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2011 Journal

 

A word about the ratings system used

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

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

****

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

***1/2

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

***

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

**1/2

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

**

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

*

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

 

January

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1/3/11) Novel (1876 ***1/4) Written by Mark Twain. A scrappy, clever, superstitious young scamp in St. Petersburg, Missouri pisses off the murdering Injun Joe and gets himself and his girlfriend lost in a cave. Judging this book by contemporary standards, Twain committed numerous literary atrocities such as: an intrusive narrator; a frequently-shifting point-of-view; an awkward dramatic climax; racially insensitive language and characterizations; a secondary character (Huck Finn) who temporarily takes over the book; sexist and misogynistic female characterizations; and (finally) entire chapters that don't contribute directly the primary narrative or move it forward. In spite of all this, and in spite of the fact that I was frequently bored, when the book was cooking on all four cylinders it was thoroughly engaging. I would love to learn more about the writing of this book, particularly Twain's influences. My guess is that it began as a collection of short stories about the same character and at a certain point Twain decided to turn it into a novel. This would explain why so many of the chapters work as self-contained pieces.
The Other Guys (1/5/11) Alitalia Flt 620 (Rome to LAX) (2010 **) Directed by Adam McCay, starring Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg and Steve Coogan, with support by Michael Keaton, Eva Mendes, Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson. After the death of New York City's favorite supercops, a mismatched pair of detectives tackle corporate crime and attempt to become heroes. This film was a misfire from beginning to end, but frankly that's the kind of movie well suited for watching in-flight. Ultimately, a lot of the film's attempts at humor (Wahlberg's temper tantrums, Ferrell's verbal abuse of his wife) made the characters unlikable and just weren't funny.
About Schmidt (1/5/11) Alitalia Flt 620 (Rome to LAX) (2002 ***1/4) Directed by Alexander Payne, based on the novel by Louis Begley, starring Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney and Kathy Bates. When the wife of a recently-retired insurance executive dies, he must re-evaluate his life and make amends with his daughter. At various times in our lives, we often find ourselves wondering whether or not we're living an authentic existence, and this character study taps into that universal self-examination. As a native Omahan, it was nice to see my city and my people depicted on screen with incredible fidelity; Hollywood often overlooks the people living in the middle of the country. Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates were terrific and they had great chemistry. My only real qualm with About Schmidt came at the end, when it was ambiguous (to me, anyway) whether or not Warren Schmidt's transformation was sincere.
Lovely, Still (1/10/11) Netflix (2009 ***) Written and directed by Nicholas Fackler, starring Martin Landau, Ellen Burstyn, Adam Scott and Elizabeth Banks. An elderly man working as a bagger in a supermarket goes on a date with a wonderful woman. Shot primarily in Omaha, Nebraska (my hometown), this $5 million movie written and directed by a 23-year-old was better than I'd expected. Given Fackler's youth, I suspect the Director of Photography contributed greatly to the look of the film. My connection with Lovely, Still is personal: my father (Dan Boylan) created and provided several paintings used (and prominently featured) in the film, but he was not included in the credits, even though practically half the residents and businesses of Omaha were. This oversight pisses me off more than you can possibly imagine, and so while I wish young Fackler the best, I kindly invite the film's producers to go fuck themselves.
The King's Speech (1/10/10) Screener DVD (2010 ****) Directed by Tom Hooper, screenplay by David Seidler, starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter. King George VI suffers from a stammer, and only an eccentric speech therapist can help give England's people the monarch they need in the dire days leading up to WWII. This film is a frontrunner for the Best Film Oscar, and deservedly so. The performances were fantastic and the story was gripping. It seemed to have the right mix of strong characters and historical drama. With the Golden Globes coming up this weekend it will be interesting to see how The King's Speech stands at the end of the night.
When in Rome (1/11/11) Netflix (2010 **) Directed by Mark Steven Johnson, starring Kristen Bell and Josh Duhamel, with supporting performances by Anjelica Huston, Danny DeVito and plenty of other recognizable faces. A young curator in Rome for her sister's wedding meets a good-looking guy, gets drunk and invites the curse of the "fountain of love." And hilarity ensues. My wife has already apologized for renting this movie, selected mainly because of our recent trip to Rome. To her I said simply this: The script was terrible, but the film itself had some moments, due largely to the supporting cast. I like Kristen Bell, but she didn't quite have the star power to carry a film. Then again, neither do I.
