Donald!) Kaufman, based on the book The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, starring Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper and Brian Cox as Robert McKee. A quirky screenwriter lands an assignment and struggles with the source material until the fabric of reality threatens to collapse. This film was so self-aware of itself, and yet it still worked on an emotional level. If I had to say what the film is about, it's about the relationship between reality and the structured version that exists on the silver screen, about the hoops through which a writer must necessarily go in order to create a cinematic story. Against all odds, breaking as many rules as it embraced, Adaptation worked. And it worked brilliantly.
Preacher, Vol. 3: Proud Americans (3/1/10) Graphic Novel (1997 ***1/4) Written by Garth Ennis, illustrated by Steve Dillon. This volume finished the "Grail" story begun in the previous volume and concluded with a 2-issue exploration of Cassidy the vampire's backstory. I was disappointed by Cassidy's origin story, which was less interesting than what I would have hoped for. Having said that, Preacher is still an interesting series and well worth reading.
Paper Heart (3/2/10) Netflix (2009 **1/2) Directed by Nicholas Jasenovec, written by Jasenovec and Charlyne Yi, starring Charlyne Yi and Michael Cera. A quirky Asian female comic sets out to make a quirky documentary about the nature of love, and along the way she starts dating one of the hottest quirky actors of the 21st Century, Michael Cera. This film suffered from the same problem found a number of recent movies: It's just too precious for its own good. The concept behind this film was essentially to integrate pseudo documentary material into a scripted faux documentary. I don't think that concept was flawed, and the trailer was adorable, but the execution of the film was disappointing, particularly when it was painfully apparent that "real" footage was scripted.
Little Big Man (3/4/10) TV-TCM (1970 ****) Directed by Arthur Penn, screenplay by Calder Willingham, based on the novel by Thomas Berger, starring Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Richard Mulligan and Chief Dan George. Long before Forrest Gump ran across the landscape of the American experience, there was a man named Jack Crabb, who lived in the wild, wild, wild west. Once upon a time, when I was a younger man, this was one of my favorite films, and I watched it every couple of years. I had not watched it in a long time, and I'll be damned if it does still hold up every bit as well as I'd remembered. Structurally, it's a picaresque, like Don Quixote or Huckleberry Finn. But it's also inevitably a product of the anti-war era in which it was made, and as such I imagine it would make a great double-feature along with another 1970 film, Robert Altman's M*A*S*H.
Born Into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids (3/4/10) Netflix (2004 ***) Directed by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman. A white female photographer teaches photography to some of the poorest children in India and along the way she attempts to change their lives for the better. I'm ashamed to admit that after the first few minutes I was tempted to quit watching. Chalk it up to white middle-class guilt if you want, but abject poverty is not something I want to watch for an hour and a half. It was really the photography angle that grabbed me and held my interest. During the course of the film, the viewer was exposed to each of "Auntie" Zana's kids as individual photographers and it made me think about the nature of photography (and art) in a way I hadn't thought about it for a long time.
Preacher, Vol. 4: Ancient History (3/5/10) Graphic Novel (1998 ***) Written by Garth Ennis, illustrated by Steve Pugh, Carlos Ezquerra and Richard Case. This volume in the Preacher saga steps away from the main storyline and digs into the origins of the series' supporting characters: The Saint of Killers, Arseface and Jesse Custer's redneck uncles. This volume was enjoyable enough, especially its first story, but with this series I have an increasing sense that it's not adding up to anything I'm particularly interested in. I originally bought these first four volumes used and on sale, and I can honestly say I got what I paid for. However, at this point I don't really have sufficient interest in the series to order further volumes from Amazon.
Mystery Men (3/6/10) DVD (1999 ***1/2) Directed by Kinka Usher, screenplay by Neil Cuthbert, based on the comic series by Bob Burden, starring Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, Hank Azaria, Greg Kinnear, Geoffrey Rush, Janeane Garofalo and Paul Reubens. When Captain Amazing is captured by his nemesis Casanova Frankenstein, it's up to a motley band of second-string heroes to save Champion City and/or its greatest hero. Although I haven't watched it in over five years, Mystery Men is part of my DVD library and is a sentimental favorite of mine. My personal enjoyment is probably out of proportion with the actual quality of the film. I don't know why I like it so much, exactly, but maybe it's because it was one of the first films that really captured the eccentricity of contemporary independent graphic novels. It took on the subject of superheroes with affection, and there was something special about it. The icing on the cake is that one of my friends, Quintin King, worked on the film's effects when he was at Rhythm and Hues, years before I ever met him.
Bob Roberts (3/6/10) Netflix (1992 ***) Written and directed by Tim Robbins, starring Tim Robbins, Alan Rickman, Ray Wise and Gore Vidal. A right-wing folk singer runs for senator. I hadn't watched this film since sometime in the early 1990's. It's not as strong as I'd remembered, and why that is, I'm not sure. Perhaps after the elections of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, it may not be as relevant as it once was. Also, I think I got more of a kick from the Bob Dylan Don't Look Back references when I was younger. It was still a fairly decent film, though, and it asks the question: Whatever happened to Tim Robbins the director?
On the Beach (3/8/10) TV-TCM (1959 ****) Directed by Stanley Kramer, screenplay by John Paxton, based on the novel by Nevil Shute, starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins. Set in the futuristic year 1964, World War III has left most of the planet uninhabitable, time is running out for Australia and the only song anyone is allowed to play or sing is "Waltzing Matilda." Late in the film, a banner reads "There is Still Time... Brother." The message of On the Beach was a bit heavy-handed at times, but it was a valid message for the cold war era in which it was made. One has to wonder how much this movie and other anti-nuclear war films contributed to the eventual deceleration of the arms race. It's hard for me to realize there's a whole generation born after the fall of the Berlin Wall, born in a world where nuclear annihilation is no longer the ever-present threat it once was. What does this film mean to that generation?
The Children of Chabannes (3/9/10) Netflix (1999 ***) Directed by Lisa Gossels and Dean Wetherell. This documentary focuses on a school in rural France that during WWII opened its doors to Jewish refugees. Located in the "unoccupied" region of France, at one point the offices of the Third Reich ordered the Jewish children to be rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Had it not been for the efforts of the school's headmaster, more children would have been lost. The film concludes with a reunion of the titular children, now (as of the late 1990's, when the film was made) grandparents and great-grandparents. What was most amazing was that in spite of living under the threat of the horrors of the holocaust, most of the "children" were happy and ended up living happy and productive lives.
The Killers (3/10/10) TV-TCM (1946 **1/2) Directed by Robert Siodmak, screenplay by Anthony Veiller, based on the story by Ernest Hemingway, starring Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner and Edmond O'Brien. When an auto mechanic is gunned down by two... er, killers, an obsessively curious insurance investigator wants to know why. I never quite got into this film, and I think I know the reason: I never had any reason to care about either Burt Lancaster or Ava Gardner's characters, who were both unlikable in their own ways. Also, the framing device, in which much of the story was told in flashback, like Citizen Kane, felt awkward and forced.
Inglourious Basterds (3/11/10) Netflix (2009 ***1/2) Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, starring Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent and Christoph Waltz. Nazi-scalping sons of bitches fall into a plan to blow up a movie house packed with the Third Reich's upper echelon. Last week Tarantino lost at the Oscars in the best original screenplay category to The Hurt Locker. I must say that as I watched this film I was very aware of the writing, frequently thinking about how damned good it was. Normally, screenwriting shouldn't call attention to itself, but I'm not sure that rule applies in a Quentin Tarantino film. While I enjoyed the film, the pacing was a bit slow, and for awhile I wondered why that was. Eventually I realized it was because Tarantino's scenes were about 2-3 times longer than typical screenplay scenes. This gave each scene the space to work as a stand-alone unit. In other words, each scene told a story, complete with beginning, middle and end. In some respects that worked well, but in other ways it worked against itself.
Lynch (3/12/10) TV-Sundance (2007 **) Directed by blackANDwhite featuring the "Let's Rock" madman himself, David Lynch. Some will undoubtedly find this film frustrating, while others will find it unwatchable. As with many of David Lynch's films, this is probably a "fans only" recommendation. I feel the documentarian, whoever the hell blackANDwhite is, deliberately set out to create a documentary as incomprehensible as Inland Empire, the film Lynch was making during the course of filming. Being a fan myself, I enjoyed watching David Lynch caught on camera in the act of being the visionary auteur he is. While the film has little to recommend it, I would suggest it exists as a counterpoint to the notion of "film as commercial product." This film shows that the process of filmmaking can be every bit as artistic as painting.
The Walking Dead, Vol. 5: The Best Defense (3/12/10) Graphic Novel (2006 ***1/4) Written by Robert Kirkman, illustrated by Charlie Adlard. Life inside prison walls begins to normalize, but then Rick, Glenn and Michonne stumble upon a barricaded town named Woodbury, led by a sadistic Governor. It's increasingly clear in this series that the zombie hoard outside the prison gates is far less a threat than the humanity that remains.
The Walking Dead, Vol. 6: This Sorrowful Life (3/12/10) Graphic Novel (2007 ***1/4) Written by Robert Kirkman, illustrated by Charlie Adlard. Rick, Glenn and Michonne escape from Woodbury, but not without complications. The highlight (if you want to call it that) of this volume was an extended torture porn sequence. Seems to me like somebody watched the Saw movies a few too many times.
Airplane! (3/13/10) TV-TCM (1980 ***1/2) Written and directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker, starring Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In this spoof of 1957's Zero Hour!, former airman Ted Striker must overcome his fears -- and his drinking problem -- and land a commercial airplane. My grandfather on my mother's side, who passed away in 1983, absolutely loved this movie. He had good taste: Airplane!, considered a risk when it was originally made, inspired many movies cut from the same cloth, as well as an approach to film comedy that has continued to this day. On a sad note, Peter Graves ("Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?") died the same weekend I watched this film.
The Walking Dead, Vol. 7: The Calm Before (3/14/10) Graphic Novel (2007 ***) Written by Robert Kirkman, illustrated by Charlie Adlard. The birth of Rick and Lori's baby sets the stage for Rick Gimes and company's greatest test yet. "The Calm Before" title definitely captured the tone of this volume, which was far less punctuated by dramatic events than other volumes.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (3/14/10) TV-FMC (1953 ***) Directed by Howard Hawks, starring Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe. Two knockouts sail to France, seducing and collecting men along the way. Russell and Monroe were definitely the highlights of this film, and if you watch it, I don't suggest paying too much attention to the plot. It was difficult to watch Monroe sing "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" and not think about Madonna's "Material Girl" video.
The Hurt Locker (3/15/10) Netflix (2009 ***1/2) Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, screenplay by Mark Boal, starring Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty. Set in Iraq in 2004, demolitions expert Staff Sergeant William James proves his mental instability makes him very good at his job. At this year's Oscars, The Hurt Locker film beat Avatar and 8 other films to take home the big prize of the night. Did it deserve to do so? Sure, I guess. It was certainly an entertaining, well-made, contemporarily-relevant war film. Also, in terms of adding punch to its story, the constant threat of people getting blown up didn't hurt.
Panic in the Streets (3/18/10) TV-FMC (1950 ***1/2) Directed by Elia Kazan, screenplay by Richard Murphy, starring Richard Widmark, Paul Douglas, Barbara Bel Geddes, Jack Palance and Zero Mostel. Lucky at cards, unlucky in every other conceivable way. A poker-playing stowaway brings the plague to New Orleans and Jack Palance guns him down for a lousy 190 bucks. This was a surprisingly good, gripping film. For a film made sixty years ago, it felt surprisingly contemporary. All the performances were solid, but I think what made the film really work was Richard Murphy's screenplay, which was filled with dense, edgy dialogue. Murphy went on to write Compulsion (1959), one of my favorite films.
The Deadbeat (3/19/10) Graphic Novel (2009 **) Written and Illustrated by Jeremy Massie. An alcoholic ex-superhero is reunited with his daughter. The premise of this book intrigued me and it was on sale on Amazon.com, so I took a chance and bought it. I truly admire the effort it takes to produce an independent graphic novel. However, this lightweight book had a few too many story, characterization and dialogue problems for me to recommend it.
The Walking Dead, Vol. 8: Made to Suffer (3/19/10) Graphic Novel (2008 ***1/2) Written by Robert Kirkman, illustrated by Charlie Adlard. The town of Woodbury, led by what's left of its governor, attacks the prison. I don't want to give anything away, but I very much admired Kirkman's ability to handle action sequences well. This volume ended with the most powerful dramatic and memorable punch of the series so far.
The Walking Dead, Vol. 9: Here We Remain (3/19/10) Graphic Novel (2008 ***1/4) Written by Robert Kirkman, illustrated by Charlie Adlard. In the aftermath of Volume 8, it's back to the open road, where new characters are encountered, along with a possible new mission. Poor Rick Grimes can't catch a break, can he? But you must admit, his torment made for some great reading. The "new mission" I mentioned was kind of clumsily introduced and rang a bit false story-wise. Does it signal the direction of the eventual end of the story?
The Walking Dead, Vol. 10: What We Become (3/19/10) Graphic Novel (2008 ***1/4) Written by Robert Kirkman, illustrated by Charlie Adlard. Following an attack by the cast of Deliverance, Rick and Abraham come to terms with each other and what men must become in order to survive the zombie apocalypse. This volume was significant in that, after playing in the background for some time, the zombies became a serious threat once again. I may never think of the word "herd" the same way again.
Closer (3/19/10) Netflix (2004 ***) Directed by Mike Nichols, screenplay by Patrick Marber (based on his play), starring Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Julia Roberts and Clive Owen. Two couples tell each other lies and truths, to varying degrees. I had been meaning to watch this film since it was released, and not just because of Natalie Portman's well-publicized stripping scene. I finally got around to it because it was assigned in the UCLA Extension dialogue class I'm taking. I can understand why it was assigned: The individual scenes were quite well-written. Unfortunately, I can't say that taken as a whole I enjoyed Closer very much. It reminded me too much of dramatic relationships I was in when I was younger, and I didn't get enough from it thematically to justify the discomfort and frustration I felt watching four people chase their lies, infidelities, betrayals and insecurities around in a circle for two hours.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (3/20/10) TV-FMC (1975 ***1/2) Directed by Jim Sharman, written by Jim Sharman and Richard O'Brien, starring Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick and Richard O'Brien. One dark and stormy night, an asshole and a slut show up at Dr. Frank-N-Furter's castle and ask to make a phone call. I have fond college memories of going to midnight showings of Rocky Horror, and if someone twisted my arm, I could probably be convinced to do the "Time Warp" again. I bought the soundtrack (on vinyl) way back when and memorized all the songs. Phenomena don't come more bona fide than this one, and I'm sure people smarter than I have theorized why it connected with the post-Watergate generation and became the subversive cult success it became. For me, it never fails to make me smile.
How to Train Your Dragon (3D) (3/21/10) Gibson Theater, Universal City (2010 ****) Directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, based on the book by Cressida Cowell, featuring the voices of Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson and America Ferrera. A Viking boy faces incredible danger and discovers that sometimes longstanding wars (and hatreds) should be re-thought. As was the case of Kung Fu Panda, I once again find myself a bit envious of my Dreamworks co-workers who worked on this film. It's possibly the best animated film my company has ever created. DeBois and Sanders were also responsible for the 2002 film Lilo & Stitch, one of the strongest Disney films in recent memory. Fans of the book series, be warned: The story in How to Train Your Dragon bears little resemblance to the source material, but hopefully Ms. Cowell understands. As for me, I can't wait to see it again!
Follow the Fleet (3/22/10) TV-TCM (1936 ***) Directed by Mark Sandrich, starring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Randolph Scott and Harriet Hilliard, and featuring two very young future-stars: Betty Grable and Lucille Ball. "There may be trouble ahead" for two salty sailors and the landlubbin' ladies who love them. I'd never seen this film before, and the story didn't hold much... er, water. However, it featured one of my favorite Astaire/Rogers dance numbers, a number prominently featured in the 1981 Steve Martin film Pennies From Heaven: "Face the Music and Dance." One new observation about that number: I wonder if the filmmakers deliberately planned that the women in the audience would be enthralled (and distracted) by the motion of Ginger Rogers' gown (which spun around her legs every time she paused), while their husbands enjoyed the fact that every time she stepped in front of a back-lit part of the set they got an eyeful of Ginger Roger's shapely legs? If so, Bravo!
Saturday Night Fever (3/23/10) TV-TCM (1977 ***) Directed by John Badham, starring John Travolta, Karen Lynn Gorney, Barry Miller and Donna Pescow. 19-year-old hardware store employee Tony Manero attempts to change his world through the medium of disco dancing. It's interesting that sometimes the films that have the greatest cultural impact are not necessarily great films. There's no denying that Saturday Night Fever, along with its Bee Gees soundtrack, plugged directly into the brain stems of the inhabitants of 1977. I was 13 at the time, too young to really be a part of it, but I still felt it. This film definitely worked best as wish-fulfillment, offering up a world where the responsibilities of Joe or Jane Average can be lost for a few hours... in the world of the disco dance floor.
The Twilight Saga: New Moon (3/23/10) Netflix (2009 ***) Directed by Chris Weitz, screenplay by Melissa Rosenberg, based on the novel by Stephenie Meyer, starring Kristen Stewart, Taylor Lautner and Robert Pattinson. Poor Bella turns 18 and must choose between Team Edward and Team Jacob. As a 45-year-old man, I'm pretty sure I'm not the demographic for this series, but it was fun to experience my wife's enthusiasm vicariously, I suppose. It also probably says a lot that my frame of reference for the Twilight films remains Dark Shadows meets Smallville.
The Walking Dead, Vol. 11: Fear the Hunters (3/26/10) Graphic Novel (2010 ***) Written by Robert Kirkman, illustrated by Charlie Adlard. Yet again we learn that, in the zombie apocalypse, the undead aren't the only things that will get ya. This volume was probably the least dramatic of the series so far, and I was a bit disappointed. That is not to say there weren't a few twists and revelations, but they seemed tame compared to similar story elements in the past. Given Kirkman's established dramatic pattern, that means (hopefully) that Volume 12 is gonna be a doozy!
Irredeemable, Vol. 2 (3/26/10) Graphic Novel (2010 **1/2) Written by Mark Waid, illustrated by Peter Krause. Look! Up in the Sky! It's a... oh my dear God, no!!!! The story of the world's mightiest psychopath continues. When I read the first volume, the premise of a mass-murdering Superman reminded me (in a good way) of one of the early issues of Miracleman, when the character based on Captain Marvel Junior went on a killing spree. Unfortunately, in the second volume, the storyline seems to have turned away from that shock and horror and toward backstory and the scrambling efforts of Earth's remaining heroes. As such, the series has lost much of its initial steam.
Brigadoon (3/29/10) TV-TCM (1954 **1/2) Directed by Vincente Minnelli, screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner (based the Lerner and Loewe musical), starring Gene Kelly, Van Johnson and Cyd Charisse. A Scottish village appears one day every 100 years, coincidentally on the same day Gene Kelly and Van Johnson are in the vicinity. I watched this film when I was in my early 20's, and then sometime in my 30's I saw a dinner theater production in Chicago. And now in my 40's I've watched it once again.You know what? I don't think I need to see it again in my 50's. For some reason this film has never resonated with me, and I'm not entirely sure why. Knowing myself, I would think the idea of a modern man discovering Utopia and love in the hills of Scotland would appeal to me, but I found too much of it... boring.
Clash of the Titans (1981) (3/30/10) TV-TCM (1981 **1/2) Directed by Desmond Davis, screenplay by Beverley Cross, starring Harry Hamlin, Laurence Olivier, Burgess Meredith and Maggie Smith. Perseus, bastard son of Zeus, must defeat Calibos, Medusa and the Kraken in order to save the city of Joppa and marry the beautiful princess Andromeda. In other words, just another day at the office. I had medium-fond memories of this film, which played constantly in the early days of cable, usually sandwiched between Stripes and Private Benjamin. Watching it now, I wonder how, for the poorly-reviewed remake, they've modified the story from the original to make it palatable to modern audiences. So much of it simply wouldn't fly. Even the "Release the Kraken" line (which my wife and I both remembered being spoken by Burgess Meredith) seemed laughable. Then again, maybe it's high time the stories of Greek mythology were presented in film form again. The main thing I learned about the Greek Gods from this film is that they were a pretty petty bunch. As an added bonus, here's my advice for all you would-be heroes and heroines out there: If you're going to talk trash about one of the Gods or Goddesses, don't do it in their temple, for Christ's sake!
Proof (3/31/10) TV-IFC (2005 ****) Directed by John Madden, screenplay by David Auburn and Rebecca Miller, based on Auburn's play, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins, Jake Gyllenhaal and Hope Davis. The daughter of a recently deceased mathematical genius struggles with the gifts and mental instability she inherited from her father. On a whim several years ago, my wife and I went a Mendocino stage production of Auburn's play and I thoroughly enjoyed it, probably because it contains so many story and character elements that speak to me personally. I also very much enjoyed this film version, and I think it fits safely into the category of films I wish I'd made, along with Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous and Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude.