True Grit (1969) (1/13/11) TV-TCM (1969 ***1/4) Directed by Henry Hathaway, based on the novel by Charles Portis, starring John Wayne, Kim Darby and Glen Campbell. When Mattie Ross' father is gunned down, she hires a drunken, cantankerous U.S. Marshall named Rooster Cogburn to track down the killer. With the new version by the Coen Brothers in the theaters right now (and my wife itching to see it), it was fun to watch the 1969 version. This film started out a little clunky, with production values and directing that reminded me of a made-for-TV movie, but I'll be damned if it didn't turn into a surprisingly entertaining film. I thought I'd seen it in my childhood, but apparently I didn't: nothing in the film rang any bells.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1/14/11) Novel (1884 ***1/2) Written by Mark Twain. When Huck Finn's father wants the $6,000 his son wound up with at the end of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, young Huck fakes his own death and lights out for a life on the mighty Mississippi. There are undoubtedly many who will fault me for not giving this American classic anything less than a full four out of four stars, but let's be fair: (1) The duke and the dauphin characters were amusing at first but they occupied a third of the book and eventually wore out their welcome; and (2) there was an interminably long sequence in which Huck and Tom conspired to break the runaway slave Jim out of a cabin in the most convoluted way possible, doing little or nothing to advance the plot. I loved the flavor of Twain's writing, but by modern standards his plotting skills left something to be desired. On another note, Huckleberry Finn made headlines while I was reading it due to the publication of an edition in which the n-word has been replaced throughout by the word "slave." I understand the arguments against modifying a classic in a way clearly analogous to the Catholic Church ordering the replacement of the genitalia on Roman statues with fig leaves. However, as I read the book, the frequent occurrences of the offending word were distracting and probably affected my enjoyment of the book.
Duck Soup (1/15/11) TV-TCM (1933 ***) Directed by Leo McCarey, starring the 4 Marx Brothers: Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo, with Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Gloria Teasdale. The new leader of Freedonia madly marches his people into a shooting war. The hallmark of the Marx Brothers films was an infectious lunacy. Though it had its moments, Duck Soup didn't quite hit the heights of some of their other films.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (1/15/11) Glendale Mann 10 (2010 ***) Directed by David Yates, starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint. Following the Dumbledore's death, Harry Potter and his friends embark on a search for the remaining Horcruxes, magical tokens that are the key to defeating Lord Voldemort. Maybe I was just tired the night we watched it, but I was quite disappointed by this installment in the series, partly for the same reason I was disappointed by the first 2/3 of the book on which it was based: Watching Harry, Hermione and Ron wander about aimlessly with no real idea what they were doing just wasn't very entertaining. Even the action set pieces seemed to fall flat for me.
Inception (1/16/11) Netflix (2010 ***) Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page. In order to plant the seed of an idea, a man leads a crack team several dream levels deep, bending time, gravity and narrative coherence in the process. You know those sci fi movies where they stop in the middle of the action and explain what's going on? Imagine that happening about every five minutes for two hours. I'd heard from everyone who'd seen this how mind-blowingly complex the story was. After that build-up, I was a bit let down, mostly because the dream "levels" seemed arbitrary and weren't all that visually interesting to me. Also, the fact that the dramatic conflict of each of the levels boiled down to the team being chased by guns seemed repetitious. Also (minor spoiler ahead), the ever-present "is this all a dream?" question implied early on wasn't (in my view) ever resolved properly, with Christopher Nolan leaving us with a deliberately ambiguous final image. Many have said they wanted to watch Inception a second (or third) time to get all the meaning, but in my case I think I got everything I needed the first time around. But to be fair, watching it on DVD with subtitles undoubtedly helped.
Love Fights, Vol. 2 (1/17/11) Graphic Novel (2004 **) Written and illustrated by Andi Watson. Set in a world of superheroes, comic books and scandal mags, the true parentage of The Flamer's love child is revealed... sort of. I'm kicking myself a little for ordering this second volume. I didn't care much for the first one, but I was just barely interested enough in the story to order the second. It was very disappointing, particularly its resolution. The genre-mixing book also took an odd turn in the middle of the second volume with an unexpected and narratively unecessary editorial about the mid-80's DC Comics' Crisis on Infinite Earths. Thought it might have been a good story element in another book, it was tonally wrong for this one and seemed like a shout-out to comic fans more than anything else.
Cabaret (1/17/11) TV-TCM (1972 ***) Directed by Bob Fosse, starring Liza Minnelli, Michael York and Joel Grey. American Sally Bowles works, plays and loves in 1931 Berlin. I hadn't watched this film in years and I'd forgotten how downbeat and depressing it was at points, though punctuated with memorable, upbeat music. Liza Minnelli was pretty amazing, though, and it doesn't surprise me that her gutsy performance won her an Oscar for best actress. Historically, Cabaret occupies an interesting spot in film history because it won more Oscars than (clearly superior film) The Godfather, including Best Director, though that more famous film did win Best Picture.
Watch the Skies!: Science Fiction, the 1950s and Us (1/18/11) TV-TCM (2005 ***) Written and directed by Richard Schickel, narrated by Mark Hamill, featuring inteviews with Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Ridley Scott and James Cameron. Four famous directors guide us through the highlights of 1950s B-Movie Science Fiction. This otherwise lightweight documentary which is most impressive because of the interview subjects they were able to gather.
Forever Ealing (1/20/11) TV-TCM (2002 **1/2) Directed by Andrew Snell, narrated by Daniel Day-Lewis, featuring interviews with Sir Richard Attenborough, Martin Scorsese, Terry Gilliam and others. Best known for its "Ealing comedies," many featuring Sir Alec Guiness, the Ealing Studio (located outside London) at one point was run by Day-Lewis' grandfather, Sir Michael Balcon. This documentary provided a comprehensive (and I suppose adequate) overview of its history, up to the early 2000s. Like many documentaries, it's best suited for those already interested in its subject. For myself, with only a limited awareness of the English studio, there wasn't enough of a core story (or heart) to draw me in.
The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1/20/11) TV-TCM (1972 ***1/2) Directed by John Houston, starring Paul Newman, Victoria Principal, Roddy McDowall, Jacqueline Bisset and Ava Gardner as Miss Lily Langtry. A self-proclaimed judge brings law west of the Pecos, guided by a vision of a theatrical angel. This was one of my favorite movies when I was in my twenties, and I tended to watch it every couple of years for a long time. I still love it, though my cynical older self wondered a few times if Newman wasn't trying to recapture his earlier success with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This was particularly strong with the odd montage backed by Andy Williams singing "Marmalade, Molasses and Honey," which was directly reminiscent of "Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head." Still, that minor criticism (if it's even a criticism) aside, there's something about this film that really appeals to me on a romantic level, with Roy Bean standing tall, even with a bent neck, as the romantic ideal of the old west. I love the idea of a man driven through his life by a crystal clear, albeit sentimental, vision of perfection. And that's why I'll always be more of a romantic than a pragmatist.
Waking Sleeping Beauty (1/21/11) Netflix (2009 ***1/4) Directed by Don Hahn. The years 1984-1994 marked a rebirth at Disney Animation Studios, and this documentary, produced by insiders, examines the forces at work and the people on the front lines while also providing an alternately loving and unflinching look at the turf war waged between Roy Disney, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. I loved that most of the footage in this documentary came not from talking heads but from archival home movie footage. The documentary provided a wonderful sense of being inside those walls, through ups and downs. Working (as I do) at Dreamworks Animation and ultimately for Jeffrey Katzenberg, it wasn't hard for me to extrapolate between my daily life at our animation studio and what went on decades before at Disney. As a lifelong animation fan, I watched all the Disney animated films discussed in the documentary during their original release, including Oliver and Company and The Great Mouse Detective, and it was highly satisfying to me to get the non-sanitized glimpses of the studio working conditions during that period.
Tom Sawyer Abroad (1/22/11) Novel (1894 **) Written by Mark Twain. In search of high adventure, Tom, Huck and Jim sneak aboard an airship and sail across the Atlantic Ocean, where they use their elevated vantage point to philosophize at length about the world at the end of the 19th century. At roughly 34,000 words (compared to Tom Sawyer's 72,000 and Huckleberry Finn's 110,000), this third book in the Tom Sawyer series is most kindly described as a novella. While I have no evidence to support this claim, I suspect Twain wrote it (coming twenty years after the first book's publication) for the express purpose of making money. It's not a bad little book (as Linus Van Pelt might say), but it's certainly nothing much when compared to Twain's earlier two books. It ended quite abruptly as well, and I highly suspect that Twain had originally meant for it to be a far longer adventure, but realized along the way that it wasn't going anywhere interesting and so he killed it.