April

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (4/2/10) Nonfiction (2005 ***1/4) Written by Malcolm Gladwell. Sometimes our "gut feelings" are surprisingly accurate; other times they may just mean you're hungry for a Snickers bar. When is it best to think things through, and when is it best to rely on instinct? That's the exciting premise of Gladwell's follow-up to The Tipping Point. This book was interesting and generally well-written. My only minor qualm with Blink was Gladwell's tendency throughout the book to frequently recall his first case study, a forged sculpture at the Getty that had been studied and pronounced genuine by supposed experts who should have known better. While I understand it was a deliberate technique to unify his material and remind the reader of his central thesis, every time he did it I felt pulled out of the book.
Astro City: The Dark Age 1: Brothers and Other Strangers (4/3/10) Graphic Novel (2010 ***1/4) Written by Kurt Busiek, illustrated by Bret Anderson. Two brothers on opposite sides of the law live their lives walking in the spaces between the adventures of the superheroes of Astro City in the 1970's. It has been far too long since I last read the earlier Astro City volumes, and I'm well overdue. I'd forgotten how satisfying and solid Kurt Busiek's writing can be. While still maintaining a street-level point of view similar to Marvels, this volume filled in some of the history and mythology of the Astro City universe. Honestly, what worked the least for me was the relationship between the two brothers, and I never quite got over the "one brother's a cop, the other's a criminal" cliche'. Still, I look forward to the second half of this storyline.
Raising Arizona (4/4/10) TV-FMC (1987 ***1/2) Directed by Joel Coen, screenplay by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, starring Nicolas Cage, Holly Hunter, John Goodman and Randall 'Tex' Cobb as Leonard Smalls. An ex-con and his easily-excitable wife embark on a baby-snatching caper where everything that can go wrong does. This is the film that really put the Coen brothers on the cinematic map, and while it shows a few signs of aging in the 23 years since its release, it's still a damned fine film, particularly in the staging of some of its action sequences. Not many films can make a baby falling off the roof of a car funny, but Raising Arizona is one of the best.
Superman: Adventures of the Man of Steel (4/4/10) Comics (1998 **1/2) Written by Scott McCloud and Paul Dini, illustrated by Rick Burchett and various artists. Streamlined and Stylized Superman fights stylized versions of Luthor, Brainiac, Metallo and more. Read the comic inspired by the TV show that was inspired by a comic and another TV show. This book (and the Superman TV show from which it was inspired) was, of course, a reaction to the popularity of Batman: The Animated Series and The Batman Adventures. For some reason, possibly because I'm over the age of 10, the stories in this collection didn't really grab me. McCloud (who wrote all but the first story) is best known for his manifesto in comic form, Understanding Comics, and this was one of my only exposures to him as a writer of actual comics.
Alice in Wonderland (3D) (4/5/10) DWA Screening (2010 ***1/4) Directed by Tim Burton, screenplay by Linda Woolverton, based on the books by Lewis Carroll, starring Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway. A young lady goes to a garden party and reminisces with her old friends, some of which are quite mad. I had minimal expectations for this film, partly because Tim Burton's recent track record of entertaining me hasn't been so great. But I was pleasantly surprised. The story, in which a near-adult Alice has largely forgotten her youthful adventures in Wonderland, was a bit of a cheat, but it allowed the story to be far more linear and conventional than following the source material would have allowed. Ms. Wasikowska was perfectly cast as a Tim Burton Goth-heroine, and Johnny Depp's characterization of The Mad Hatter was richer and more amusing than I'd expected. I enjoyed the 3-D, in spite of the fact that Burton began principle photography shooting in stereo, then discarded it in favor of a post-process approach like that used in the recent Clash of the Titans remake. Because of the storybook nature of this film, and because so much of it was CG, the layered "pop-up book" quality of the 3-D was appropriate, and it definitely added to the experience.
The Beatles: From Liverpool to San Francisco (4/8/10) Netflix (2005 **) Directed by Alan Ravenscroft, written by Howard Hill, featuring behind-the-scenes footage of those loveable mop-tops with their madcap antics. Imagine, if you will, a documentary about the Beatles made entirely of B-roll footage that nobody else wanted to use. That's a pretty good description of this film. It featured a recurring, sometimes day-by-day calendar graphic (like a page from a day planner), always accompanied by the same 3-note musical sting, which got quite repetitive. The background music was often quite catchy, but of course due to licensing costs, none of it was by the Beatles themselves. Also, there was a strange and intrusive running commentary about how much money the Beatles were or were not making at this point in their careers. All in all, I didn't hate it, but this documentary was definitely for fans only.
Bandslam (4/9/10) Netflix (2009 ***1/2) Directed by Todd Graff, screenplay by Josh A. Cagan and Todd Graff, starring Gaelan Connell, Alyson Michalka, Vanessa Hudgens and Lisa Kudrow. A music-loving misfit moves to a new high school and finds himself managing a band competing in a regional rock competition called "Bandslam." On paper, this film was The Commitments meets School of Rock. And you know what? It kind of was, but in a good way. It's a shame it didn't make more money or get more attention when it was in the theaters. Bandslam was well-written (filled with plenty of wish-fulfillment) and the characters were all quite likable. One of the band members, cello-playing Irene Lerman, was played by none other than Elvy Yost, the daughter of a friend. Hi, Elvy!
The Pin-Up Art of Dan DeCarlo, Vol. 2 (4/9/10) Cartoons (2008 ***) Edited and designed by Alex Chun and Jacob Covey. Visit, if you dare, the naughty side of an artist best known for wholesome teen rivals Betty and Veronica. The perfection of DeCarlo's artwork was undeniable, and this book is best suited for fans of his work. Most of these cartoons were created for Jest and similar men's digests in the late 1950's. The production method was interesting: DeCarlo drew cartoons of "sexy" women in risque' situations, then captions were supplied by the editor or hired gag writers. The result of this process was a set of cartoons that weren't particularly funny, and "gag" dialogue was often spoken by characters with their mouths shut, which created an additional disconnect. In addition to a general lack of humor, there was also a lot of misogyny, and DeCarlo's sexy creations were often cast as gold-diggers, sluts or both.
Fables Vol. 2: Animal Farm (4/10/10) Graphic Novel (2003 ***) Written by Bill Willingham, illustrated by Mark Buckingham. Revolution brews at a farm of furry fables in upstate New York. I read the first volume of the Fables series a couple of years ago and I wasn't terribly impressed by that volume's resolution. I felt the same way about Vol. 2: Animal Farm. The reader was taken right up to the point before the action climaxed, then something happened (which I won't spoil), and the actual climax and resolution occurred effectively off-screen. However, in spite of that storytelling criticism, I enjoyed and was intrigued enough by the rest of the book to consider reading further books in the series.
The Devil and Daniel Webster (AKA All That Money Can Buy) (4/11/10) TV-TCM (1941 **) Directed by William Dieterle, based on the story by Stephen Vincent Benet, starring Edward Arnold, Walter Huston and James Craig. A New Hampshire farmer strikes a bargain with Old Scratch, swapping his soul for seven years' good luck. When the devil comes to collect his due, only an elder statesman can help poor Jabez. I truly wanted to like this classic film more, but the filmmakers didn't make it easy. First, my enjoyment was significantly hindered by the fact that the protagonist was an unlikable jerk for the first three-quarters of the film. In addition, the film's relentless, overtly socialist message was intrusive and distracting. But worst of all, the story took FOREVER to unfold, and I frequently found myself getting bored.
Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil (4/11/10) Graphic Novel (2009 ***1/4) Written and illustrated by Jeff Smith. The origins of Captain Marvel and his sister Mary are retold by the creator of the independent epic graphic novel Bone. It was interesting to see how portraying Billy and Mary as miniature versions of their usual forms changed the character dynamic substantially. On the whole, I enjoyed this book, but more so for Smith's delightful illustrations than for his storytelling. In particular, something about Mr. Mind's giant clay robots left me cold on a dramatic level. They simply didn't seem like a viable threat for Captain Marvel.
Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (4/11/10) Hidden Object Game (2009 ***1/4) Published by Big Fish Games, Inc., developed by MagicIndie Softworks, written and programmed by Vladislav Chetrusca, Lead art by Dmitriy Timoshin, based on the book by Daniel Defoe. This game was recommended by a friend, who said it was the top-selling hidden object game (HOG) of 2009. Except for a minor familiarity with the concept and from watching several game trailers, I was unfamiliar with HOGs, and this was the first one my wife and I played. The artwork for Robinson Crusoe was well-executed, but it didn't blow me away, and some of the imagery was grisly and mildly disconcerting. As we played through each hidden object screen, I could definitely see why these games sell as well as they do. The mini games were fun, though I was a bit frustrated by one that took nearly an hour to solve, and it was very tempting to hit the "skip" button. I'll chalk that up to our general inexperience playing puzzle-based computer games. I must admit I've never been a fan of them when I've encountered puzzles in adventure games in the past. All in all, it was a positive and satisfying experience, with a total game-play time of around four or five hours. At a very affordable $6.99 per download, I can definitely see us playing more games of this genre.
Sleeper (4/13/10) TV-IFC (1973 ***) Directed by Woody Allen, screenplay by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman, starring Allen and Diane Keaton. The owner of a Greenwich Village health food store goes to the hospital for routine surgery and awakes 200 years later in a futuristic world where people are more screwed up than ever. I hadn't watched this film in many years, though it's one of the best known of Woody Allen's early work as a director. There were a lot of great gags and lines, though I must admit the slapstick physical humor was mostly lost on me. It was impossible for me to watch Sleeper and not see it as part of a spectrum, as Allen's films became increasingly serious (and "Allen-esque") in their themes and their tone over the next decade and beyond. I was frequently reminded of the line voiced by the aliens in his Stardust Memories (1980): "We enjoy your films, particularly the early, funny ones." I wonder if Allen was thinking of Sleeper when he wrote that line?
How to Marry a Millionaire (4/14/10) TV-FMC (1953 **1/2) Directed by Jean Negulesco, starring Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable and William Powell. Three models rent a lavish Manhattan apartment and cook up a scheme to land three wealthy husbands. This Cinemascope film began on an original note: a full-length filmed overture featuring Alfred Newman conducting the 20th Century Fox orchestra. Like much of the film, I would have loved to have watched that sequence on the big screen. Unfortunately, the story itself meandered and frequently sagged, and it wasn't helped by the film's gold-digging premise. Odd choices (like Marilyn Monroe playing a bumbling, spectacles-wearing female Mister Magoo) abounded, and in general this film seemed like a weak version of a much better movie.
Where the Wild Things Are (4/16/10) Netflix (2009 ***) Directed by Spike Jonze, screenplay by Jonze and Dave Eggers, starring Max Records, Catherine Keener, Mark Ruffalo and the voice of James Gandolfini. A disobedient boy sails to a land populated by creatures nearly as monstrous as himself. I remember seeing the trailer for this film and being absolutely hooked by the intimate, naturalistic visual style, which was very reminiscent of Michael Gondry's 2004 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In large part because it was based on such a beloved children's book, Wild Things was (as they say) highly anticipated. During its production, there were many reports of problems, particularly studio displeasure. When it was released, it received mixed reviews and I can see why. I found much of the individual imagery to be wonderful, and the expressive and sad faces of Carol, Judith and the other creatures were moving. The problem was the story. While I respect the courage it took to devote a feature-length film to a simple, child-like story, it never quite engaged my interest. Even as I write this, my honest opinion, I hate putting it in writing; there was so much in the film that resonated with me.
Enlightenus (4/17/10) Hidden Object Game (2009 ***) Published and developed by Blue Tea Games, game design and story by Steven Zhao, art direction by Shawn Seil and Steven Zhao, programming by Olle Fredriksson and Steven Zhao. Having recently played Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, this was the second hidden object game my wife and I played. We chose it primarily because its premise about a search of missing novels written by a favorite childhood author appealed to me. The artwork was a step up from Crusoe, but the established narrative didn't really pay off in a satisfying way. It also wasn't clear why the "missing" author appeared in spectral form when he wasn't dead. There were also a number of quotes peppered throughout the game that didn't have any connection to the story, and my wife found this irritating. The hidden object screens themselves were completely random and not thematically linked in any way. Also, the structure of the game included visiting each screen three times, which added to the gameplay length but also made them feel a bit repetitive. On the plus side, we enjoyed "earning" hints by finding cards within the hidden object scenes. Not only did that become a game within a game, but it also added a sense of value to the use of hints.
The Eagles (4/17/10) Hollywood Bowl (2010 ***1/2) The band, consisting of Glenn Fry, Don Henley, Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmidt, began their show under the stars with "Seven Bridges Road" and ended with "Desperado," which happened to be the song I most wanted to hear them play. In-between, their selections were front-loaded with songs from their new album, Long Road out of Eden, which we don't own, and for awhile I worried I might not know much of what they'd be playing. I shouldn't have been concerned. As the night continued, with the band playing right up to the Bowl's "11pm curfew," I was reminded of just how many hits they were responsible for over the years. It was fun that the band incorporated Henley's "Boys of Summer" into their repertoire. Finally, at the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man, I was astonished by how rude the crowd was, with several people around us holding loud conversations throughout the show. I tried my best not to let it diminish my enjoyment, but I'm afraid I'll probably remember that rudeness as much as the wonderful music played.
A Poetry Handbook (4/18/10) Nonfiction (1995 ***) Written by Mary Oliver. This thin volume was assigned reading for a UCLA Extension poetry class taught by Kimberly Burwick I'm currently taking. Much like Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, this book covers in a very compact form most of the formal language of poetry. My only qualm was with Oliver's writing, which was frequently lyrical when it didn't necessarily benefit her readers' comprehension. As I progressed through the book I noticed an ever-increasing amount of editorializing by the author, who expressed her views on poetry quite strongly. It's not hard to imagine that many may disagree with those views. In spite of all that, A Poetry Handbook is clearly a handy resource, one that deserves more than one reading, and it will make a fine addition to my writing reference shelf.
Dark Parables: Curse of Briar Rose (4/18/10) Hidden Object Game (2010 ***1/4) Published by Big Fish Games, Inc., developed by Blue Tea Games, game design and story by Steven Zhao, programming by Zhao, Amy Lai and Olle Fredriksson. Like Enlightenus, produced by the same team, this game also featured an appearance by a spectral narrator. My wife enjoyed Briar Rose better than any of the hidden object games we've played thus far. However, a lot of gameplay time was spent navigating through the physical space in which the game took place, which was a lot like being asked to repeatedly trudge items back and forth from one side of Disneyland to the opposite side. Even the game makers recognized that, which is why they added a "teleportation vortex" in one of the rooms so the player could return to a spot near the opening scene. My wife was particularly annoyed by some of the random animations that were completely unrelated to gameplay, which seemed to exist for their own sake. Also, after being conditioned to look for hidden cards for hints in the previous game, finding "enchanted items" was weak. On the flip-side, this game felt less like the player was on fixed rails, and the effect of that was that the experience felt more like playing an adventure game.
Haunted Manor: Lord of Mirrors (4/20/10) Hidden Object Game (2010 ***1/2) Published by Big Fish Games, Inc., developed by Top Evidence Studio using the Playground SDK, art by Peter Lysenko, programming by Alexey Tugaenko. For those keeping track, this was the fourth hidden object game my wife and I have played. After the (sometimes annoying) open-ness of Dark Parables: Curse of Briar Rose, it was a bit disappointing to return to a more claustrophobic rail game experience, but with this game there was definitely a stronger connection between the puzzles and the narrative. The artwork was the strongest we've seen yet, and some of the hidden object screens were really beautiful, and they were integrated well with the narrative. Also, the game's response to random clicking in the form of a "cracked" mirror, was jolting and definitely discouraged "cheating." The mini-puzzles were well integrated and offered a good variety, and in terms of game-play, the game as a whole was satisfying, with a length that felt "just right." There was even a twist at the end: Just as we thought the game was nearly over, there was a bonus round of a sort. As good as this game was, it had one minor but highly irritating feature: The player had to complete a "mirror cleaning" task before advancing to each new chapter. After the first couple of times, that task became quite tiresome.
Hey, Hey We're the Monkees (4/20/10) Netflix (1997 **1/2) Directed by Alan Boyd, written by Chuck Harter, featuring interviews with Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork, Mickey Dolenz and others. With recent advances in technology, I find myself increasingly critical of the visual limitations of cheaply-produced documentaries. This video is definitely best-suited for fans of the Monkees, their TV show and their music. Thankfully, I fit that category. I don't know that I learned anything new, but it was nice to revisit the world of the "Pre-Fab Four," much like spending dinner with old friends I hadn't seen in awhile.
Fantastic Four: The End (4/22/10) Graphic Novel (2008 ***1/4) Written and illustrated by Alan Davis, inks by Mark Farmer. Everyone knows the story of the birth of the Fantastic Four, but this volume describes their fated end. Davis was previously responsible for writing and illustrating the superb 2000 book Justice League of America: The Nail, a "what-if" book about a DC Universe without Superman. The End had many things in common with that earlier book, including guest appearances by a multitude of Marvel's familiar characters. Davis is still probably a better illustrator than a writer, but in part that's because his artwork is so amazing. While the story wasn't perfect and didn't have the same emotional resonance or shock value of The Nail, it was still quite enjoyable.
Norah Jones (4/23/10) Orpheum Theater, Los Angeles (2010 ***1/4) Opening music by Sasha Dobson and Richard Julian. Watching Norah Jones perform, I felt a little like an outsider. Prior to the concert I spent the day listening to the two albums we have in our iTunes library: Come Away With Me (2002) and Feels Like Home (2004). During the show, she only played a few of the songs from those two albums, though thankfully she did play two of her best known hits, "Don't Know Why" and "Come Away With Me." While I enjoyed her music and the professionalism of her amazingly-tight band, I don't feel it resonated with me fully, probably because I'm not her demographic. Before the concert began, my wife reminded me that she was the daughter of Ravi Shankar, who I watched recently in the 1968 documentary Monterey Pop. Unfortunately, aside from that novelty of that familial association, it didn't help my appreciation of her as an artist. On the whole, the concert was entertaining, and my wife had a wonderful time, but for me, I found as I listened that I kept reaching for comparable female vocalists with whom I was far more familiar: K.D. Lang, Tori Amos and Lucinda Williams. My take-away from the show was that given time and exposure I may grow to appreciate Norah Jones and her music more, but I don't think I'm there yet.
T-Minus: The Race to the Moon (4/24/10) Graphic Novel (2009 ***1/4) Written by Jim Ottaviani, illustrated by Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon (no relation). Man stepping foot on the moon was preceded by years of excitement and heartbreak as the United States and the Soviet Union raced into space. I loved the Tom Hanks / HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. But that only told one side of the story and focused on the entire Apollo series of missions, often from the points of view of the individual astronauts. T-Minus focused more on the engineers behind the technology that got us to the moon and back, as well as providing the story from the side of the Russians. It's a very all ages-friendly book and would make an excellent gift for a young man or woman who has interests in the stars.
Pennies From Heaven (4/24/10) TV-TCM (1936 **1/2) Directed by Norman Z. McLeod, based on the novel The Peacock Feather by Katharine Leslie Moore, starring Bing Crosby, Madge Evans and Louis Armstrong. A wandering ex-con-slash-troubadour grants a dying convict's last request and gets involved with an orphan and her grandfather. The song "Pennies From Heaven" is one of my favorites, and I have a sentimental attachment to the 1981 film with the same name that starred Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters. I'd never seen the 1936 version and It's also been awhile since I last watched a movie with Bing Crosby. I can see why he became the beloved star he was destined to become. The movie was pleasant enough, but the story was pretty thin; sadly, the title song was the best part of Pennies From Heaven.
Cinemania (4/25/10) Netflix (2002 **) Directed by Angela Christlieb and Stephen Kijak, featuring film buffs Jack Angstreich, Eric Chadbourne, Bill Heidbreder, Roberta Hill and Harvey Schwartz. This documentary focused on four men and one woman in New York whose lives revolve around watching films. As someone who watches and reviews a lot of movies, I have to admit I felt a lot of "there but for the grace of God goes I" while I watched this. This film has a lot in common with a movie I watched earlier this year, Confessions of a Superhero. Both films portrayed the complexities and sometimes dark aspects of a thin slice of the American experience, though in the case of Cinemania the subjects were linked by a common compulsion. Though the subject matter was fascinating, technically, this shot-on-video documentary could have been much better. In particular, the amateurish editing frequently reminded me of projects from my student days. Cinemania ended with its stars sitting in a theater watching a rough cut of the documentary they were in. I can't help but wonder what kind of reviews they gave the final edit.
A Farewell to Arms (4/29/10) TV-FMC (1957 **) Directed by Charles Vidor, screenplay by Ben Hecht, based on the novel by Ernest Hemingway, starring Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones. An American in the Italian army during WWI takes a turn for the nurse and hilarity ensues. Having recently read the book for the first time since high school English class, I was very disappointed in this melodramatic late 1950's drama. The Hemingway-inspired dialogue, which might have passed as human speech on the printed page, was unnatural and affected, especially when delivered by Hudson and Jones, neither of whom were particularly strong actors. In addition, I sensed the film was intentionally stretched out in an attempt to turn it into an "epic," and as a consequence I spent the last half in a state of mild boredom.
Doors of the Mind: Inner Mysteries (4/29/10) Hidden Object Game (2010 ***1/4) Published by Big Fish Games, Inc., produced using the Playground SDK, credits not readily available on the web or accessible from the game. After taking a short break, my wife and I downloaded our FIFTH hidden object game (HOG). The artwork wasn't as strong as some of the other games we've played, but some of the visual effects provided plenty of eye candy. The story, which involved a woman undergoing hypnosis sessions with a psychotherapist in an effort to solve the murder of her mother, was intriguing, well-integrated and it worked well with the HOG concept, with each hidden object scene added to that narrative. In addition, the hypnotic trance device made the surreal components of the games more plausible. There was some branching, which helped to minimize the "rail game" feeling, and there was a high artwork-to-game-time ratio. However, the game was extremely short, possibly shorter than any of the games we've played up to this point, and some players might be quite disappointed by that. The game seemed like it just stopped, making us wonder if the development team ran out of money. Also, I wish the artwork had been produced at a higher resolution (when played in full-screen mode, that limitation was quite apparent), and my wife would have enjoyed more mini-puzzles. One final note: Watching the credits, it was interesting how large the (apparently Italian) production team was; most of the other HOGs we've played were created by a relatively small group of three or four people.