The Ricky Gervais Show, Season 1 (1/22/11) Netflix (2010 ***1/4) (13 episodes) Directed by Craig Kellman, featuring the voice talents of Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington. This half-hour show, originally aired on HBO, took Gervais' famous iPod podcasts and illustrated them in a style highly reminiscent of The Flintstones. The one word I would choose to describe the humor of this show is "infectious. It's a humor that creeps up on you and reminded me of watching Mystery Science Theater 3000 way back when. The source of 99% of the comedy came from Karl Pilkington making an off-kilter statement and Gervais and Merchant responding to his absurd notions. True, sometimes it felt a bit like bullying, but thanks to Pilkington's non-reactions to their barbs it never crossed the line into mean-spiritedness, something Gervais was accused of recently when he hosted The Golden Globes. The biggest question my wife and I had after watching the show was: "Is Karl Pilkington doing a bit or is he really like that?"
Medium, Season 7 (1/22/11) TV-CBS (2010-2011 ***) Series created by Glenn Gordon Caron, starring Patricia Arquette, Jake Weber and Miguel Sandoval. After 129 episodes, Allison Dubois, unofficial psychic angel for the Phoenix district attorney finally dreams her last dream. Even though Medium survived a move from NBC to CBS, its ratings apparently finally eroded enough to warrant cancellation. Believe it or not, I watched this show loyally for all seven seasons. Though my wife abandoned it a couple years back and she and I used to play "predict the ending" when she was still watching, I kept tuning in. I think it got to the point where even though it often felt like the same story being told over and over again, watching Medium felt like a comforting visit with an old friend. It's always a little sad when a show you've been watching for years gets cancelled, but perhaps it was time for us all to move on.
Adam's Rib (1/24/10) TV-TCM (1949 ***1/2) Directed by George Cukor, screenplay by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, starring Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Holliday, Tom Ewell and David Wayne. Married attorneys Pinky and Pinkie Bonner argue opposite sides of a case where a woman catches her husband in the arms of a floozy and shoots him. The central premise of this film was that in 1949 women were treated as second-class citizens, even in the eyes of the law, where they legally should have been considered equals. The film explored with great humor (and occasional darkness) the power dynamics of male/female relationships sixty-plus years ago. In many ways that dynamic hasn't changed all that much, and so the film is still relevant today, though the best part of the film is not its plot but watching Tracy and Hepburn together onscreen. On a completely different note, if you watch this film, beware! Cole Porter's prominently featured song "Farewell Amanda" will burn itself into your brain for days afterwards!
They Call MeTrinity (1/26/11) Netflix (1970 ***) Directed by Enzo Barboni, starring Terence Hill, Bud Spencer and Farley Granger. The bean-eatin', fast-drawin', blue-eyed right hand of the devil from My Name is Nobody is back, this time mixing it up with his brother Bambino. Growing up, I watched all the Trinity movies because they were often shown as the third feature at the Omaha drive-in theater we frequented when I was a kid. I suspect the theater owners may have owned their own prints, they were shown so much. Many, many years later it was fun to re-watch this film (it's sequel is next up in my Netflix queue) and even though it's not exactly great cinema, I was able to reclaim just a hint of the childhood affection I once held for these two silly, cartoonish characters.
Tom Sawyer, Detective (1/27/11) Novel (1896 **1/2) Written by Mark Twain. Based on an actual story (or so Twain would have us believe), Huck Finn narrates as he and Tom Sawyer travel back down the Mississippi to Tom's uncle Silas' place and solve a murder mystery involving twins. At a mere 23,000 words, this book was the briefest of Twain's four Tom Sawyer books, all of which I read on my new Amazon Kindle. It's interesting to note that this book made no reference to the aeronautical adventures of Tom Sawyer Abroad ever taking place. Considering the fantastical nature of that book, I'm not surprised. Judging it as a book, Tom Sawyer, Detective frequently captured Huck Finn's voice and the flavor of the first two books, but it also felt like a short story that had been padded to book length.
The Golden Age (1/27/11) Graphic Novel (1995 ***) Written by James Robinson, illustrated by Paul Smith. In the years after WWII, the retired heroes of the past put back on their masks and join together to face the greatest villain the world has ever known. This was originally published as an Elseworld story, meaning it took existing characters in the DC archives and mucked about with them outside the normal continuity. It was clearly a reaction to (or an effort to capitalize on the success of) Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' landmark Watchmen book from nearly a decade before. I hadn't read this book in several years, and sadly it didn't hold up as well as I'd expected. More than anything it made me want to re-read some of the original golden age stories, reprinted in the back pages of the 100 Page Super Spectaculars from the 1970's. Finally, and I'm rarely compelled to comment on printing quality, but in my edition the colors used for some character narration were so dark it was nearly impossible to read the text, interfering greatly with my enjoyment of the book.
Paris (1/27/11) Graphic Novel (2007 **1/2) Written by Andi Watson, illustrated by Simon Gane. Set in the 1950s, a young American woman studying art in Paris is commissioned to paint a portrait and falls in love with her subject. I respect Watson for having managed to make a career out of producing simple, "Indie Film"-style stories in comic book form, which aligns with my own creative aspirations. That alignment was in fact my motivation for buying and reading this book. The story of Paris was considerably lighter weight than its potential, even with all its clever allusions to the art world. A very quick read, I would estimate the scope to be the equivalent of a 40-minute short film. I wish I found Andi Watson's writing more substantive or appealing, but I still applaud his continuing efforts doing what I someday hope to do myself.
Batman and Robin, Vol. 1: Batman Reborn (Deluxe Edition) (1/28/11) Comics (2010 ***1/4) Written by Grant Morrison, illustrated by Frank Quitely and Philip Tan. Former Robin Dick Grayson and Bruce Wayne's semi-evil son Damien bicker incessantly when they take over as the Dynamic Duo. Oh, Grant Morrison. You frustrate me so. After Batman: R.I.P. I had more or less written you off. But (as a friend pointed out) it appears there are really two Grant Morrisons: (A) the one who writes weird, hard-to-follow fourth-wall / altered perception shit and (B) the Grant Morrison who writes straightforward, interesting character-driven stories told clearly, as was the case in this volume. Batman Reborn actually contains two separate 3-issue story-arcs. The first illustrated by Quitely and the second illustrated by Tan. Oddly enough, the first was far easier to follow on the page, which I'll attribute to Quitely's storytelling skills as an artist, not a sudden shift in Morrison's writing style. It's funny how delicate the relationship between word, image and narrative coherence really is.
Waking Life (1/29/11) DVD (2001 ***1/2) Written and directed by Richard Linklater, featuring the voices and performances of Wiley Wiggins, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. A young man finds himself trapped in an ethereal world that he slowly realizes is a dream, possibly the ultimate one. This is a strange movie that falls comfortably within the boundaries of the "mindf*ck" genre, and it is one I'm sure will discovered by introspective young men and women over and over in the coming decades. I've heard it dismissed by people I respect as nothing more than undergrad-level philosophical rhetoric. Still, I must admit that my mind isn't naturally wired to easily comprehend much of the ideas expressed directly through dialogue, and yet those focused, earnest words created an oddly comforting aural texture. I particularly appreciated the application of rotoscoped animation in creating a surreal world that was a perfect match, both visually and thematically. Unlike most films, this one truly was a work of experimental art, but in spite of the disjointed styles and philosophical ramblings, Linklater took care to provide just enough of a narrative to keep it accessible enough to work as entertainment. I'm sure some would undoubtedly disagree with that statement and find Waking Life to be intellectually irritating and/or unwatchable. As for myself, in my mind I'm still that early-twenties wide-eyed youth who loved having "philosophical" discussions with his dorm friends and I imagine returning to watch this film periodically in the years to come.
The Adventures of Mark Twain (1/29/11) TV-TCM (1944 **1/2) Directed by Irving Rapper, starring Fredric March, Alexis Smith, Donald Crisp and Alan Hale, with John Carradine as Bret Harte. The life of Mark Twain is distilled, celebrated and fictionalized in the way only classic film biopics can get away with it. I'm pretty sure the actual Mark Twain bore little resemblance to the character in this film. The screenplay's depiction of him actually playing as a boy with fictional characters Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Jim the slave was a big tip-off. Still, even though I was aware of the manipulative, criminally whitewashing (pun intended) screenwriting techniques from the beginning, I was still pulled in emotionally.
99 Classic Movies for People in a Hurry (1/29/11) Comics (2010 *1/2) Written and illustrated by Thomas Wengelewski. As the title implies, this book contains pithy 4-panel cartoon summaries of 99 films. I'd read Henrik Lange's 90 Classic Books for People in a Hurry and appreciated its simplicity and audacity. This follow-up book, though a natural sequel, didn't have any of the energy of the first book, and nearly all the jokes missed the mark. Though it didn't represent much in the way of time commitment (I read it cover to cover in about 1/2 hour) I still regret wasting money on it.
True Grit (1/31/11) DWA Screening (2010 ***1/2) Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, based on the book by Charles Portis, starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Hailee Steinfeld. When Mattie Ross' father is gunned down, she hires a drunken, cantankerous U.S. Marshall named Rooster Cogburn to track down... Hey! Didn't I just review this film a couple weeks ago? Seriously, it was helpful to have watched the 1969 version so recently, as it made it very clear what the Coen brothers kept and what they discarded or improved. Surprisingly, they kept an awful lot; I was amazed by how similar the two films were, being virtually identical structurally, matching scene-for-scene. Overall, I did enjoy the newer version more, on nearly every level. However, it was hard to top John Wayne's performance in the original and I don't think Jeff Bridges quite managed to do that.