May

Legion of Super-Heroes in the 31st Century: Tomorrow's Heroes (5/1/10) Comics (2008 **1/2) Written by J. Torres and others, illustrated by various artists. Teenage heroes from ten centuries in the future travel to the past and recruit a young Super...man to help them face down evil and engage in petty bickering. I understand that in the current DC universe there's no longer such a thing as a "Superboy," but that made the premise of this comic particularly problematic. I hadn't watched the animated series on which this book was based, and after reading this book I don't think I'm going to. I simply must stop picking up these comic volumes aimed at young readers; the stories just aren't engaging enough for my grown-up tastes. I probably shouldn't have bought this book in the first place, and my only excuse is I got it for half price.
Kick-Ass (5/2/10) Glendale Mann 10 (2010 ***1/4) Directed by Michael Vaughn, screenplay by Jane Goldman and Vaughn, based on the comic series by Mark Millar, starring Aaron Johnson, Chloe Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Mark Strong and Nicolas Cage. A kid in a SCUBA suit begins his crime-fighting career by getting the shit kicked out of him. So much fuss has been made in the media about the violence and language of this film. The fact that Roger Ebert gave the film 1-star and called it "morally reprehensible" made me want to see it all the more. When this film was released I truly chomped at the bit to see it, but because it was in tight box-office competition with my company's How to Train Your Dragon, I waited. A couple of friends told me I should set my expectations low, and I'm glad I did. It wasn't a life-changing experience, after all, it was just a movie. I liked it and thought it worked well, with a few nice plot twists thrown in. I hadn't read the Mark Millar comic on which it was based, but I could practically feel the pages as I watched the film. Ultimately, it wasn't nearly as subversive as I had been led to believe, and it worked fairly well both as mainstream escapism and as a superhero movie. I also enjoyed all the inside comic book stuff -- like quotes from Spider-Man and The Joker -- and in spite of its "real world" setting, Kick-Ass was a definite love letter to comics and super-heroes of the past.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (5/6/10) Netflix (2009 **1/2) Directed by Terry Gilliam, starring Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Tom Waits and Lilly Cole, with special appearances by Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell. When you find yourself in the middle of a gambling bet between the devil and a thousand-year-old monk, you'd better expect the unexpected. I will always be indebted to Terry Gilliam for giving us Time Bandits, Brazil and The Fisher King. Sadly, I have watched too many of his recent offerings with a sense of hope immediately followed by disappointment. He seems to be cursed as a filmmaker as evidenced by the interruption of his Don Quixote due to the failing health of its lead and then Heath Ledger's death smack in the middle of Doctor Parnassus' shooting schedule. The main problem I had with this film was not that Heath Ledger's character's face kept changing but with the story itself, in which odd, non-audience-friendly choices were abundant.
College Confidential (5/7/10) TV-TCM (1960 **) Directed by Albert Zugsmith, screenplay by Irving Shulman, starring Steve Allen, Jayne Meadows, Mamie Van Doren and Conway Twitty! A nutty sociology professor is charged with corrupting the morals of the kids he's studying. If I hadn't looked up Zugsmith and Shulman on the Internet Movie Database, I would've sworn they were pseudonyms for Steve Allen himself. Having read several of his books, Allen's diatribe on modern morality at the end of the film sounded like something straight out of his Meeting of the Minds. Be warned, this was not a good movie, and the only reason I watched it was because I'm a loyal fan of good ol' Steverino. I can't recommend it, even as a weird, MST3K-worthy movie, and the sex-sationalistic elements of the story were never explored to a degree that they became interesting.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (5/9/10) DVD (2008 ***1/4) Directed by Steven Spielberg, screenplay by David Koepp, based on a story by George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson, starring Harrison Ford, Shia LaBeouf, Cate Blanchett and Karen Allen. Twenty years after Indiana Jones' search for the ark of the covenant and ten years after a UFO crash outside Roswell, New Mexico, the world's favorite archeologist is back in action. As I watched this on the small screen nearly two years after seeing it on the big one, my opinion hasn't changed much. It's too bad this movie got such a bad rap, with one particularly scathing South Park jab coming to mind. It's true that the double-double crossing 'Mac' George Michale character added little to the story and the final fifteen minutes could have been stronger, but it was a fun roller coaster of the movie and I kind of hope they make another one.
The Hangover (5/14/10) Netflix (2009 ***) Directed by Todd Phillips, written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore, starring Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis and Justin Bartha. A groom and three friends go to Vegas two days before the wedding and accidentally ingest Rohypnol (roofies), resulting in the loss of their memory... and the groom. I enjoyed this film, though not as much as similar films, like Wedding Crashers. I simply didn't feel the writing was up to particularly high standards. Also, the film made me feel bad for Heather Graham, whose single mom / stripper role was a bit degrading.
James Taylor & Carole King: Troubadour Reunion (5/15/10) Hollywood Bowl (2010 ****) At one point during the concert, Carole King described how in 1960 she was driving in a 1956 car and heard a song she'd co-written with Howard Greenfield come on the radio. The song was "Crying in the Rain" (originally recorded by The Everly Brothers). I had to look it up: King was born in February 1942, which would have made her 18 at the time and 68 now. For a 68-year-old, she rocked out quite nicely. As for James Taylor... Hell, who doesn't love him? I'd seen him once before, back in the early 1990's, I think. He's six years younger than King and still has the same silky voice he's always had. He could probably sing instructions for operating a color copier and it would sound like a lullaby. Speaking of lullabies, while the whole concert was great, the highlight of the evening was Taylor singing "Sweet Baby James," a song my wife and I often sing to each other just before going to sleep.
Shrek Forever After (5/16/10) DWA Screening -- Gibson Aphitheater, Universal Citywalk (2010 ***1/2) Directed by Mike Mitchel, screenplay by Josh Klausner and Darren Lemke, featuring the voices of Mike Meyers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderes and Walt Dohm. Shrek signs an enchanted agreement with Rumpelstiltskin and he's transported to a parallel universe in which he never rescued Fiona from the castle tower. Of course the visuals were amazing, but what I especially liked about this film was that it was told almost entirely from Shrek's point of view, with particularly high emotional stakes that were missing in the preceding film. I also appreciated that Fiona was shown as such a strong character, something I felt was missing in the second and third films in the franchise. On a personal note, this was the first Shrek movie I didn't work on personally, and so it's with a twinge of sadness that I bid farewell to Shrek and his world. Will this truly be the final film in the series? I think that might ultimately be decided by how it does at the box office.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret (5/16/10) Graphic Novel (2007 **1/2) Written and illustrated by Brian Selznick. A young boy living in the walls of a French railroad station repairs a picture-drawing automaton and embarks on a journey of discovery. I don't want to give away too much, but this book offers its readers a truly fresh experience, combining words and pictures in a way that redefines "graphic novel." For the first half hour I was captivated by the book, but unfortunately the story never managed to gather much steam for me. With my film-loving background I should have been predisposed to love it, but the book never paid off emotionally and I think the reason for that could be traced to storytelling and characterization. Martin Scorsese has announced a film based on this book as his next project, so it will be interesting to see what story changes will have been made in the adaptation process. My guess is they'll be substantial.
Kick-Ass (5/16/10) Graphic Novel (2008 ***) Written by Mark Millar, illustrated by John Romita Jr. A teenage comic fanboy puts on a wetsuit and gets the crap beaten out of him. Sound familiar? Maybe that's because I recently reviewed the film adaptation of this graphic novel. Even though the film followed the structure of the source material generally, it was interesting to note how many small changes had been made. Of course film and comics are related but different media, but in my view the screenwriters made very smart and important changes, and I think the film told a better story than the graphic novel.
Serpico (5/17/10) TV-TCM (1973 ***1/2) Directed by Sidney Lumet, screenplay by Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler, based on the book by Peter Maas, starring Al Pacino and Tony Roberts. In a city of corrupt cops, an honest cop stands alone and gets shot in the face. Based on true story. I thought I'd seen this movie when I was younger, but apparently I was mistaken. I do have vague memories of seeing TV ads for it, though. It's a terrific movie, and Al Pacino demonstrated his phenomenal acting skills in this movie shot and released in-between The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II.
Timecrimes (AKA Los cronocrimenes) (5/19/10) Netflix (2008 ***) Written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo, starring Karra Elejalde, Candela Fernandez, Barbara Goenaga and Nacho Vigalondo. When an overworked man spies a naked lady through his binoculars, his voyeuristic curiosity leads him into a time machine. I can't remember why I added this to my Netflix queue, but it was probably the indirect result of me being a sucker for movies involving time travel. I was somewhat inspired by this Spanish low-budget independent film... In fact, I think I'd like to write a similar screenplay of my own someday. Or perhaps I already have... in an alternate timeline! Overall, this wasn't a great movie, and I would have preferred a more appealing protagonist, but Timecrimes definitely kept the left side of my brain engaged as I waited to see how all the set-up elements would be paid off.
Summercamp! (5/20/10) TV-Sundance (2006 **1/2) Directed by Bradley Beesley and Sarah Price. This documentary covers several weeks in the lives of campers (not all of them happy) and their counselors. I began watching this shot-on-video film and got sucked in, not so much because of the documentary itself, but because it brought back so many memories of a summer camp I went to when I was seven or eight. I was a little shocked by the fact that one of the female camp counselors had as much distain for her kids (even though she claimed to love them) as she did, though that may have been the most honest part of the film. Also, I don't generally spend a lot of time hanging around young kids, so it was interesting to me to see how obvious maturity and intelligence differences are at that age.
Iron Man 2 (5/22/10) Pasadena Gold Class Theater (2010 ***) Directed by Jon Favreau, starring Robert Downey Jr., Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sam Rockwell and Mickey Rourke. The U.S. Army wants the Iron Man weapon, but Tony "I am Iron Man" Stark doesn't want to let go. It's hard to pinpoint exactly why the character dynamic that worked so darn well in the first film didn't work in the second. Don't get me wrong, I'm not sorry I went to see Iron Man 2, especially since it was my first time with the amazing, upscale Gold Class Theater experience. Yes, I got my money's worth, but not much more. Maybe the sequel lacked the heart of the first, or perhaps it's because a lot of characters were introduced but didn't do much. It's really a pity, because even if it makes a lot of money it may mean the end of the franchise. It probably says a lot that even the Nick Fury / "Avengers Initiative" stuff that gave me shivers in the first film fell flat here.
Cashback (5/23/10) Netflix (2006 ***) Written and directed by Sean Ellis, starring Sean Biggerstaff and Emilia Fox. A British art student with insomnia and a gift for stopping time works the night shift in a supermarket. This film had a remarkable genesis: It began as an Oscar-nominated short film, then financial backing was lined up for an expanded feature-length version. Rather than re-shooting, Ellis structured the screenplay in such a way that the original film became a virtually unaltered sequence in the expanded version. To give you an idea of how well it was integrated, I had no clue that had been done until I watched the "making of" featurette on the DVD. That aspect of it really worked, but what didn't work so well were some of the new (and frequently flat) comedic elements that Ellis added to pad out the film, and some of it, like a night-time soccer game and a trip to a strip joint, felt like filler. It's unavoidable to acknowledge that one of Cashback's "hooks" was its exploration of voyeuristic territory, but in the end it had a really sweet message. I only wish the film as a whole had lived up to its full potential.
Love and Rockets, No. 1: New Stories (5/23/10) Comics (2008 **1/2) Written and illustrated by Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez. The Hernandez brothers are back, with separate stories (and sections) by and illustrated by each in turn. In this volume, Beto's semi-surreal stand-alone stories were sandwiched between Xaime's continuing fem-superhero drama. Regrettably, it's been a few years since I read my original set of Love and Rockets books, and I'm probably overdue. Possibly it's because my memories are a little rose-colored, but I didn't find the writing in this book nearly as compelling as their previous books. Gilbert's drawings were far rougher than his earlier "Heartbreak Soup" work, bordering at times on sloppy, and I found Jaime's narrative to drift so aimlessly that I wondered if he'd made it up as he went.
The Fly (5/28/10) TV-FMC (1986 ***) Directed by David Cronenberg, starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis. A scientist tests his teleportation device on himself, but in his drunken state he overlooks a winged traveling companion. I hadn't watched this movie since sometime in the early 1990's. It was fun to see how young (and buff) Goldblum and Davis were. I don't think I ever managed to watch the original Vincent Price version, though I was aware enough to appreciate a couple of references: "Help me." and "Be afraid. Be very afraid." The "scientist in search of the flesh" stuff was a little heavy-handed and seemed very Cronenberg-esque. It worked fairly well as a sci fi / horror film, though it was nowhere near as strong or memorable as Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) or John Carpenter's The Thing (1982). On the story-front, it was an interesting choice to make Davis' ultra-creepazoid ex-boyfriend sort of heroic in the end. That choice was representative of a sort of nihilistic moral ambiguity that ran throughout.
Superf*ckers (5/30/10) Comics (2010 ***1/2) Written and illustrated by James Kochalka. The blurb on the back cover described Superf*ckers as being equally enjoyable by people who love superhero comics as well as those who hate them. That was a bold but surprisingly accurate statement. Imagine, if you will, Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes, complete with clubhouse, as a bunch of foul-mouthed, drug-seeking, sex-starved teens. That gives you a pretty good idea what this book is about, and I loved every single page. This is definitely not a book for kids, and there are many people I would not recommend it to, but I'm sure many of my "sick and twisted" friends out there would enjoy it just as much as I did.
Manhunter Vol. 4: Unleashed (5/31/10) Comics (2008 **1/2) Written by Marc Andreyko, illustrated by Javier Pina. Manhunter by night, attorney by day, Kate Spencer must defend Wonder Woman's murder of Maxwell Lord. I picked this volume up used, having had no exposure to this particular incarnation of the DC Comics Manhunter character. Interestingly, this book, which contained a 6 or 7-issue run of the comic, had two completely independent, non-intersecting alternating storylines. The one in which Kate Spencer defended Wonder Woman had very little traditional superhero "action," and the primary dramatic tension came from waiting for the grand jury to return a verdict. While this book was readable enough, I don't have any desire to seek out other volumes in the series.
Secret War (5/31/10) Graphic Novel (2009 **1/2) Written by Brian Michael Bendis, illustrated by Gabriele Dell'Otto. "One year ago" Nick Fury assembled a team of superheroes with the goal of assassinating the head of state of Latveria, then brainwashed them into forgetting their "secret" mission. This storyline mostly felt like a lot of set-up without much in the way of payoff. My favorite aspect had to do with asking the question: Where did all those classic Marvel tech-villains from the 60's and 70's get their funding?
Hollywood Without Make-Up (5/31/10) TV-TCM (1963 **1/2) Directed by Rudy Behlmer and Loring d'Usseau, written by Royal Foster, hosted by Ken Murray. This hour-long film could have been called "Home Movies of the Stars." In addition to all the behind-the-scenes film Ken Murray and others took over the years, the highlight was a set of home movies from the 1930's taken at San Simeon, otherwise known as Hearst's Castle. If the footage looks familiar, it's because much of it was later incorporated into Woody Allen's mock-documentary Zelig (1983).

June

The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (6/1/10) TV-TCM (1988 ***) Directed by David Zucker, written by Jerry Zucker & Jim Abrahams & David Zucker & Pat Proft, starring Leslie Nielsen, Priscilla Presley, Ricardo Montalban, George Kennedy and O.J. Simpson. Detective Frank Drebin stumbles his way through a police investigation, and along the way he loses his heart. I was one of the few people who watched the original six-episode Police Squad! series in 1982, and I thought it was hilarious. Several years later in college I saw an ad in the school paper for a screening of this film and I went. Naturally, it got big laughs. After the film was over, Leslie Nielsen himself came out and did Q&A with the audience. Someone asked him who he personally thought was funny, and Nielsen replied, quite earnestly, "Shecky Greene," a name virtually no one in that Ames, Iowa theater had ever heard.
The Major and the Minor (6/3/10) TV-TCM (1942 ***) Directed by Billy Wilder, screenplay by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, starring Ginger Rogers, Ray Milland and Robert Benchley. A door-to-door masseuse fed up with New York can't afford train fare back to Iowa, so she dresses as a 12-year-old girl (to get half fare) and winds up in an army major's cabin. The premise of this movie was nearly as ridiculous as the underlying Lolita-ish sexual tension was delicious. Rogers had recently won her Oscar for Kitty Foyle, and in this film she had ample opportunity to show her acting chops as she took on several different "roles," all within the same character. In addition to co-writing its screenplay, The Major and the Minor was also Billy Wilder's first directorial effort, and in it he demonstrated why he went on to become one of the greatest comedy directors of all time.
Tom Strong Book 6 (6/4/10) Comics (2008 **1/2) Written by Alan Moore and various, illustrated by Chris Sprouse, Jerry Ordway and various. I have never been particularly enamored of any of the characters in the Tom Strong universe. Tom Strong himself is kind of dull, and I have a hard time identifying with any of the supporting cast. The truth is, I probably wouldn't have read this volume except that I picked it up for half price at a comic book show.
Walt: The Man Behind the Myth (6/4/10) Netflix (2001 ***1/4) Directed by Jean-Pierre Isbouts, narrated by Dick Van Dyke. Walt Disney's struggles, victories and contributions to mankind are examined in this loving tribute. In this high-def age when so many of the "video documentaries" produced in the past decade now look like they were shot on worn-out VHS tape, I applaud the filmmakers for having had the foresight to shoot their original on-location material and talking heads on film, with an eye toward HDTV. It's obvious there is an element of pro-Disney propaganda in this film, and occasionally its content was clearly guided by a desire to address some of the negative things people have said about Walt over the years. You know what? I didn't mind that, though undoubtedly the cynics amongst my readers will roll their eyes. This documentary reminded me how much Walt Disney and the world he created touched my young heart and helped make me the man I am today. At one point while we were watching this documentary, I turned to my wife and said: "We definitely need to renew our annual Disneyland passports."
Justice Society of America: Thy Kingdom Come, Part 2 (6/5/10) Comics (2008 ***1/4) Written by Geoff Johns, illustrated by Alex Ross, Dale Eaglesham and Jerry Ordway. The "Kingdom Come" Superman watches as the JSA battles Magog, releasing a 100-foot tall god named Gog, who grants wishes, including sending Power Girl to the "uncreated" Earth-2. From this description, you can probably tell this isn't a book for a casual comic book reader. The storyline sounds weird, because it is a little weird, with multiple stories allowed to play out over a long stretch. The balance worked surprisingly well however, and even though the JSA's membership ranks have swelled to a virtual platoon, there was still a fair amount of character-level drama that I found satisfying.
Justice Society of America: Thy Kingdom Come, Part 3 (6/5/10) (2009 ***1/2) Written by Geoff Johns, illustrated by Alex Ross, Dale Eaglesham and Jerry Ordway. Gog's reign of terror, Power Girl's visit to Earth-2 and the "Kingdom Come" Superman's journey comes to an end. I didn't mention it in my review of the previous volume, but this book did something very smart, something I don't think I'd ever seen before: Different storylines were illustrated by different artists. And when those storylines overlapped, sometimes panels within individual pages were alternated. The highlight of this volume was an Alex Ross-illustrated issue originally presented in the one-shot Justice Society of America Kingdom Come Special: Superman, which allowed Ross to expand on important events that were referenced in the original Kingdom Come. This book also closed with a nicely poetic sans-dialogue sequence that provided deserved closure for the Kingdom Come universe as a whole and its Superman in particular.
Flash: Rebirth (6/6/10) Graphic Novel (2010 ***1/2) Written by Geoff Johns, illustrated by Ethan Van Sciver. As a side-effect of Final Crisis, Barry Allen is back, but after 23 years stuck in the "speed force," there's something different about him. I've grown increasingly weary of "event" comics that have usually been disappointing on a "who the hell cares?" level. Generally they've failed to engage me emotionally because storytelling at a cosmic, parallel-earth-fracturing level tends to lack a human dimension. However, Geoff Johns managed to make it work here, getting at the heart of Barry Allen and the other characters in the "Flash Family," examining what makes them each tick, what makes them human and what makes them worth caring about.
The Big Chill (6/10/10) TV-TCM (1983 ***1/2) Directed by Lawrence Kasdan, screenplay by Kasdan and Barbara Benedek, starring Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, William Hurt and others. Seven middle-aged college friends reunite for a friend's funeral, reminisce and have sex with each other, just like old times. This was one of my favorite films when I was younger, and coincidentally it was released the year I went to college. It may even have planted the seed in my mind of how important my college friends might one day become, and indeed they did. It was nice to see how well the film held up, though I still cringed watching the storyline involving JoBeth Williams and Tom Berenger, which always struck me as vacuous filler nowhere near as strong as the rest of the film. It is because of that storyline that I can't bring myself to give it four stars.
Love and Rockets, No. 2: The New Stories (6/11/10) Comics (2009 ***) Written and illustrated by Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez. This second "New Stories" collection was stronger than the first, though Jaime's continuing Fem Superhero storyline still seemed to meander without really going anywhere. The highlight of this volume was Gilbert's surreal romp "Hypnotwist," which reminded me of Daniel Clowes' 1998 Graphic Novel Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, but without dialogue.
Sherlock Holmes (6/12/10) Netflix (2009 ***) Directed by Guy Ritchie, starring Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law and Rachel McAdams. Familiar Victorian characters Holmes and Watson are together again in a modern action-packed, knuckle-busting adventure. This eagerly awaited 2009 holiday film was overshadowed by a little independent film James Cameron made called Avatar, and though Holmes made enough money to warrant a sequel (giving Robert Downey Jr. a second franchise along with Iron Man), it came and went without much fanfare. It wasn't bad, and was certainly better than Barry Sonnenfeld's 1999 Wild Wild West, a film I was occasionally reminded of as I watched.
Yours, Mine and Ours (6/13/10) TV-TCM (1968 **1/2) Directed by Melville Shavelson, based on the book Who Gets the Drumstick? by Helen Eileen Beardsley, starring Lucille Ball, Henry Fonda, Van Johnson and Tim Matheson. A nurse with eight children falls in love with a career Navy officer with ten. This movie played frequently as the third or fourth feature at the drive-in when I was a kid growing up in Omaha. Watching it now, years later, it occupies the same certain sentimental zone as Darby O'Gill and the Little People and the My Name is Trinity movies. In the cold light of day, Yours, Mine and Ours was not what I could (even charitably) call a good movie. One sign of its lack of quality is that it relied too heavily on voice-over narration... by multiple characters. Also, for a movie made in 1968, its politics were fairly right-wing. In spite of all that, it was still a pleasure to re-watch this little piece from my childhood.
Beach Blanket Bingo (6/13/10) TV-TCM (1965 ***) Directed by William Asher, starring Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, Linda Evans, Don Rickles, Paul Lynde and Buster Keaton. There's a girl singer, some skydiving, a mermaid and a creepy guy with a secret lair. Also, there's a lot of other singing and shots of dancing girls' bottoms. This was the fifth (out of seven) film in the "Beach Party" series, and I can understand why they were so popular. The movie seemed to exist in the same innocent, music-filled world as the Elvis Presley films.
Toy Story 3 (6/19/10) Palm Springs Regal Cinema (2010 ****) Directed by Lee Unkrich, featuring the voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack and Ned Beatty. Andy's going to college and Woody, Buzz and what's left of the round-up gang must face their fate. I really have to hand it to Pixar. After an absence of 11 years since Toy Story 2, this third outing could have been a real disappointment, and yet it was one of the best, most emotionally engaging films I've seen this year. Many have disagreed, but I thought it was even stronger than TS2. Considering that the film was rated G, I admired the filmmakers' willingness to take their characters (and their audience) to the precipice of annihilation. On a side-note, there were a LOT of hidden Easter eggs in this film. I spotted one early on and was convinced it would be utilized as a story element late in the film, but it wasn't. I would love to know if the ending I imagined in my mind had actually been considered or not.
Father of the Bride (6/20/10) TV-TCM (1950 ***) Directed by Vincente Minnelli, starring Spencer Tracy, Joan Bennett, Elizabeth Taylor and Don Taylor. Stanley T. Banks' little girl has grown up and is intent on marrying a fellow with the unlikely name of Buckley Dunstan. Of course it falls to her parents to arrange for and pay for the whole costly affair. This story is told through the point of view of the father, and even though Steve Martin played the role admirably in the 1991 remake and its 1995 sequel, it's hard to imagine anyone more perfect for the role than Spencer Tracy.
Mom's Cancer (6/21/10) Graphic Novel (2005 ****) Written and illustrated by Brian Fies. This book collects Fies' excellent webcomic which was written in "real time" and detailed his mother's diagnosis with brain and lung cancer and her subsequent treatment. I had this book sitting on my Amazon wish list for a long time, but I was a little afraid to order and read it, honestly. As the son of a woman who went through a similar journey, the subject (and title) hit a little too close to home. I borrowed this book from a friend and read it over a lunch hour. After finishing it, I decided the book would be a very thoughful gift for anyone with a family member with cancer.
Power Girl (6/21/10) Comics (2006 ***) Written and illustrated by various. This is an odd volume, as it combines the... uh, titular character's early appearances from 1976 and 1987 with more recent appearances, which all attempt to describe her contradictory origin as either the Earth-2 Superman's cousin or as the granddaughter of an Atlantian Wizard. Cast as an "odd man out" as a result of the original Crisis on Infinite Earths, Power Girl's search for her true beginnings is much of what makes her an interesting character. However, it's clear from this volume that it's probably her revealing costume and... how shall I phrase this?.. ginormous boobies... that have made her a fan favorite. ("Hey, boys -- My eyes are up here!")
Moon (6/24/10) Netflix (2009 ***1/4) Directed by Duncan Jones, based on his original story, starring Sam Rockwell and the disembodied voice of Kevin Spacey. When astronaut Sam Bell has an accident on the lunar surface, his 3-year mission comes to an unexpected conclusion. I had heard great things about this film, and it's possible my expectations were higher than they should have been. It's still a good film, with a solid performance by Sam Rockwell. It falls into the rare category of "Intelligent Sci Fi" films, and we could certainly use more of those. I don't want to reveal too much, but I particularly appreciated that many of the film's story elements weren't stated overtly, yet they were still relatively easy to infer.
Serenity: Those Left Behind (6/26/10) Graphic Novel (2007 **1/2) Written by Joss Whedon, illustrated by Will Conrad. Set in-between the Firefly series and the Serenity movie, Mal Reynolds and his merry band take on a scavenger mission but fall into a trap. I appreciated the fact that this story, originally presented as a 3-issue miniseries, was written by series creator Whedon himself, but this quick read never really engaged me emotionally. I undoubtedly would have enjoyed it far more if I'd seen the Firefly TV series, which I assure you is somewhere on my Netflix queue.
Shazam!: The Greatest Stories Ever Told (6/27/10) Comics (2008 ***) Written and illustrated by various. Captain Marvel and family span the decades, mixing silliness with superheroics. It's been a long time since I read any of the older Marvel Family stories, and this Whitman's sampler of their adventures was a kick. Of special interest were a couple of stories circa 1974 when DC comics acquired the rights to the old Fawcett comics. It was interesting to see how the "big red cheese" and associates were integrated into the DC universe.
Anvil! The Story of Anvil (6/29/10) Netflix (2008 ***1/2) Directed by Sacha Gervasi, starring Steve "Lips" Kudlow and Robb Reiner. Nearly 25 years after rubbing elbows with rock greats, Anvil -- founded by two childhood friends -- was a band willing to do anything to make a comeback. There is a definite self-conscious comparison with the fictional rock group Spinal Tap. Some of the similarities, which included a concert in Japan, a visit to Stonehenge and the drummer's name being so similar to This is Spinal Tap's director Rob Reiner, only reinforced that comparison. But that wasn't enough to recommend the film, which succeeded on its own terms as a well-made documentary that was ultimately about one of the most universal themes of all: friendship.

July

The Fly (7/5/10) TV-FMC (1958 **1/2) Directed by Kurt Neumann, starring David Hedison, Patricia Owens, Herbert Marshall and Vincent Price. A scientist experiments with teleportation and makes a little boo-boo. After watching the 1986 version starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, I had a hankering to watch the original. While it's watchable, it wasn't particularly good, particularly in terms of its story structure, where much of the film was told in flashback. Was it shocking to its original 1950's audience? That's a good question. This film also demonstrated that as beloved and memorable as Vincent Price was, he was a lousy actor.
The Good German (7/5/10) TV-IFC (2006 **1/2) Directed by Steven Soderbergh, starring George Clooney, Cate Blanchett and Tobey Maguire. Set after VJ Day, a journalist named Jake discovers that Berlin is as morally ambiguous as Chinatown. I had read that Soderbergh had used original 1940's-era cameras and equipment to make this film, and that was my primary reason for wanting to see it. I must say, the results of that experiment were fascinating and I would recommend it to film students and lovers of old film for that reason. The story, unfortunately, didn't do much for me, and it presented me with a world populated with unlikable characters I couldn't relate to and never cared about.
A Day at the Races (7/8/10) TV-TCM (1937 ***1/2) Directed by Sam Wood, starring the Marx Brothers, Maureen O'Sullivan and Margaret Dumont. A horse doctor named Hugo Z. Hackenbush helps a young lady save her sanitarium. I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I never had much of a taste for the Marx Brothers, but watching this film gave me far more of an appreciation for them. Some of the scenes were laugh-out-loud funny. One thing I never realized before was how brilliant having three of them was. It let them mix-and-match the brothers in scenes, and they sometimes carried scenes solo, and this created a real sense of variety in a feature-length film. For example, the dynamic between Chico and Groucho was different than that between Harpo and Chico, which was different between Groucho and the ultimate straight woman, Dumont. My favorite scene in the film took place in an examination room with all three brothers playing doctor with Dumont. One final note: Throughout the film, it was very evident how Woody Allen -- as he's given credit through the years -- took so much of his physical comedy mannerisms and timing directly from Groucho Marx.
A Beatles Celebration (7/10/10) Hollywood Bowl (2010 **1/2) Thomas Wilkins conducted the L.A. Philharmonic, backing performances by Pattie Austin, Rob Laufer, Bettye Lavette, Todd Rundgren and Brian Stokes Mitchell. 45 years after the Beatles' historic performance at the Bowl, their music lives on. As a card-carrying Beatles fan, I was surprisingly disappointed by most of this show. The only stand-out for me was Ms. Lavette, who managed to take the familiar songs and make them her own. Her first-person rendition of "Blackbird" was particularly effective.
The Wizard of Oz (7/17/10) TV-TCM (1939 ****) Directed by Victor Fleming, starring Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Billie Burke, Frank Morgan and Margaret Hamilton. A girl named Dorothy rides a killer tornado to a magical land and learns an important lesson about the value of staying put in Kansas. This isn't a perfect movie story-wise, and the "watery" resolution of the main physical conflict was neither set up nor executed in a satisfying fashion. But you know what? None of that matters in the face of what is arguably one of the most beloved musicals of all time. This film remains surprisingly fresh, even 70 years after its first release.
Crazy Heart (7/19/10) Netflix (2009 ***1/4) Written and directed by Scott Cooper, based on the novel by Thomas Cobb, starring Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell. Alcoholic, awkwardly-named singer Bad Blake falls in love with a young reporter and her son. Bridges won a Best Acting Oscar for this role, and perhaps he deserved it. I've always enjoyed him as an actor, with my personal favorite performance being his portrayal of the main character Jack in Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King (1991). I enjoyed Crazy Heart, including the music by Stephen Bruton and T-Bone Burnett, but I can't exactly say I fell in love with it.
True Blood: Season 1 (7/20/10) HBO/Netflix (2008 ***1/4) Created by Alan Ball, starring Anna Paquin, Stephen Moyer, Sam Trammell, Ryan Kanten and Rutina Wesley. Telepathic waitress Sookie Stackhouse falls head over heels for a vampire named Bill Compton. I was a big fan of Ball's series Six Feet Over, but one of my beefs about that show was that I often didn't really care about the secondary ("B") storylines, and that was the case here as well. I didn't realize until we were well into this season that the story for the entire season was taken directly from Charlaine Harris' Dead Until Dark, the first book in her 10-book (and counting) Sookie Stackhouse series. I liked the central "Vampires out of the closet" premise, because it altered one of the basic rules of vampires, that they've had to live their lives in secret. As I watched, however, I was frequently reminded of the shows antecedents, particularly two of my favorites: Twin Peaks and Dark Shadows. Viewing "Vampire Bill" as a modern version of Barnabas Collins was a lot of fun but it also made the show seem a little obviously derivative at times.
On Borrowed Time (7/21/10) TV-TCM (1939 **) Directed by Harold S. Bucquet, starring Lionel Barrymore, Cedric Hardwicke, Bobs Watson and Henry Travers. An old man manages to trap Death up a tree. In the years leading up to America's entry into WWII, supernatural fantasies involving the afterlife were a big staple, and they play frequently on Turner Classic Movies. It's usually fun to find an old film in this subgenre I've never seen before, and I had high hopes for this one. Unfortunately, it was disappointing, mainly due to flat characters, an awkwardly-handled central premise and a resolution that mostly just pissed me off.
Zero Hour! (7/24/10) TV-TCM (1957 ***) Directed by Hall Bartlett, screenplay by Arthur Hailey, starring Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell and Sterling Hayden. The lives of a plane full of sick passengers and crew are all in the sweat-covered hands of a shell-shocked veteran. If that plot sounds familiar, it's because this straight dramatic film was the basis for the 1980 comedy Airplane! Having seen the comedy many times (including recently), it was a genuine trip to see how much had been lifted from the original. I recommend the experience.
Five Million Years to Earth (7/24/10) TV-TCM (1967 **) Directed by Roy Ward Baker, screenplay by Nigel Kneale, starring James Donald, Barbara Shelley and Andrew Keir as Professor Bernard Quatermass. An alien spacecraft from the dawn of time is uncovered in the London underground. From a strictly aural perspective, this has got to be one of the most annoying films ever made, with long stretches of the movie devoted to characters shouting over the sounds of drilling equipment and oscillating harmonics. As the film progressed, some of the imagery triggered memories and it slowly dawned on me that I'd seen the film when I was a child, playing late at night on Creature Feature. Still later, I had a creeping memory that even back then the soundtrack forced me to ride the volume control on the little black and white TV in my bedroom so that my parents wouldn't be disturbed.
Salt (7/25/10) Glendale Mann 4 (2010 ***) Directed by Phillip Noyce, screenplay by Kurt Wimmer, starring Angelina Jolie and Liev Schreiber. CIA Agent Evelyn Salt is fingered as a Russian sleeper spy and gets beaten repeatedly. More than a few critics have noted that Salt is not a particularly realistic film. That's something I noticed myself more than a few times, and I wondered if it had originally been written as a book, where certain things might be more plausible on the printed page. Our reason for going on opening weekend was simple: My wife (who figured out the ending of the film after twenty minutes) has a King-size girl crush on Angelina Jolie. I don't pretend to understand this, but I guess I'll just have to suffer quietly at my wife's side with each film Jolie makes.
Luba (7/25/10) Comics (2009 ***1/2) Written and illustrated by Gilbert Hernandez. Sisters Luba, Petra and Fritz and everyone caught in their orbit have many adventures, many of them involving nudity and explicit sex. I love Gilbert Hernandez' writing and the "out-of-Palomar" world he's created. While the sex sometimes became sensationalistic and exploitative, there was something about the gentle tone that touched my heart. My only criticism with this massive 600-page collection was there was often a sense that the narrative wasn't going anywhere except in a circle. Stories were often presented from different points of view and out of chronological order, which wouldn't bother me except that I often wished there were more of an overall story arc or at least a feeling of progression.