February

Trinity is Still My Name (2/1/11) Netflix (1971 ***) Written and directed by Enzo Barboni, starring Terence Hill, Bud Spencer and Harry Carey Jr. Trinity and Bambino are back and are coerced by their father into teaming up to become the worst horse thieves in the (Italian) American West. This sequel appeared a bit slicker than the previous film, and though it was very much a rehash story-wise, there was more of an emphasis on comedy set pieces over plot. Still, it was fun to revisit this drive-in theater favorite from my childhood. As I watched, I kept wondering if the characters might work well in animated form, but I doubt I'll ever know. And so we wave adios to Trinity and Bambino. Long may they ride!
The Great Dictator (2/1/11) TV-TCM (1940 ***1/2) Written and directed by Charles Chaplin, starring Chaplin, Paulette Goddard and Jack Oakie. Adenoid Hynkel, the power-hungry dictator of Tomania, looks suspiciously like a Jewish barber with amnesia, who in turn looks an awful lot like the little tramp from City Lights. It's hard to imagine the balls it took in the early days of WWII to create a comedy set largely in a Jewish ghetto based on despots bent on world domination and the annihilation of an entire group of people. I watched this film with a combination of respect and pure joy. It was hard to ignore its horrifying historical context enough to really appreciate the humor, though I did laugh quite a few times. It was also clear while watching it how much it must have been a key inspiration for Roberto Benigni's 1997 wonderful film, Life is Beautiful.
99 Classic TV Series for People in a Hurry (2/2/11) Comics (2010 *) Written and illustrated by Thomas Wengelewski. As the title suggests, nearly 100 television shows (most of them American) are summarized in four panels. This is the third book in this "People in a Hurry" series. I give the creator credit for taking a premise and running with it, but at this point it seemed like the writer/illustrator just didn't care. The text was spotted with typos, much of the text was made up of quotes (probably lifted from the internet). In about half the strips no attempt was made at humor, and several of the entries ended without even a notion of closure. Bad show, Nicotext (the publisher), bad show. You win the award for taking a good idea (as evidenced by the first book) and totally squandering it.
Murder by Death (2/3/11) TV-TCM (1976 **1/2) Directed by Robert Moore, screenplay by Neil Simon, starring Peter Falk, Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers and Truman Capote. The world's greatest detectives (or their carbon copies, anyway) gather at an eccentric millionaire's mansion for dinner... and a murder! I loved the concept: The crime-solving doppelgangers of Charlie Chan, Nick and Nora Charles, Sam Spade, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot are given a chance to team up and compete against each other. It was a chance to explore the character-driven mystery genre with humor and insight. I respect Neil Simon, but it seemed his screenplay wasn't quite up to the task and never quite took full advantage of its premise. However, in the final fifteen minutes, as the murderer was revealed, it got pretty darn close. And so, even though it floundered a bit and took awhile to get there, at least the film ended on a high note.
Camelot (2/7/11) TV-TCM (1967 ***) Directed by Joshua Logan, Music and Lyrics by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner, screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner, starring Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero. Three friends named Wart, Jenny and Lance experience joy, betrayal and heartache in a faraway kingdom. In spite of my 3-star review, I want you all to know I understand this isn't a great movie. Specifically, the directing was weak (with far too many zoom lensed extreme closeups), the running time was too long, the settings were often uninspired, and it had several dull passages that could have easily been trimmed. But, even saying all that, I love the music and the sentiment behind Camelot so damned much, that I couldn't help but enjoy myself much (if not all) of the time. I only wish the film had lived up to the potential of the original musical.
The Red Balloon (Le ballon rouge) (2/8/11) TV-TCM (1956 ***) Written and directed by Albert Lamorisse, starring Pascal Lamorisse. A Parisian boy befriends a magical red toy balloon and their unconventional relationship causes them to flee from their lives from an angry mob. As I recall, I saw this film a time or two when I was in Catholic grade school. It was frequently pulled out as a special "treat" on the last day before break. I can understand why it was as beloved as it was, though as an adult I couldn't quite embrace the film's final image.
The Black Stallion (2/11/11) TV-TCM (1979 ***1/2) Directed by Carroll Ballard, based on the novel by Walter Farley, starring Kelly Reno, Mickey Rooney and Teri Garr. A boy and a horse form a special bond while stranded on a desert island. I had never seen this film before, but it was one of my wife's childhood favorites -- she even had the movie poster on her bedroom wall! It's easy to see why she loved it so much. It truly was a special film, with beautiful cinematography and inspired performances. The story wasn't particularly complicated, but I imagine that was probably a function of the source material more than anything.