August

Fame (8/1/10) TV-TCM (1980 ***1/2) Directed by Alan Parker, written by Christopher Gore, starring Irene Cara, Paul McCrane and Barry Miller. At the New York High School for the Performing Arts, a group of talented teens learn about life and about themselves over the course of four years. It had been years since my wife and I had seen this film and neither of us remembered how truly good it was. Parker went on to direct some of my favorite films, including Pink Floyd The Wall, The Commitments and Evita, all of which incorporated music to various degrees. I also have vague memories of the Fame TV series, which lasted an impressive six seasons from 1982-1987. I was a little surprised that Debbie Allen, who was so prominent in the series played such a minor role in the original film.
True Blood: Season 2 (8/7/10) Netflix/HBO (2009 ***1/4) Series created by Alan Ball, starring Anna Paquin, Stephen Moyer, Alexander Skarsgard, Sam Trammell and many others. Sookie and Bill travel to Dallas in search a 2,000-year-old vampire named Godric. Meanwhile, a Maenad turns the residents of Bon Temps, Louisiana into sex-starved, bloodthirsty zombies. Overall, the writing of this 12-episode season had some plot problems and wasn't quite as tight or focused as the first. The dual storylines often made it feel as though I was watching two separate, unconnected TV shows. It was still entertaining enough, with wonderful characters who have definitely grown on me. Will we continue to watch? Hell yeah.
The Walking Dead, Vol 12: Life Among Them (8/7/10) Graphic Novel (2010 ***) Written by Robert Kirkman, illustrated by Charlie Adlard. Rick Grimes and his traveling band of zombie fighters are invited to join a walled-in community and wait and wait and wait for the other shoe to drop. I have endured this kind of volume before in this series, and I know that even though nothing much happened for the entire book, that doesn't mean an absolutely mind-blowing story point isn't just around the corner.
Heartbreak Soup (8/11/10) Comics (2007 ****) Written and illustrated by Gilbert Hernandez. In Palomar they have a recipe for this crazy soup that cures a broken heart. Back in the early 1980's, Gilbert and his brother Jaime created an independent comic called Love and Rockets. The pages collected in this volume represent Gilbert's half of that collaboration. His voice as a writer was strong right from the beginning, and there is a gentleness to his characterizations and his writing in general that is a joy to read. I was re-reading most of these stories for the second time. Somewhere in storage I have a set of earlier Love and Rockets collections. Having recently finished the much later Luba, I observed two things in Heartbreak Soup: (1) Gilbert's early stories, even though he often varied point of view characters, had more of a tendency to go someplace and convey a sense of a larger story. (2) There was more of an emphasis on younger characters and far less explicit eroticism in the earlier stories, and what sex there was seemed far more natural and less exploitative.
Invincible, Vol 12: Still Standing (8/14/10) Comics (2010 ***1/2) Written by Robert Kirkman, illustrated by Ryan Ottley. Mark Grayson and earth's greatest heroes battle multiple evil parallel universe versions of Invincible intent on destroying cities around the globe. Later, Invincible must face and fight an evil, unrelenting Viltrumite Superman. The key element to this series is the juxtaposition between fundamentally innocent characters and the incredibly graphic violence that occurs when good meets evil. This was definitely one of the most blood-soaked volumes I've read, and the worldwide carnage felt far more substantial to me than any of the Fantastic Four's earth-threatening run-ins with Galactus.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (8/15/10) La Canada AMC 8 (2010 ***1/2) Directed by Edgar Wright, based on the graphic novel by Bryan Lee O'Malley, starring Michael Cera, Ellen Wong and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. In order to be with the woman of his dreams (literally), bass guitarist Scott Pilgrim must fight and defeat Ramona's seven evil exes. I had unrealistically high expectations for this film, but you know what? They were met and exceeded. I absolutely loved it, from start to finish. Even though I'm well into my forties, I loved the angsty teen tone and I loved the inventive visual pyrotechnics. Heroes are only as interesting as the villains they must face, and Chris Evans, Branson Routh and Jason Schwartzman delivered the goods.
Cinema Paradiso (8/18/10) Netflix (1988 ***) Directed by Giuseppe Tomatore, starring Philippe Noiret as Alfredo and Salvatore Cascio, Marco Leonardi and Jacques Perrin as Salvatore 'Toto' di Vita. In post-WWII Italy, a young boy wants nothing more that to be a movie projectionist, but the man who's held the job for decades thinks he should set his sights higher. I must admit something utterly terrible: I saw Cinema Paradiso on video a few years after it was originally released and I remember absolutely falling in love with it. This time around I still found it adorable, but its 3-hour length tested my patience. I was frequently on the edge of being bored, and I didn't find the lessons contained in its story to run particularly deep. Perhaps Cinema Paradiso is best suited for a younger audience. Or perhaps the film's unabashed romanticism of the cinema has a different meaning to me now that I've been working on the other side of the silver screen for over a decade.
Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List: Season 6 (8/20/10) TV-Bravo (2010 ***1/2) In the latest season, Kathy and "Team Griffin" deal with Tom's somnambulism, a public pap smear, poorly-conceived house remodeling, the death of a beloved pet and Kathy's mother Maggie's excursions into Mu-mu's and publishing. I've said it before and I'll say it again: I love Kathy Griffin, and her show is the only "reality TV" I'm interested in watching. My wife and I have been watching it for several years now, and every year we say the same thing: "That's it? The 10-episode season was over way too soon."
Batman: R.I.P. (8/21/10) Graphic Novel (200? **1/2) Written by Grant Morrison, illustrated by Tony S. Daniel. Batman goes crazy and battles The Black Glove and The Joker. I think at this point I've decided to give up on Grant Morrison and steer clear of his comics. I don't consider myself a stupid person, but as with several of his books in the past, I had a hard time following what the hell was going on for most of this book, and believe it or not, that affected my enjoyment of it. There was one high point, however: A brief cameo by Bat-Mite as a helpful figment of Batman's imagination.
Brainstorm (8/23/10) TV-TCM (1983 ***) Directed by Douglas Trumbull, starring Christopher Walken, Natalie Wood, Louise Fletcher and Cliff Robertson. Scientists at an evil corporation invent a sensory VCR but... did I mention it's an EVIL corporation? This film was Natalie Wood's last, and she died before principle photography was finished. I saw Brainstorm in the theaters when it was originally released, two years after Wood's death, and watching it again after all these years I was surprised by how good parts of it were. The first thirty minutes or so seemed like it was going to be a pretty good movie. Unfortunately, the quality became uneven, with some awkward slapstick scenes (hapless security guards slipping on ball bearings) thrown in for no apparent reason. The fundamental problem of this film, however, was its central conflict: Walken's character was driven by a desire to play back a certain "toxic" brain-tape, but the motivations for (a) him doing so, (b) his wife assisting him in the process, and (c) others trying to prevent it from happening didn't hold up to any kind of scrutiny.
Katharine Hepburn: All About Me (8/25/10) TV-TCM (1993 ***) Directed by David Heeley. In this autobiographical documentary, Katharine Hepburn (who was in her late eighties at the time) narrates her way through home movies and archival footage of her film career. At the risk of being booed off the page, I have to say that the choice of Hepburn as narrator combined with the absence of closed-captioning meant that I only understood about every other word she was saying. But still the woman was a fascinating figure in film history, and her strength and style will hopefully continue to serve as an inspiration for future generations of young women.
The Black Dahlia (8/26/10) Netflix (2006 ***) Directed by Brian De Palma, screenplay by Josh Friedman, based on the novel by James Ellroy, starring Josh Hartnet, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson and Hillary Swank. Set in post-WWII Los Angeles, two pugilistic detectives investigate one of the most sensationalistic (and unsolved) murders in crime history. Though based on "actual events," the story presented here was, of course, far more fiction than fact. It was a treat seeing Brian De Palma, who directed The Untouchables in 1987, back in the director's seat. Every frame of film dripped lovingly with noir. De Palma frequently engaged in visual pyrotechnics that called attention to his directing hand. Mostly I enjoyed the self-indulgence, except for one scene shot using a first-person POV camera, which was completely unmotivated as far as I could tell. Maybe there was some explanation for its inclusion, possibly as a reference to the classic noir film Dark Passage with Humphrey Bogart which used the same technique.
The Courtship of Eddie's Father (8/28/10) TV-TCM (1963 ***1/2) Directed by Vincente Minelli, based on the novel by Mark Toby, starring Glenn Ford, Shirley Jones, Stella Stevens, Jerry Van Dyke, Dina Merrill and little Ronny Howard as Eddie. Shortly after the death of his wife, a man and his little boy pick up the pieces, one woman at a time. Even though it was obvious within the first ten minutes of the film who Tom Corbett (Ford) will wind up with at the end of the film, it was still fun watching how the story would get there. I grew up watching the Bill Bixby TV series based on this film, and some of my recollections of that series got mixed up with having previously seen this film long ago. It was particularly fun to see Ron Howard at such a young age. Much of the story's success rested on him being able to play his role as well as he did.
John Williams and the Music of the Movies (8/28/10) Hollywood Bowl (2010 ***1/2) For the first half of this concert, Williams conducted the L.A. Philharmonic as they played beloved music by other composers. And in the second half, they played his hits. After last year's journey into esoteric selections and generally questionable choices, I suspect someone sat Mr. Williams down and said something like: "John, I think you overestimated the interest in your score from the 1978 version of Dracula." All kidding aside, this was a satisfying concert and it was especially fun to see all the light sabers waving in unison during "The Imperial March" from Star Wars.
Summertime (8/30/10) TV-TCM (1955 ***1/4) Directed by David Lean, starring Katharine Hepburn, Rossano Brazzi and Darren McGavin. An aging and lonely American woman vacations in Venice, Italy and finds love in the arms of a married man. David Lean is possibly best known for Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and after watching the beautiful, often bordering on travelogue-esque, shots of Venice in this film, I'm positive Lean wished he could have gone back and reshot the whole thing in a widescreen format. As for the story, it was interesting how American morality and attitudes toward sex and consensual adultery was portrayed in a fairly mature fashion. It all culminated in an ending that was nearly perfect.
Hot Tub Time Machine (8/31/10) Netflix (2010 ***) Directed by Steve Pink, starring John Cusack, Clark Duke, Craig Robinson, Rob Corddry, Crispin Glover and Chevy Chase. Four middle aged man-boys travel back to the 80's and screw around with the time-space continuum. There must be something magic about the number four when it comes to male bonding. Honestly, this was just a lot of good fun, and it was generally well made. I loved the premise and only wish it had been a little smarter and a little funnier. But it's still a great choice for a video rental or download or whatever it is kids are doing these days.