Exit Through the Gift Shop (2/11/11) Netflix (2010 ***1/4) Directed by Banksy, featuring Banksy, Thierry Guetta (MBW / Mr. Brainwash), Shepard Fairey and Space Invader. An anonymous underground street artist becomes the subject of an amateur filmmaker's documentary. Nothing is quite as it seems in this "documentary." The film straddles a wide line between a This is Spinal Tap "mockumentary" and the domain of literal documentary about the art world. Blurring the line between fact and fiction in documentary form has been done before, as in Orson Welles' F For Fake (1973). I was cued into the hoax-esque (Borat-like) dimension of the film prior to watching it, but in a sense that very component served as an illustration for the point the film was making. As clever and thought-provoking as it was at times, for me the execution of the film stopped well short of being brilliant. It's nominated for the Best Documentary Film at the Oscars at the end of this month; it will be interesting to see how it fares, and whether or not Banksy will be in attendance.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (2/12/11) TV-TCM (1949 **1/2) Directed by Tay Garnett, screenplay by Edmund Beloin, based on the novel by Mark Twain, starring Bing Crosby, Rhonda Fleming, William Bendix and Cedric Hardwicke as King Arthur. A 1912 auto mechanic falls off a horse and ends up transported to Camelot. It's funny how one's memory plays tricks on oneself: Before re-watching this film I would have sworn: (a) that the film was in black and white, not Technicolor; and (b) that it featured Ba-Ba-Ba-Bing crooning "Swinging On a Star." I was wrong on both counts. The film was fun enough, I suppose, but watching it again after all these years my final take-away was: "Holy cow! Rhonda Fleming was a real knockout!"
Introducing Jung: A Graphic Guide (2/12/11) Nonfiction (2004 ***) Written by Maggie Hyde, illustrated by Michael McGuinness. The life and theories of Carl Jung are presented in a clear, easy-to-read fashion, with plenty of illustrations. I have read several other books in the "Introducing..." series, but this one (so far) has been the most satisfying. I appreciated that Hyde's text was fairly straightforward, without the overt snark of the other books I'd read. I felt that I truly had gotten an introduction to a man who contributed several important ideas to the field of Psychology and then got increasingly weird as he got older.
New X-Men, Vol. 1 (2/13/11) Comics (2009 ***1/4) Written by Grant Morrison, illustrated by Frank Quitely and others. Professor X battles his twin sister and the X-Men battle the smallest Sentinels yet. This was the beginning of Grant Morrison's run on Marvel's flagship X-title, and this hardcover collection reprinted stories originally printed from 2001 and 2002. My love/hate relationship with Morrison's writing continues. In a note at the end of the collection, Morrison noted that he took much of his spiritual inspiration from the early 1980's Uncanny X-Men run written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by John Byrne. Having bought and read those seminal books in my teens, I could definitely see the influence and felt Morrison did a good job living up to the spirit of those books.
Rome, Season 1 (2/15/11) Netflix (2005 ***1/4) Series created by Bruno Heller, John Milius and William J. MacDonald, starring Kevin McKidd, Ray Stevensen, Ciarán Hinds and Polly Walker. Roman soldiers Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo hobnob with Julius Caesar, Pompey Magnus, Marc Antony and other Roman legends. This series ran for only two seasons on HBO. The behind-the-scenes DVD material was quite impressive, showing how the show was shot "on location" outside Rome, Italy at Cinecitta� studios. I admit with some embarrassment that Rome grabbed me relatively early on with its gratuitous full-frontal female nudity, but I stuck around for the dramatic situations and an appreciation for the fact that the drama was being told against a mostly historical accurate backdrop. Ultimately, this first season wasn't quite as strong as other HBO programs like The Sopranos or Six Feet Under, so will we keep watching? You bet your sweet toga! Knowing there were only two seasons produced makes that decision somewhat easier, since it reduces the commitment.
Night Wings: A Soulful Dreaming and Writing Practice (2/16/11) Nonfiction (2004 **) Written by Sally J. Nelson. Jungian dream analysis is introduced and plenty of exercises are described to allow the reader to capitalize on the creative bounty waiting to be released from the unconscious. I read this book as an assigned textbook for a UCLA Extension Dreams and Writing class taught by Deb Everson Borofka. I must admit that for Night Wing's first thirty pages or so I wanted to throw the book across the room and start reading a comic book. Though its subject matter is (nominally) factual, it was written in a frustratingly lyrical style that my brain kept wanting to slip away from, as though it were coated with olive oil. Imagine Virginia Woolf writing a book on automotive repair. Perhaps that effect was at least in part due to the ephemeral nature of its dream world subject, though there were certainly large sections of the book that I'm still convinced could have been trimmed to half their length. In spite of my brain's attention deficit, I persevered through to the end, and eventually I managed to learn a few potentially valuable concepts and techniques. Had the book not been assigned reading I'm not sure I would have made it through.