September

Palm Springs Weekend (9/1/10) TV-TCM (1963 **1/2) Directed by Norman Taurog, written by Earl Hamner Jr., starring Troy Donahue, Connie Stevens, Stefanie Powers, Robert Conrad and Jerry Van Dyke. During the Easter weekend and the week of spring break, college kids descend upon the sleepy town of Palm Springs for love, sex and bare-knuckled brawling. A couple months back I watched Frankie and Annette's Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), and this film nominally falls into the same category as that. I appreciated that even though Palm Springs Weekend was a lighthearted teen-exploitation romp, the direction, acting and production values were surprisingly professional.
An American in Paris (9/2/10) TV-TCM (1951 ***) Directed by Vincente Minnelli, starring Gene Kelley, Lesley Caron and Oscar Levant. An ex-GI painter named Jerry Mulligan falls in love with a friend's girl in the city of light. The story is that Gene Kelly sat in the director's chair for Minnelli for several of the sequences in this film and he used that experience when he co-directed Singin' in the Rain with Stanley Donen a year later. The very best thing about An American in Paris was the music by George and Ira Gershwin. Don't get me wrong: It's a movie worth seeing, but throughout the film each musical number left me with a sense of "that was good, but not great."
The American (9/3/10) Glendale Mann 10 (2010 **1/2) Directed by Anton Corbijn, screenplay by Rowan Joffe, based on the novel A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth, starring George Clooney, Paolo Bonacelli and Violante Placido. A man with a shadowy past and a talent for assassination wrestles with his moral ambiguity as he tries to leave the business. A friend recently reviewed this film and wrote that the marketing is selling The American as an action film, but it's actually very slow-paced. I don't disagree with that, but I thought the pace was appropriate for this film, which was mostly a character study with a few action and sex sequences thrown in. In other words, I was never bored, exactly. Overall, while much of the dramatic tension more or less worked, the film could have been stronger: there were several plot elements that didn't hold up to close scrutiny and to say my wife wasn't happy with the ending would be an understatement.
Gypsy (9/4/10) TV-TCM (1962 ***) Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, starring Rosalind Russell, Natalie Wood and Karl Malden. A mother and her family follows her dream of a life in the spotlight and makes the transition from vaudeville to burlesque to striptease. Rosalind Russel stepped into a role created by Ethel Merman on Broadway and did a serviceable job. Merman was considered to be a weak draw at the box office. Watching the film I couldn't help but wish she'd played the lead. Even though it's based on Gypsy Rose Lee's autobiography, the film is downright creepy if you think about it much. After all, this is a story about a mother so desperate for a life in show business that she pushes her daughter into going on stage and taking her clothes off for men. Not exactly mother of the year material.
The Big Picture: The Films of Twentieth Century Fox (9/5/10) Hollywood Bowl (2010 ***1/2) L.A. Philharmonic conducted by David Newman, hosted by Turner Classic Movie's Robert Osborne. Let's be honest: This is an awfully guilty pleasure, sipping wine beneath the stars as clips of great movies are accompanied by a top notch orchestra. It's nothing more or less than an adult version of the drive-in movies I went to as a kid. But you know what? I loved every minute. Watching the well-edited clips from 75 years of Fox films backed by the Star Wars theme reminded me of how many great movies the studio has made... and how many movies I've seen in my lifetime.
Memoirs of a Geisha (9/6/10) Netflix (2005 ***1/4) Directed by Rob Marshall, based on the book by Arthur Golden, starring Suzuka Ohgo. Set in the years before and after WWII, a young Japanese girl is sold by her father into the services of a Geisha house. Years ago I read the book on which this movie was based and I don't recall liking it very much. I was surprised by how many of the plot points lingered in my memory. This is a beautiful film, well made and well acted. However, I still find it difficult to relate to any of the characters, and for the most part the story's villains were fairly two-dimensional. Also, there was a sense at the end (without giving away anything) that resolution was achieved through hapenstance, not through any action on the part of the story's protagonist.
That's Entertainment, Part II (9/7/10) TV-TCM (1976 ***1/2) Directed by Gene Kelly, starring Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. It's been far too long since I last watched That's Entertainment or its sequels. Sure it's just a Whitman's Sampler of MGM's greatest clips punctuated by Gene & Fred singing alternate lyrics to a song that will remain stuck in your head for days afterwards. But so what. It's still a hell of a lot of fun.
All About Eve (9/7/10) TV-FMC (1950 ****) Written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, starring Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm and Gary Merrill, with Marilyn Monroe and Thelma Ritter. A young woman ingratiates herself into the life of a great Broadway star. But are her motives and methods truly as innocent as they appear? This is a hands down slam dunk great film. I would love to see it in a theater someday. The dialogue is crisp, the characterizations are strong and strongly acted. All About Eve is well deserving of its awards and its place in film history.
The Third Man (9/8/10) TV-TCM (1949 ***1/4) Directed by Carol Reed, screenplay by Graham Greene (based on his novel), starring Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles and Trevor Howard. In post-WWII Vienna, a pulp novelist investigates the suspicious death of his boyhood friend. I'd only seen this film once before, back when I was in college. I know it's a classic and I wish I'd liked it more. The ending felt long and the "Dutch" camera angles seemed awfully obvious to me as well as repetitive.
Collage Journeys: A Practical Guide to Creating Personal Artwork (9/8/10) Art Technique (2008 ***1/2) Written by Jane Davies, including many example collages by Davies and other artists. If you're looking to create collage pieces of your own, this is a terrific book, with plenty of examples and chapters focused on different aspects of collage. One notable exception: I had hoped for some discussion, even in passing, of the legal copyright aspects of collage. It would have been nice to have at least been offered guidelines for what materials can be safely used in pieces you with to reproduce or include in books (like this one) and which sources you should avoid.
Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told (9/10/10) Comics (1997 ***) Written and illustrated by various writers and artists. This book covers a span of Batman's history from his appearance in 1939 and into the early 1980's. While it offered an interesting sample of his stories, these were by no means the very greatest, as selected by any kind of objective process. In fact, the selection was careful to exclude stories that had been used recently in other collections, thereby self-limiting itself. It was still a reminder of why Batman was my favorite hero growing up and why I continue to hold a special place in my heart for The Dark Knight.
Fireworks Finale: Pink Martini (9/11/10) Hollywood Bowl (2010 ***) Featuring Rufus Wainwright, Jane Powell, Ari Shapiro and the cast of Sesame Street. Pink Martini's band leader Thomas M. Lauderdale and vocalist China Forbes welcome many special guests. Last year after seeing Pink Martini play at the bowl I was so blown away I immediately ordered all four of their CDs. They really are an amazing band that plays a grown-up, eclectic mix of international music that is sometimes timeless and other times quite contemporary. This year's show was somewhat spoiled by a few too many guests. It was lovely to see 1940's film star Jane Powell, still going great well into her 80's. But was it necessary for her to sing five songs? I would have liked more Pink Martini songs and a little less of what felt like a Dean Martin Christmas Special from 1968.
Chinatown (9/12/10) Netflix (1974 ***1/4) Directed by Roman Polanski, screenplay by Robert Towne, starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston. "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." Detective-for-hire J.J. Gittes gets played for a sap, investigates a murder linked to the L.A. water supply and never quite figures out what's going on. I saw this movie for the first time when I was in college, and I have to admit I didn't like it very much. The downbeat and altogether unsatisfying ending offended my largely American sensibilities. But then I got older and wiser in the ways of the world. About a year a go I read Towne's Oscar-winning screenplay as part of a screenwriting class and appreciated it as a postmodern twist on the conventions of the hardboiled genre. Funny thing is, I think I actually enjoyed the screenplay more than the movie, and I think I know why. Jack Nicholson did a great job bringing slimeball Jake Gittes to life, but perhaps he did too good a job. The character was perhaps a little more relatable and sympathetic on paper than on the screen.
Heaven Only Knows (9/13/10) TV-TCM (1947 **1/2) Directed by Albert S. Rogel, starring Robert Cummings, Brian Donlevy and Jorja Curtright. A heavenly clerical error sends an angel named Michael to Montana to set a saloon owner on the path to his proper destiny. I'm sure someone has written a book or at least a Master's thesis or two on the audiences of the forties' appetite for stories with afterlife elements. It's also interesting to me how many of those stories portrayed heaven as a beurocracy. Before I saw this film, it never occurred to me to cross supernatural fantasy with the western. But here it is. Great? No, but it was reasonably well-executed.
How Green Was My Valley (9/16/10) TV-FMC (1941 ***1/4) Directed by John Ford, screenplay by Philip Dunne, based on the novel by Richard Llewellyn, starring Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O'Hara, and Roddy McDowall. A man reflects upon the sorrows and joys of growing up in a Welsh mining town. This film won five Oscars, including Best Picture. This film is one of my father's favorites, and it saddens me that I didn't like it more. It was certainly a simple story well told. John Ford's direction and the cinematography was amazing and well deserving of the awards they won. In particular, I appreciated how many of the shots were staged for very specific silhouettes of light against dark or vice versa. The technical artistry was impressive. I suppose my main reason for not liking the film more was that the life portrayed was hard for me to relate to... and so much of it was awfully sad. While How Green Was My Valley may have showed the rich spectrum of human existence, it seemed to me there was a shade more heartbreak in the mix than happiness.
House on Haunted Hill (9/17/10) TV-TCM (1959 **1/2) Directed by William Castle, screenplay by Robb White, starring Vincent Price, Carol Ohmart, Richard Long, Carolyn Craig and Elisha Cook Jr. Strangers agree to spend a night in a haunted house for $10,000. This was another one of those movies I watched on Creature Feature growing up. It seemed pretty scary when I was 8 or 9. Considerably less so now. In the cold light of day, the "whodunit" script had a few problems, but the production values were fairly decent and I imagine many a teenage boy in 1959 enjoyed his date jumping into his arms as a result of the occasional jolts of horror.
Forbidden Planet (9/18/10) TV-TCM (1956 **1/2) Directed by Fred M. Wilcox, starring Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis and Leslie Nielsen. A flying saucer full of spacemen visit a planet on a rescue mission and they're greeted with somewhat less than open arms. Filmed in widescreen and Technicolor, I imagine this film looked incredible in the theater when it was originally released. It was interesting watching Leslie Nielsen from the Police Squad movies in a straight leading man role. It somewhat akin to (I imagine) watching a young Adam West playing Hamlet. It was fairly apparent that this film, with its militaristic Naval slant to space exploration, was an influence on Star Trek. Forbidden Planet bore a close resemblance to that later TV show. I liked this movie well enough, but there were long stretches where nothing much happened, and the story could have used a lot more action.
You Were Never Lovelier (9/19/10) TV-TCM (1942 **1/2) Directed by William A. Seiter, starring Fred Astaire, Rita Hayworth, Adolphe Menjou and Xavier Cugat. A song and dance man with weakness for the ponies (what we'd call today a gambling addiction) falls in love with a rich club owner's gorgeous daughter. As beautiful as this film's female lead was, it was clear there just wasn't the same effortless chemistry between Rita Hayward and Fred Astaire as there was between Fred and his best-known partner, Ginger Rogers. Maybe that was because Hayward was so stunningly, breathtakingly, amazingly beautiful. In other words, "she was outta his class."
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (9/20/10) TV-FMC (1953 ***1/4) Directed by Howard Hawks, starring Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe. A blonde with an appetite for diamonds and a brunette with an appetite for the U.S. Olympic swimming team take a cruise ship from New York to Paris. My wife and I watched this film a mere six months ago, but it was her birthday and how could I possibly say no? I enjoyed it a bit more this time around, especially the clever (and covert) 1950's sexuality that ran throughout. The film's highlight remains Monroe singing "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend."
Diabolique (9/20/10) TV-IFC (1955 **) Directed by Henri-Georges Glouzot, starring Simone Signoret, Vera Clouzot and Paul Meurisse. Set at a boy's school, a frail teacher and her husband's mistress plot to kill the husband. It's bleak, it's French, and a swimming pool filled with murky, stagnant water plays a major role and is featured during the opening titles and credits. What more do you need to know?
Wall Street (9/22/10) TV-FMC (1987 ***) Directed by Oliver Stone, screenplay by Stanley Weiser and Oliver Stone, starring Charlie Sheen, Michael Douglas, Daryl Hannah and Martin Sheen. "Greed is, in a word, good." This film was a timely indictment of the machinations of Wall Street and the "me decade" in general. Nearly 25 years later, still mired deep in the "Great Recession," maybe we should have paid closer attention to the film's message. Douglas won an Oscar for his performance as Gordon Gekko. Unfortunately, young Charlie Sheen's acting chops weren't quite up to the same level, and as a consequence his character evolution over the course of the film was less than believable. For the most part the film worked, though there was one shot toward the end when Daryl Hannah (whose acting was even worse than Charlie Sheen's) looked at her reflection in a cracked mirror and I said aloud: "Really, Oliver Stone?" The sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps opens in a few days, but after watching the original and seeing how the new film is tracking at 52% on Rotten Tomatoes, I think I'll probably wait to catch it on DVD.
Sunset Boulevard (9/26/10) Netflix (1950 ****) Directed by Billy Wilder, screenplay by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, starring William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Eric von Stroheim and Nancy Olsen. A washed-up writer becomes the live-in rent boy for a silent screen legend and loses his soul in the bargain. There's a reason this film is as respected as it is, and the acting and writing remain crisp, one of the hallmarks of truly great films. The "behind the scenes of Hollywood" angle definitely caused quite a stir when it was originally released, and that may be why it lost the Best Picture race to All About Eve.
Runaways, Vol. 1: Pride and Joy (9/28/10) Comics (2006 ***) Written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Adrian Alphona. A group of teenagers witness an ritual sacrifice and discover their parents are super villains called "The Pride." This series is equal parts teenage melodrama and conventional superhero action/adventure. While the setup is a little hard to swallow, it was still reasonably entertaining, and it will be interesting to see where it goes, if anywhere.

October

Runaways, Vol. 2: Teenage Wasteland (10/5/10) Comics (2006 ***) Written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Adrian Alphona. After learning their parents aren't just super villains but are involved in a plot to wipe out humanity, the motley little band of "runaways" dodges a corrupt bunch of cops and has a run-in with minor Marvel heroes Cloak and Dagger. Unbeknownst to the teens, there is a traitorous mole in their midst, but who is it? Vaughan is probably best known for creating the Y: The Last Man series, which was fairly popular, though I lost interest in it after the first three volumes. I'm not entirely sold on this series either, though I will wait to see where it goes, at least for awhile. Perhaps now would be a good time to reveal that I bought the first five books in the series because they were on sale at Amazon?
Runaways, Vol. 3: The Good Die Young (10/5/10) Comics (2006 ***) Written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Adrian Alphona. The mole is revealed and the series' first main story-arc comes to an end, immediately followed by an extended (1-issue) denouement. I don't want to reveal too much, but I didn't find the resolution of 17 issues of story to have nearly the emotional resonance it could have had. Then again, as a teenager I was never part of a bunch of young heroes who had to face off against our parents with humanity's fate at stake... Actually, you know what? It really should have been a lot more exciting than it was.
Wolverine: Old Man Logan (10/12/10) Graphic Novel (2010 ***1/2) Written by Mark Millar, illustrated by Steve McNiven. Set 50 years in the future, the bad guys have won and most of the earth's heroes are dead. Wolverine is a family man whose days of popping his claws are behind him and must go on a road trip with a blind ex-hero in order to pay his mortgage. This wasn't a perfect book (there's a plot point near the end of the story that didn't have nearly the emotional resonance it should have had), but it was the most entertaining graphic novel I've read in a long time. In a lot of ways it did for Wolverine what Frank Miller's original The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel did for Batman. In fact, several times during the course of the book I kept thinking Old Man Logan would make a pretty awesome movie.
Xanadu (10/15/10) Alex Theater, Glendale (1980 ***) Directed by Robert Greenwald, starring Olivia Newton John, Gene Kelly and Michael Beck. A young artist with a dream is kissed by a roller-skating muse. My wife and I attended this as part of a special 30-year-anniversary event. The theater wasn't exactly packed to the rafters, and that made me a little sad. The pre-show began with a group of... female dancers, a few of whom were older and/or not in great shape. They were led by Darcel Wynne, who appeared in Xanadu and was also one of the Solid Gold dancers. Though a few years past her prime, she shook both her booty and her boobies and the whole theatrical experience took on such a surreal atmosphere that I started looking around to see if David Lynch of John Waters were in the audience. The festivities continued as Gene Kelly's widow, Patricia Ward Kelly, took the stage and told a few anecdotes about her late husband, who was a consummate professional who truly hated the movie Xanadu. Mrs. Kelly was followed by about a dozen of the Xanadu dancers and cast members who talked about their experiences. The pre-show concluded with a costume contest that only had seven entrants. The winner by a wide margin was a man in drag dressed as Olivia Newton John, who stood about seven feet tall... in roller skates. Just before the film started, we were warned that the print, though in stereo, was also fairly faded and scratched, with an overall pink tint. In some ways that was quite appropriate to the film. As the movie began I thought back to my childhood and how I'd gone to see Xanadu twice in the theater when it was released. Within minutes I realized how terrible a movie it was. Michael Beck's acting was so horrendous and the script was so clearly written by either incompetents or while under the influence of drugs. I wondered how it was I was able to overlook all its obvious faults and why I wasn't more discerning, even at age 16. Ultimately Xanadu is what it is. The Olivia Newton John / Electric Light Orchestra / music is good, even though there are still a few lyrics that make me cringe. Cheesy optical printer effects and all, It remains a reflection of the times in which it was made. And you know what? If anyone ever asks me if I've ever had a dream, I'll look them straight in the eye and tell them I've only ever wanted one thing: To open a 1940's-themed roller disco dance club.
Invincible, Vol. 13: Growing Pains (10/15/10) Comics (2010 ***) Written by Robert Kirkman, illustrated by Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley. This volume contains stories originally printed in Invincible #66-70 and Invincible Returns #1. I'm a fan of Robert Kirkman, who also created and writes The Walking Dead, but I often feel in my reviews of his books as though I'm his apologist. His writing often frustrates me, as was the case in Growing Pains. Not much actually happened dramatically over the course of this volume. There was a presumably important reveal with Mark Grayson's girlfriend Atom Eve, though it smacked of teen soap opera. But I hold out hope. With Kirkman, traditionally an absence of action means something really awesome is just around the corner. I just hope he doesn't prove me wrong.
The Social Network (10/16/10) Manhattan Beach Pacific Theaters (2010 ****) Directed by David Fincher, screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, based on the book by Ben Mezrich, starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberlake. This fictionalized recent historical film explores the morally sketchy origins of Facebook and the mental dysfunction of its founder Mark Zuckerberg. The dead-on marketing logline goes something like: "you don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies." My wife and I are in complete agreement: From now on we want Aaron Sorkin to write all movies. It was such a pleasure to hear his words once again, and it was awesome to hear them in the context of such a contemporarily relevant film. His screenplay should definitely be a frontrunner at next year's Oscars. One sign of a good film is how much talking you do about it afterwards, and the last time my wife and I talked this much about a movie... Well, okay, it was about Xanadu, but that was for a different reason.
Runaways, Vol. 4: True Believers (10/16/10) Comics (2006 **1/2) Written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Adrian Alphona and Craig Yeung. The Runaways are visited by a 20-years-hence future version of one of their team who tells them about an evil traitor who must be stopped before he kills The Avengers. He also happens to be the son of one of the world's greatest villains... and then she dies. You know what? If my future self showed up in my super team hideout and then DIED, I would (pardon my French) -- freak the fuck out -- requiring intensive therapy for at least five years. Was the dramatic potential of that plot point exploited in this book? No, it was not, and I see it as another example of Vaughan dropping the emotional potential ball.
Million Dollar Mermaid (10/18/10) TV-TCM (1952 ***) Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, starring Esther Williams, Victor Mature and Walter Pidgeon. Australian swimming sensation Annette Kellerman meets a creepy kangaroo-hyping carnival barker who wants to exploit her. Naturally they fall in love. I don't know that I've ever purposely watched an Esther Williams movie before, but my wife grew up watching them on the MGM-backed local station in L.A. This was a generally enjoyable movie and Williams was consistently adorable, with amazing legs. The aquatic numbers did nothing to advance the plot, but they were fun to watch. Victor Mature, however, has always creeped me out for some reason. My wife says he looked like Jerry Orbach, but not in a good way. I think he looked like he was covered with a thin layer of hair oil.
Hollywood: The Dream Factory (10/19/10) TV-TCM (1972 ***) Written by Irwin Rosten, narrated by Dick Cavett. Produced two years before That's Entertainment, this documentary sketched out MGM's early days and history, punctuating the story of Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg with plenty of clips from Hollywood's golden age. It was bookended, however with more recent (early 1970's) footage of the sad auctioning off of many of the items from those films. The contrast between manufactured fantasy and economic reality was fairly depressing. Still, it's remarkable to think of a studio so massive in scale that for a while it -- according to the narration -- produced a new feature film every day!
Rome Adventure (10/23/10) TV-TCM (1962 **1/2) Directed by Delmer Daves, based on the novel by Irving Fineman, starring Suzanne Pleshette, Troy Donahue, Angie Dickinson and Rossano Brazzi, with a special (and unmotivated) cameo appearance by jazz trumpet player Al Hirt. A young teacher at a stuffy school quits her job and sails to Rome where she meets Troy Donahue and they ride a Vespa through the Italian countryside. Considering I'm not a suburban housewife living in the early 1960's, I probably wasn't the target demographic for this film. As much as I liked the late Suzanne Pleshette, who always had a certain sultry sensuality, it's clear from Rome Adventure that she didn't quite have the X-factor to carry a feature film. It was fun to watch her try, though.
Megamind (10/24/10) Burbank AMC 16 (2010 ***1/2) Directed by Tom McGrath, screenplay by Alan J. Schoolcraft and Brent Simons, featuring the voices of Will Ferrell, Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Tina Fey and David Cross. What does a supervillain do when he finally vanquishes his lifelong nemesis? He creates a new hero to battle, of course! Disclaimer: I work at Dreamworks (though I didn't work on Megamind), so I can't really be expected to be partial. I thought this film was a lot of fun. As a pretty died-in-the-wool comic book superhero fan, I appreciated the angle the film took on the genre. It's hard to escape the shadow of Brad Bird's The Incredibles, but Megamind succeeded in its own right. In terms of the storytelling, I appreciated that all the characters were motivated primarily emotionally. It would've been very easy to let the plot take over and drive the story. It helped that Megamind himself was such a great character, one of the most appealing in terms of his design, personality and animation as I think I've ever seen. This was all the more impressive considering this film was Dreamworks' THIRD high-quality 3-D feature film released in 2010.
Topper (10/24/10) TV-TCM (1937 ***) Directed by Norman Z. McLeod, based on the novel by Thorne Smith, starring Constance Bennett, Cary Grant, Roland Young and Billie Burke. A carefree young couple returns from the grave to torture a henpecked bank president. I love ghost-centric fantasy films like this one, but I have to admit that Topper never quite grabbed me like it could have. I think the problem was that the only central conflict was that the two ghosts just wanted stuffy Cosmo Topper to lighten up a bit, and that wasn't really enough to drive the whole film.
Runaways, Vol. 5: Escape to New York (10/24/10) Comics (2006 **1/2) Written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Adrian Alphona and Takeshi Miyazawa. Cloak (of Cloak and Dagger) is framed and Iron Man, Wolverine and Captain America make superfluous cameo appearances. This volume was the last of the set I originally ordered as the result of a sale on Amazon.com. I think I've decided not to continue reading the series. Maybe it's because I'm not the demographic, but I just wasn't getting enough out of it. Some might say that perhaps I should stop reading comics altogether, but to those people I say: You're mean!
Roman Holiday (10/25/10) TV-TCM (1953 ****) Directed by William Wyler, screenplay by Ian McLellan Hunter and John Dighton, starring Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck and Eddie Albert. The stresses and responsibilities of royalty become too much for a young British princess, and so she escapes to the bedroom of an unscrupulous American reporter. The next day they eat gelato and ride a Vespa. It's been way too long since I last watched this incredible film. Given Roman Holiday's fairly simple plot, it's surprising how emotionally engaged I was by the end. I don't think it could work as a remake, mainly because a remake wouldn't star Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck.
The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (10/30/10) TV-TCM (1976 **1/2) Directed by Nicolas Gessner, screenplay by Laird Koenig (based on his novel), starring Jodie Foster, Martin Sheen and Scott Jacoby. A young girl with a recently deceased father attempts to keep up appearances in spite the unwanted advances of a creepy pedophile. This was one of several low-budget films I watched on TV in my childhood that somehow stayed with me. I was somewhat surprised to see late in the film that there was a nude / implied sex scene with Jodie Foster's 13-year-old character (or rather her body double). I doubt that would be permitted today, even in an R-rated film. Yet another example of how much the world has changed since my childhood.
The Other (10/30/10) TV-TCM (1972 **1/2) Directed by Robert Mulligan, written by Tom Tryon (based on his novel), starring Chris and Martin Udvarnoky, Uta Hagen and Diana Muldaur. One summer during the depression, a young boy and his evil twin set out to murder everyone in a five mile radius. This movie gave me major goosebumps when I watched it on TV as a kid. In spite of its obviously limited budget, it holds up surprisingly well. This shouldn't be a surprise, considering it was directed by the same man who directed To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). One of the most unusual aspects of the film is that its main characters were played by actual twins, rather than using trick photography.
Brewster McCloud (10/30/10) TV-TCM (1970 **1/2) Directed by Robert Altman, screenplay by Doran William Cannon, starring Bud Cort, Sally Kellerman, Michael Murphy and Shelly Duvall. A young man living undiscovered in the bowels of the Houston Astrodome dreams of building a flying machine. This film was introduced on TCM by SNL's Bill Hader, who described it as "weird, even for the seventies." I watched it originally because I was a fan of Harold and Maude's Bud Cort, and he didn't star in that many films. His performance and character in Brewster McCloud wasn't nearly as satisfying and never connected fully with the audience.
What's Up, Tiger Lily? (10/30/10) TV-TCM (1966 **) Directed by Woody Allen and Senkichi Taniguchi, starring Tatsuya Mihashi, Akiko Wakabayashi and the Lovin' Spoonful. Long before Mystery Science Theater 3000, Woody Allen, Louise Lasser and others redubbed a Japanese film called Kokusai himitsu keisatsu: Kagi no Kagi (AKA International Secret Police: Key of Keys). As much as I love Woody Allen, I feel like the job would have been better executed by Mel Brooks. The premise was great, and they had a lot of visual material to work with, but it never got nearly as silly (or weird) as it could have.
Little Children (10/30/10) TV-Sundance (2006 ***) Directed by Todd Field, based on the novel by Tom Perrotta, starring Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly and Jackie Earle Haley. A sex offender moves to a sleepy little community and coincidentally a man and woman have an affair. Haley, a child actor in original Bad News Bears films, was simply amazing in what was a very difficult and potentially career-ending role. Though I recognize the film's quality, the key to this movie working, I think, was to make the complex human failings and fragility of the main characters sympathetic to the viewer, but I never quite managed to get there emotionally... or even really meet them half way.
The Red Shoes (10/31/10) TV-TCM (1948 ***1/2) Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, starring Marius Goring, Anton Walbrook and Victoria Page. The world of international professional ballet is filled with egos, betrayal and tragedy. This is possibly one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen. My hat is off to The Film Foundation and the restoration work done. Even on our TV the colors were amazing. Having said that, the story was a challenging one for me to identify with. I did my best and certainly appreciated the greatness of it. But I still felt at times like a shoeshine boy who'd been accidentally invited to a society party. It was a bit beyond my station.
Up the Down Staircase (10/31/10) TV-TCM (1967 ***) Directed by Robert Mulligan, based on the novel by Bel Kaufman, starring Sandy Dennis, Patrick Bedford, Jeff Howard and Jean Stapleton. A young idealistic teacher's very first assignment is at a tough inner-city high school. My mom was a teacher, and some of her first assignments were pretty scary. I have great respect for anyone who goes into teaching, particularly those who teach junior high or high school in impoverished areas. I'm pretty sure I read the book on which this movie was based when I was a kid, and probably I'd seen the film. If I had, I'd forgotten how truly gritty it was. Gritty, but very effective, which is no surprise given the director's credentials. It's worth repeating from my recent review of The Other that Robert Mulligan, the film's director had previously directed To Kill a Mockingbird.
Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (10/31/10) TV-IFC (1987 **1/2) Directed by Sam Raimi, starring Bruce Campbell and Sarah Berry. In a cabin in the woods, a voice on a reel-to-reel tape machine unleashes a horror from hell. This movie is considered a camp horror classic, and with good reason. At the time it was released, it was pretty inventive. I'm sorry to say I didn't really enjoy it nearly as much as I did when I was younger. Maybe I've lost something in the intervening decades. Or maybe it comes down to the fact that horror, even over-the-top horror comedy like this, isn't really one of my favorite genres.
Boys Town (10/31/10) TV-TCM (1938 ***1/4) Directed by Norman Taurog, starring Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney and Bobs Watson as Pee Wee. Father Flanagan has a dream -- a crazy dream about a town for and governed by boys. I know this movie is pretty cheesy, what with Mickey Rooney's over-the-top transformation from street-tough wiseguy atheist dickhead to adored humble believer. But deep down under my gruff exterior I'm still a sucker for schmaltz. There's something appealing to me about an old movie with a Catholic priest as the main character like this one or Bing Crosby's The Bells of Saint Mary's. My affection for this film may also be the result of having grown up in Omaha and having visited the actual Boys Town, which the film assures us is "a real place."

November

Dead Set (11/1/10) TV-IFC (2008 ***) Directed by Yann Demange, written by Charlie Brooker, starring Jaime Winstone, Andy Nyman, Riz Ahmed and Davina McCall as herself. A season of the British reality show Big Brother ends prematurely due to a zombie apocalypse. I think I would have appreciated this miniseries more if I'd been in a position to enjoy its many in-jokes. I guess I do have a soft spot in my heart for zombies, and one of the things that's great about zombies is they can be used to hold a mirror up to society. There was a lot of that in Dead Set, particularly with the stark contrast between the horrific "reality" of the bloodthirsty (and fast) zombies and the vacuous "reality TV" contestants. I know this will make me sound like an old fogy, but the "strobeycam/shakycam" effect employed during the zombie attacks didn't really add to a feeling of verisimilitude and in fact detracted from my enjoyment.
Fail-Safe (11/2/10) TV-TCM (1964 ***1/2) Directed by Sidney Lumet, screenplay by Walter Bernstein, starring Henry Fonda, Larry Hagman, Walter Matthau and Dan O'Herlihy. An equipment malfunction triggers global thermonuclear war. I didn't realize until watching Robert Osbourne's TCM intro to this film that Fail-Safe was released shortly after Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. I had always assumed that Strangelove had been a comedic take on Fail-Safe. Apparently, as a result of the timing, this film didn't do so well at the box office, or critically. That's a shame; I thought it was an effective and sobering film about the dangers of nuclear war. It amazes me to realize how many people, even adults, living today grew up without the constant threat of nuclear annihilation hanging like the sword of Damocles over their heads.
The General (11/4/10) TV-TCM (1926 ***) Directed by Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton, starring Buster Keaton and Marion Mack. Set during the Civil War, southern railroad engineer Johnnie Gray is torn between his love for a young lady and a steam locomotive named... The General. I'd been meaning to see this historic film for about twenty years and finally got around to it. You know what? It's not bad, but it wasn't nearly as engaging as I'd expected, considering all the hype around it. Keaton's physical feats were awfully impressive, though, considering so many of the gags revolved around multi-ton trains. One small mishap and Keaton never would've lived on to an old age so he could make cameos in Sunset Boulevard and Beach Blanket Bingo. On another level entirely, I found the movie's point of view challenging to accept: In The General, the "good guys" were plucky confederates and the villains were the blue-suited Union Yankees. Though there's no mention of slavery anywhere in the film, it was still an implicit question. It made me wonder about Keaton's sympathies as well as the sympathies of the film's intended 1926 audience.
Back to the Future (11/5/10) Blu-Ray (1985 ****) Directed by Robert Zemeckis, written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, starring Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover and Thomas F. Wilson. Marty McFly rides Doc Brown's flux-capacitor-enhanced Delorean back to 1955 where he discovers his parents were once teenagers just like him. Someday I must write an extended essay about how much I love this film and what it has meant to me. I hadn't watched it in a few years and was inspired to do so by the release of the 25th anniversary edition on Blu-Ray. The film looked amazing in high-definition and I was delighted by how well it has held up over the years. The new and archival behind-the-scenes extras were also top-notch and added to a highly satisfying viewing experience.
Back to the Future Part II (11/7/10) Blu-Ray (1989 ***1/2) Directed by Robert Zemeckis, written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, starring Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Thomas F. Wilson and Elisabeth Shue. Doc Brown takes Marty McFly and his girlfriend thirty years into the future, then sixty years into the past. It saddens me to say it, but I don't think the second film in the trilogy has held up quite as well as the first. I've always appreciated its storyline in a left-brain geeky kind of way. How adorable is it to have a plot so convoluted that Doc Brown had to explain it on a chalkboard? Though I know why it was needed, the whole Marty McFly "nobody calls me chicken" device always rang a little false to me, and I've always wondered if there wasn't a stronger solution to that story problem. Still, faults and all, BTTF2 remains one of the best time-travel films in terms of taking full advantage of what the genre has to offer, and it also works well as a link between the first and third films.
The Lovely Bones (11/10/10) Netflix (2009 ***) Directed by Peter Jackson, based on the novel by Alice Sebold, starring Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Susan Sarandon and Stanley Tucci. In 1973 a 14-year-old girl is brutally killed and from beyond the grave she affects the revelation of her murderer. There was a great deal of publicity when this film was released about differences between it and its source material. In particular the more brutal aspects of the main character's assault and murder were toned down for the PG-13 rating. For me, the film was beautiful and visually inventive but uneven. For the first forty minutes I thought I was watching a 4-star film, but somewhere in the second act the characters and their motivations grew fuzzy, ending in a dramatic climax that was unexpected and unsatisfying.
When Comedy Was King (11/11/10) TV-TCM (1960 **) Written and directed by Robert Youngson, narrated by Dwight Weist, featuring archival silent footage featuring Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon and the Keystone Cops. Old clips from the silent era are lovingly presented to a new generation. The effectiveness of the ever-present voice-over narration was mixed for me. Sometimes it worked, but a lot of times it seemed unnecessary, as though the narrator enjoyed the sound of his own voice. In addition, the narration occasionally included historical information about the actors, some of it quite tragic and sad, which definitely threw a wet (and discordant) blanket over the physical comedy onscreen.
Butterfield 8 (11/12/10) TV-TCM (1960 **) Directed by Daniel Mann, based on the novel by John O'Hara, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Laurence Harvey and Eddie Fisher. A woman of easy virtue wakes up one morning, steals a mink coat and decides she wants to be respectable. This was written and acted in that potboiler melodrama mode that was so popular at the time. It's not a particularly good film, but it had its moments. If you were to draw a graph of my enjoyment, it would directly correspond to the scenes in which Elizabeth Taylor walked around half-dressed.
The Sting (11/12/10) TV-TCM (1973 ****) Directed by George Roy Hill, written by David S. Ward, starring Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Robert Shaw. When a small time grifter's partner is killed by a mob boss, he decides to take him down using a "big con" called "the wire." This film, sandwiched between the two Oscar-winning Godfather films, won 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It was also a reteaming of Hill, Newman and Redford after 1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. There's no doubt about it: This is a nearly perfect film, with masterful direction, terrific performances and plot twists a-plenty, all resulting in a highly satisfying experience for its audience.
Back to the Future Part III (11/13/10) Blu-Ray (1990 ***1/2) Directed by Robert Zemeckis, written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, starring Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Thomas F. Wilson, Elisabeth Shue and Mary Steenburgen. The same historic lightning storm that sent Marty McFly from 1955 to 1985 sends Doc Brown from 1955 to 1885, back to the old west. When I first watched this film when it was originally released, I left the theater somewhat disappointed. BTTF3 didn't have anywhere near the story complexity of the film that had preceded it. But after additional viewings it grew on me and I came to appreciate it in its own right. Watching the copious behind-the-scenes material on the 25th anniversary Blu-Ray, Zemeckis and Gale talked about how the emotional focus of the film was Doc Brown as a believable love interest. By doing so, his character was given a richness that added to an already endearing character. As much as I love the Back to the Future films, I must admit that the ending of the last film (and the series) has always felt false and not entirely satisfying. Having said that, there's no denying that it ended on an up note and it was very tempting to put the first film back in and watch the whole series all over again!
Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: The Best of Season 3 (11/14/10) Netflix (1968-69 ***) Featuring Tom and Dick Smothers, with writing by Mason Williams, Bob ("Super Dave") Einstein, Steve Martin and others. In the turbulent late sixties, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour managed to combine a variety show with pointed social commentary. The result was high ratings, critical success in the form of an Emmy... and cancellation, or as Tom Smothers believed was far more accurate, firing. By modern standards, the show was at times quaint and a little uneven, but those were acceptable to me, in large part because I'm such a big fan of the Smothers Brothers. The additional DVD material, particularly the bookend commentary by Tom and Dick for each episode, were helpful for putting the show into historical context.
Beyond Palomar (11/14/10) Graphic Novel (2007 ***) Written and illustrated by Gilbert Hernandez. This volume contains two very different stories: Poison River and Love and Rockets X. The first sixty or so pages of this book were stunning and powerful, and for me it represented a shining example of what can be accomplished in graphic novels. Unfortunately, Hernandez' tendency for fragmented and soap-opera-like storytelling began to take over, and the narrative began to become defused and sometimes confusing.
Baby Mama (11/15/10) Netflix (2008 **1/2) Written and directed by Michael McCullers, starring Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Greg Kinnear and Steve Martin in a cameo role. An infertile 37-year-old professional woman hires a surrogate to carry her baby. There's nothing particularly wrong with this film, and I liked everyone who was in it, but Baby Mama was pretty tame and predictable and it never quite took off for me. I think it wanted to be something it wasn't and only ended up seeming like James L. Brooks lite.
Almost Famous (11/16/10) DVD (2000 ****) Written and directed by Cameron Crowe, starring Patrick Fugit, Billy Crudup, Jason Lee, Kate Hudson and Frances McDormand. A 15-year-old rock journalist hits the road with a mid-level rock band. Won Oscar for best original screenplay. This is one of my favorite films and is high on the list of films I wish I'd made. My belief is that part of what makes a film truly memorable is the element of wish fulfillment, and boy oh boy did Almost Famous deliver that in spades. It's even more remarkable that the film is somewhat autobiographical, that Cameron Crowe actually was an under-aged writer for Rolling Stone. On top of all that, Frances McDormand's performance as young William Miller's mother was hilarious and endearing while retaining an element of truth.
I Wanna Hold Your Hand (11/18/10) Netflix (1978 **1/2) Directed by Bob Zemeckis, written by Zemeckis and Bob Gale, starring Nancy Allen, Bobi Di Cicco, Marc McClure, Wendie Jo Sperber and Eddie Deezen. A group of New Jersey teens drive to Manhattan to see The Beatles in their first appearance in America on The Ed Sullivan Show. The most interesting thing to me was that this was written by the team who would go on to write Back to the Future seven or eight years later. There's also a very close relationship between this film and the Spielberg-directed 1941 the following year. It's fascinating to me that both those films had reasonably well-constructed narratives, and yet they didn't work. I think the lesson Zemeckis and Gale learned was that plot-driven chaotic ensemble films were problematic. Fortunately they learned their lesson and learned to focus on a few characters, giving us Marty McFly and Doc Brown.
Hamlet (No Fear Shakespeare Graphic Novels) (11/20/10) Graphic Novel (2008 ***1/4) Written by William Shakespeare, illustrated by Neil Babra. The prince of Denmark is driven mad by a potent mixture of fratricide and incest. Iím embarrassed to admit this, but Iíd never gotten around to reading or watching Hamlet before reading it in comic book form. Man, that Shakespeare dude could be pretty dark and racy. Babraís stylized illustration style was perfectly-suited to this very twisted tale. I was unfamiliar with the No Fear Shakespeare series before now, and from what I can tell, the concept is to edit Shakespeareís works into a form more accessible by contemporary teenagers. Iím sure there are many who would raise their fists in indignation, butI actually think itís a pretty good idea, and I may find myself ordering other books in the series.
The Lady From Shanghai (11/20/10) TV-TCM (1947 **1/2) Directed by Orson Welles, based on the novel by Sherwood King, starring Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles and Everett Sloane. A nihilistic (and dumb) sailor-for-hire falls for a fatalistic (and rich) dame and gets himself framed for murder. For a movie with as many twists and double-crosses as this one, you'd think it would have been more satisfying. Welles wasn't quite believable physically as the tough sailor with a shady past he was playing. In addition, his (uncredited and) uneven direction wasn't quite on par with Citizen Kane.
90 Classic Books for People in a Hurry (11/26/10) Cartoons (2009 ***1/4) Written and illustrated by Henrik Lange. Who could pass up the opportunity to read 90 important literary works in one sitting? I sure as hell couldn't, and so when I saw this book in an LAX airport bookstore I had to pick it up. As I sat reading it, waiting for our flight, it made me madder and madder. Why? Because the concept was so simple and the execution was so straightforward. In short, it's a book I should've thought of and produced myself. The "synopsis" of each book was given as a two-page spread. On the left was a title of the book. On the right was a four-panel cartoon, the first panel of which was devoted, somewhat redundantly, to the title. The minimalist plot summaries were delivered in an extremely sardonic manner, and though a lot of them missed the mark, several of them made me laugh out loud.
Introducing Time: A Graphic Guide (11/27/10) Nonfiction illustrated (2010 ***) Written by Craig Callender, illustrated by Ralph Edney. What is time? How can it be measured? How subjective is it? If time travel were possible, how might it be achieved? These questions and more are explored in this overview on the subject. It's a challenge to present potentially dry factual information in an entertaining fashion, and this book did a decent job of striking a balance.
Introducing Sociology: A Graphic Guide (11/28/10) Nonfiction (2005 **) Written by Richard Osborne, illustrated by Boris Van Loon. The origins and history of sociology are explored. This book was originally printed in the U.K. in a different form in 1996. I never took Sociology in college and so I thought this book might provide a good overview of what I'd missed. Unfortunately, I was disappointed on that count. I found Osborne's commentary to be more slanted (and snarky) than I thought was appropriate and the book devoted most of its pages to the historical development of sociology and whether or not it was even a science than providing the reader with a basic understanding of its principles.
Zombocalypse Now (11/29/10) Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style Fiction (2009 ***1/2) Written by Matt Youngmark, with several illustrations by the author. You are a stuffed bunny on a blind date who finds himself in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Your survival depends on the decisions you make. I learned about this book last year because it was featured on a self-published books blog. As I was planning a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure (CYOA) book of my own (which coincidentally includes a few zombies), I ordered a copy and I've had it sitting on my bookshelf for awhile. I was quite suprised by how well-written it was, especially considering it's Youngmark's first book. Tonally, it was pitch-perfect, and I hope it sells well enough that he writes further books in the same vein.

December

Psych: "Dual Spires" (12/1/10) TV Episode (2010 ***1/4) Directed by Matt Shakman, written by Bill Callahan and James Roday, series created by Steve Franks, starring James Roday and Dule Hill and featuring seven cast members of the early 1990's series Twin Peaks. Shawn Spencer and Burton 'Gus' Guster visit a small town's cinnamon festival and wind up investigating the murder of a high school girl who's been found dead and... wrapped in plastic. I don't make it a habit of reviewing individual episodes of TV shows, but in this case I have decided to make an exception. I don't normally watch Psych, though I've seen the advertisements. In fact, this is the only episode of the series I've ever seen. As a die-hard Twin Peaks fan, I found the wall-to-wall references very satisfying and I understood that the writers could only go so far and still remain true to the tone of the Psych show. While it was wonderful seeing Sheryl Lee, Sherilyn Fenn and the rest once again, I can't say I enjoyed it so much that I'm planning on watching the show in the future.
Tangled (12/2/10) Burbank AMC 16 (2010 ****) Directed by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard, screenplay by Dan Fogelman, voice talents by Mandy Moore, Zachary Levy, Donna Murphy and Ron Perlman. Rapunzel has been locked in a tower all her life by an evil sorceress and she's suffering from cabin fever. In fact, one might say she really needs to let her hair down. Look, I know princess movies are a tough sell to a general audience, and it's painfully obvious that Disney's marketing campaign has bent over backward to make this movie appear boy-friendly. I also know this film has been in the works for a decade, originally with Glen Keane directing. I've even heard rumors that the budget was in the $260M range. You know what? None of that really matters, because this is a really, really excellent animated film and I hope that everyone who worked on it feels very good about what they've accomplished. In fact, I think it's on par with some of my favorite animated films of all time, including Shrek and The Incredibles.
The Walking Dead, Vol. 13: Too Far Gone (12/3/10) Comics (2010 ***1/4) Written by Robert Kirkman, illustrated by Charlie Adlard. Life inside the gated community continues for our zombie apocalypse survivors. Volume 13 was decidedly better than the previous volume, in which nothing much happened except for characters behaving uncharacteristically. In Too Far Gone, Robert Kirkman once again demonstrated his facility for laying down situations and stories you are sure are going one way but then the plot twists in unexpected, emotionally resonant ways.
Mamma Mia! (12/5/10) DVD (2008 ***) Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, screenplay by Catherine Johnson (based on her book for the musical), starring Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Amanda Seyfried. A girl sends letters to three men, one of whom is her father, inviting them to her wedding on a Greek island. I watched this during a visit to my mother in St. Louis. I am generally a fan of musicals and I thoroughly enjoyed this upbeat film, but it had one well-documented flaw: The filmmakers decided to have the actors provide the singing voices for their characters. In some cases this worked out okay, but in others -- Pierce Brosnan, I'm looking at you -- it did not. Unfortunately, it was a noble experiment that just didn't work, and I would love to know who made this decision. Was it executive producers Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson? I can't help but imagine that someday somebody will have the idea of releasing a new version of Mamma Mia! in which the singing is re-dubbed by... well, singers.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (12/5/10) Fiction (2009 **1/2) Written by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith. Prejudiced Zombie-fighter Elizabeth Bennet first hates, then falls for the proud Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. First of all, I applaud this book as a concept. Grahame-Smith took Austen's beloved public domain novel and added roughly 20% new material. The result was postmodern and (as the back cover blurb suggests) considerably more fun to read than the Jame Austen's original book, which I forced myself to read fifteen years ago for purposes of impressing a girl. At the time I think I convinced myself (and her) that I enjoyed the book. This time around, and in part because of the contrast with zombie-killing action, I found Ms. Austen's storytelling and prose to be... well, boring. Here's a summary of a dramatic pattern that was repeated several times: (1) Someone agonizes at length about a letter they want to write; (2) Someone writes said letter; (3) Letter is delivered, sometimes with great delay; (4) Letter is responded to; (5) Letter's response is thought about or discussed with a confidente at considerable length. Quite frankly, this was not a particularly good substitute for action. Thanks to Grahame-Smith's contributions, a new dynamic was introduced: I found myself wading through page after page of boring prose just waiting for the new material to appear. When it did, it was often over far too soon. Several times as I read I wished the new/modified text had been highlighted in some way so I could tell what was new and what was original.
Bright Lights, Big City (12/6/10) Fiction (1984 ***1/2) Written by Jay McInerney. A young emotionally crippled fact checker at a high-profile magazine snorts, sleezes and stumbles into a downward moral spiral. This book has a certain notoriety as one of the few novels written in the second person, and believe it or not, that was primarily why I bought it months ago at a library book sale. After enough time on the shelf that it's cover was dusty, I eventually got around to reading it during a long flight. I'd expected Bright Lights, Big City to be highly stylized and full of punchy early 80's prose. I also expected it to be the kind of book that features a despicable main character who engages in scene after scene of cringe-inducing depravity. Surprisingly, I really enjoyed it and found the unnamed (he is you, after all) main character to be fairly relatable and sympathetic. I wasn't unaware, however, of how the author achieved that goal, mainly through "pet the dog" moments and a few heaping shovelfuls of emotional manipulation. Shockingly, it worked.
All Star Superman, Vol. 2 (12/7/10) Graphic Novel (2007-08 ***1/2) Written by Grant Morrison, illustrated by Frank Quitely, originally published in All Star Superman issues 7-12. Lex Luthor has poisoned Superman and the clock is running down. But can the Man of Steel finish all 12 Herculean tasks before he expires? Grant Morrison is such a frustrating writer and I had all but given up on him. In fact, in my most recent reviews of one of his books (Batman R.I.P.) I swore off him altogether. But then he goes and produces an amazing series like this, each page written in a touching, elegant, straightforward style. As was the case in the first volume, his text was complimented perfectly with Quitely's drawings. Bravo.
The Walking Dead: Season 1 (12/7/10) TV-AMC (2010 ***1/2) Series created by Frank Darabont, based on the comic by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard, starring Andrew Lincoln, Jon Bernthal and Sarah Wayne Callies. Deputy Rick Grimes awakes from a coma to find himself in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Having read earlier this year all 13 volumes (and counting) of the Walking Dead comic, it's hard not to make a comparison between the AMC TV series and the comic on which it was based, which is perhaps unfair, since they are very different mediums. Having said that, though I've been a loyal reader of the comic book, I'm enjoying the TV show more. The characters are more richly developed and the writing is generally stronger. Evidently from the ratings, reviews and press this show has been receiving, I'm not alone in my praise. The first season was short, only six episodes long, a reflection of the gamble AMC took (and won). It will be interesting to see how the series progresses and how many of the storylines from the comic book find their way into the show.
Superman: Earth One (12/9/10) Graphic Novel (2010 ***) Written by J. Michael Straczynski, illustrated by Shane Davis. The origin of Superman is retold for the 534th time, this time by the creator of Babylon 5. I suspect this may have been one of those high-concept projects, the equivalent of "stunt casting." I didn't watch the Babylon 5 series, so Straczynski's name didn't really impress me. In terms of the superman myth, this book didn't drift too far from previous versions, and in fact I'm hard-pressed to say what the real point of this book was, since it didn't offer a significantly original angle. I think my favorite alternate reality version of Superman remains Kurt Busiek's 2005 book, Superman: Secret Identity, which I thought hit the Kryptonian nail on the head.
Love Fights, Vol. 1 (12/10/10) Graphic Novel (2004 **1/2) Written and illustrated by Andi Watson. In a world where superheroes fly through the air and their battles disrupt public transportation service, non-supers living in their shadow still manage to fumble into (and out of) love. Conceptually I really like Andi Watson's body of work, a series of economically-produced comics collected into graphic novels. I look at his work and I see a model for my own future projects. However, every time I've actually read one of his books I've been underimpressed by his writing. This book definitely fell into the "I wanted to like it more" category. In spite of that, I was engaged just enough by this book that I've already ordered the second volume... but it may be telling that I ordered a used copy.
I Die At Midnight (12/11/10) Graphic Novel (2000 **1/2) Written and illustrated by Kyle Baker. Set on the eve of Y2K, a lovesick man swallows a bottle of pills moments before the woman who dumped him tells him she wants him back. Ringing in at just 64 pages, calling this book a "graphic novel" is a bit of a stretch. It's more like a "graphically illustrated short story." This was my first exposure to Baker's work and it's clear he's stronger as an artist than as a writer. While I recognize that the story wasn't meant to be taken too seriously, the main character and his motivations simply weren't plausible. As I read this book I was frequently reminded of Mad Magazine, partly because of the pseudo comic presentation and in part because Baker's illustrative style resembled that magazine's artists.
Superman: Last Son (12/13/10) Graphic Novel (2006-08 ***1/4) Written by Geoff Johns and Richard Donner, illustrated by Adam Kubert. When a young Kryptonian boy arrives on Earth, married couple Clark Kent and Lois Lane adopt him, but when Christopher Kent's true origins are revealed, earth becomes a battleground. This story was originally published in serial form in Action Comics #844-846, 851 and Action Comics Annual #11, and it's well worth reading. It's unclear what exactly director Richard Donner's contributions were, but regardless of the collaborative process, the story was strong, even if not completely free of plot holes and potential continuity Pandora's boxes.
The Paper Chase (12/13/10) TV-FMC (1973 ***) Directed by James Bridges, screenplay by Bridges, based on the novel by John Jay Osborn Jr., starring Timothy Bottoms, Lindsay Wagner and John Houseman. "You come in here with a skull full of MUSH and you leave thinking like a LAWYER." Student James T. Hart attempts to survive his first year at Harvard in spite of falling into a relationship with his inscrutable professor's daughter. I loved this film (and the spin-off TV series) when I was a teenager. There was something exciting to me about the intensity of ivy league academics. Watching it now for the first time in years, there were a few story / characterization problems, but the attraction remained. More than anything, it made me want to read (re-read?) the original novel. One final thought: Because they're both set at Harvard, The Paper Chase might make an interesting double-feature along with this year's The Social Network.
Elements of Fiction Writing -- Conflict, Action & Suspense (12/15/10) Nonfiction (1999 ***) Written by William Noble. This book takes the basic principles of writing fiction (voice, point of view, pacing) and focuses them toward the specific goal of writing action and suspense. Focused on the fundamentals, this would be an excellent book for a novice writer. My only real gripe was that I frequently felt I was being talked down to, though that may have ultimately been because I was not Noble's target audience. It wasn't that the material was "dumbed down," exactly, but it seemed to be geared toward a high school or college freshman writing student.
It Happened Tomorrow (12/16/10) TV-TCM (1944 ***) Directed by Rene Clair, starring Dick Powell, Linda Darnell and Jack Oakie. When a newspaper reporter gets hold of tomorrow's newspaper it's more of a curse than a blessing. I'm a sucker for any movie with a time-travel premise, which is why I recorded this film. Though it's not a cinematic masterpiece by any stretch, or what I'd call a "Lost Classic," it was a fun romp and more entertaining than I'd expected.
Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorow? (12/16/10) Comics (2010 ***) Written by Alan Moore, Illustrated by Curt Swan, Dave Gibbons and Rick Veitch. This book collects four Moore-penned issues of Superman, Action Comics and DC Comics Presents from 1985-1986. The 1985 Crisis on Infinite Earths event fundamentally changed the DC Universe (not entirely for the better), erasing 50 years of restrictive continuity in exchange for a fresh start. That is an important context for reading the stories in this collection, which starts with the last pre-Crisis (Julius Schwartz) Superman story before John Byrne's Man of Steel "reboot" in 1986. Of the three stories contained in this book, it was the strongest. The "point" of this book appears to be to capitalize on the popularity of Superman graphic novels and Alan Moore. In all honesty, Alan Moore and Superman made for a strange (far from perfect) union. Still, for comic nerds (like me), it was fun to see Curt Swan's pencils inked by George Perez and Kurt Schaffenberger, as well as seeing Moore's writing illustrated by Dave Gibbons, a pair that worked together on Watchmen, also published in the mid-1980's.
Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? (12/17/10) Comics (2010 ***1/2) Written by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Andy Kubert and various artists. Originally published in serial form in 1989, 1996 and 2009. Created in the mold of Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, this collection of Gaiman-penned stories starts with a longish (two-issue) "final" Batman story, followed by several short stand-alone stories. Gaiman's voice is strong and easy to identify, and it's also a good match for Batman as a character, in stark contrast to the mismatch between Alan Moore and Superman I noted in the previously similarly-titled Superman collection. I couldn't help but think that part of that reason Gaiman was so well suited to writing for Batman is that the Dark Knight Detective is so very similar tonally to Gaiman's Morpheus (better known as Sandman).
My Name is Nobody (12/18/10) Alitalia Flight 621 (LAX to Rome) (1973 ***) Directed by Tonino Valerii, screenplay by Ernesto Gastaldi, based (according to the credits) on an "idea" by Sergio Leone, starring Henry Fonda and Terence Hill. An aging gunfighter with a target on his back meets an uncouth, bean-eating fan with a lightning fast draw. I was delighted to see this film on the menu of our in-flight video system. It and its sequels were favorites growing up, as they were often the second and third features at the drive-in. Particularly evocative was the Ennio Morricone soundtrack. Sergio Leone's "idea" of combining a gritty Clint Eastwood-style spaghetti western with physical comedy wasn't an obvious one, but it was inspired. I'm curious what role the "Trinity" films played in Italian culture. During our vacation in Rome I saw film posters for the series for sale in a street market.
Dinner for Schmucks (12/18/10) Alitalia Flt 621 (LAX to Rome) (2010 **) Directed by Jay Roach, starring Steve Carell, Paul Rudd and Zach Galifianakis. Climbing the corporate ladder often requires you to do things you don't want to do, like inviting a stuffed mouse artist to a dinner so your colleagues can poke fun. Some movies are best suited for viewing on an airline six-inch video display built into the back of the seat of the person in front of you. This is such a movie. Thing is, I like all the people in the film (well, not ALL of them, but you know what I mean) as well as some of Jay Roach's other films. I think the reason this film didn't work lay in the timid handling of the main character. Though I haven't seen the original French version, I imagine it probably took the central idea much further and spent less effort keeping Paul Rudd's character from being too unlikable early in the film.
Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets (12/21/10) Essays (2010 ***1/2) Written by Dick Cavett. This book contains pieces that were originally published in Cavett's New York Times online column. The subjects of the essays broke down into the following three categories: (1) Personal reflections; (2) Political commentary related to the 2008 election; and (3) Anecdotes related to famous guests on his talk shows. In the third category, nobody drops names like Dick Cavett, though it seemed Groucho's was mentioned far more than the others. It was occasionally obvious (and self-indicated) that the columns were produced on a deadline. Some were meatier than others, but all were well-written and it's too bad Dick Cavett hasn't written more books. On a personal note, this was my first Amazon Kindle (e-book) purchase and read, and I found the experience to be very positive.
Wishin' and Hopin': A Christmas Story (12/24/10) Novella (2009 **1/2) Written by Wally Lamb. Fifth grader Felix Funicello must survive Catholic School and the dreaded Christmas pageant. I loved Lamb's 1992 book, She's Come Undone, but was disappointed by his 1998 follow-up I Know This Much is True. Wishin' and Hopin' was definitely a lightweight offering compared to those books. Unfortunately, though it was tonally comic, I never laughed aloud. I also kept waiting for Felix, the main character and narrator, to show evidence of change, something he never did. The book also suffered because its nativity play as dramatic climax territory was covered with far greater emotional impact (and humor) by John Irving in A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989). I can't help but wonder what influence that earlier book had on Lamb, either consciously or unconsciously.
Was Superman a Spy?: And Other Comic Book Legends Revealed (12/25/10) Nonfiction (2009 ***1/2) Written by Brian Cronin. Much of the material in this book was originally presented as a feature in Cronin's blog,Comics Should be Good! Organizationally, the book was divided into three sections: DC, Marvel and "Other" Comics Companies. Being a life-long comics fan (and having read some of Cronin's columns before), I was aware of about half the information presented. I admired Cronin's clean, clearly-written prose. The bottom line with this book is that if you are a comic collector (possibly of a certain age...) this is the book for you. If not, then it will probably seem like a lot of nerdy gibberish.
Chipmunk Seeks Squirrel: A Modest Bestiary (12/28/10) Short Fiction (2010 **1/2) Written by David Sedaris, with illustrations by Ian Falconer. This volume collects a set of short stories featuring animals acting very human. I recently watched Sedaris' appearance on The Daily Show, and in his interview with Jon Stewart Sedaris acknowledged that the stories in this collection were written over the course of several years in-between book tours and other projects. Though the title story (its end, anyway) resonated with me emotionally, it was the only one. Most of the stories were disappointing and left me with the sense that the anthropomorphic conceit could have been exploited more effectively if the stories themselves had been stronger. I was also left with a sneaking suspicion that this lightweight (fast read) collection was a deliberate commercial attempt to cash in on Sedaris' name.
Island of the Blue Dolphins (12/30/10) Novel (1960 ***1/2) Written by Scott O'Dell. When a 13-year-old native girl named Karana finds herself alone on an island off the coast of California, she learns to survive and thrive, both physically and spiritually. This book, nominally written for children, probably appears an odd choice for me, but it was recommended by my wife who loved it as a little girl. When I was halfway through I told my wife my plot prediction for the rest of the book. She just smiled and reminded me that the book had won the Newbery Medal when it was first published. Of course I was very wrong, and the book's narrative took a much higher, richer path than the one I'd laid out. It made me question my own storytelling skills, not necessarily a bad thing. What was most amazing is that the book was based on an actual woman, though according to my wife the real Karana's fate was far less upbeat than the end of her fictionalized story.
Total Control: The Monkees Michael Nesmith Story (12/30/10) Biography (2005 **) Written by Randi L. Massigill. An update of his 1997 book, Massingill covers the ups, downs and general dickishness of "Papa Nez," the man in the green wool hat. As a fan of Nesmith (his Elephant Parts video album served as model for the TV shows I produced in college), I would rather have not learned as much dirt about my hero as this book had to offer. I don't dispute the facts, as many of them are a matter of the public record, but I was frequently put off by the amateurishness of the writing, and was surprised that Massigill didn't smooth out some of the clunkier passages for the 2005 edition. Aside from all that, I did appreciate the book as a research effort, and much of the information was interesting to me and put some of what I knew into perspective, such as the fact that Nesmith didn't participate in some of the Monkees reunion tours because he was otherwise occupied by multiple legal battles. In the end, Michael Nesmith remains an enigmatic figure, and I won't be surprised if he still has a few tricks up his sleeves.