The Sea Hawk (2/16/11) TV-TCM (1940 ***1/2) Directed by Michael Curtiz, starring Errol Flynn, Brenda Marshall, Claude Rains and Flora Robson as Queen Elizabeth. The capture of a Spanish ship by handsome English privateer (pirate) Geoffrey Thorpe paves the way to war between two countries. It is always such a delight when I "discover" a classic film that is as fresh and truly entertaining as this one. I was especially impressed by Michael Curtiz' directing style, which seemed very contemporary. It was also clear from watching this movie why Errol Flynn was such a likable and popular movie star during that classic era.
What's New Pussycat? (2/17/11) TV-TCM (1965 **) Directed by Clive Donner and Richard Talmadge, written by Woody Allen, starring Peter O'Toole, Woody Allen, Romy Schneider and Peter Sellers as Dr. Fritz Fassbender. A Casanova with (a) an insatiable appetite for the ladies and (b) a girlfriend who wants him to get married takes his trouble to a crackpot psychoanalyst. This film is historically important because it was the first produced film written by Woody Allen. Though What's New Pussycat? had many of the makings of a good film, Mr. Donner's directing ranged from "blah" to "absolutely awful." In addition, the final "act" of the film (a rural sex-romp / go-car race that may have inspired much of Benny Hill's career) felt wholly stitched-on. It was as if the rest of the film had been shot, edited and tested poorly for a live audience, so a new ending was needed. Also, much of the audio was garbled and hard to follow; my enjoyment probably would have increased somewhat had it been close-captioned. In the end, the three best things about the movie may well have been Romy Schneider's adorable face, Ursula Andress' amazing body and that awesome and memorable theme song written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David and sung by Tom Jones.
Victor / Victoria (2/17/11) TV-TCM (1982 ***1/2) Directed by Blake Edwards, with music by Henry Mancini, starring Julie Andrews, James Garner, Robert Preston and Lesley Ann Warren. In 1934 Paris a starving classically-trained singer and her newfound gay friend concoct a scheme to become a "woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman." It's hard to believe this film is nearly 30 years old. Victor / Victoria played frequently in the early days of cable TV and I must have seen it a half-dozen times back then, but still, I'd forgotten how damned good it was. Blake Edwards passed away this past December at the age of 88, and his skill in co-writing and directing this film demonstrates why his death was such a loss. And it wasn't just empty entertainment and catchy tunes, either; given that this film was produced during the early days of the AIDS epidemic, its pro-gay themes were fairly gutsy. It was also quite clear from every frame of this film how much he loved his wife, Julie Andrews. Even though it was made a full 15 years after The Sound of Music, she was absolutely adorable, sexy, funny and downright radiant throughout.
The Fighter (2/19/11) Pasadena Arclight (2010 ***1/2) Directed by David O. Russell, starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo. Based on a true story, boxer Micky Ward has one thing holding him back from greatness: his crack-addicted older brother Dicky. This film is deservedly nominated for the Best Picture, though I doubt somehow that it will win it. Christian Bale's performance is certainly worthy, though, and I hope he gets some recognition. In contrast to the film's serious subject matter, there was also plenty of humor, particularly in the unlikely form of Micky and Dicky's seven bizarro sisters.
Laura (2/20/11) TV-FMC (1944 ***) Directed by Otto Preminger, starring Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb and Vincent Price. A tough cop investigates the gruesome murder of a dame and falls like a sap for her portrait. The last time I watched this movie was at the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto. I had remembered it as a better movie, but also how it played so much differently on a large screen in front of an audience. In particular, a couple of Dana Andrews' facial reactions had the crowd howling with laughter and reminded me personally very much of a young Steve Martin.
New X-Men, Vol. 2 (2/21/11) Comics (2009 ***1/4) Written by Grant Morrison, illustrated by Frank Quitely and various. Jean Grey's Phoenix powers slowly grow while her husband Cyclops and the White Queen carry on an affair in their minds. There's not much to say in this review that I didn't already say in my review of the first volume, other than to say that Morrison continued to do a noble job of remaining true to the Uncanny X-Men run from the early 1980's.
Rooster Cogburn (2/21/11) Netflix (1975 **1/2) Directed by Stuart Millar, screenplay by Martha Hyer, based on the character created by Charles Portis, starring John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn Anthony Zerbe and Richard Jordan. A cantankerous drunk U.S. Marshall joins up with a feisty preacher's daughter to track down her father's killers and recover a load of nitroglycerin before it's used for a bank robbery. This movie was decidedly not as strong as the original, and in many cases I wondered if I weren't watching the pilot for a prime-time TV series. In particular, the resolution of the main conflict between Cogburn and the men he fought was decidedly anti-climactic.
Saturday Night Live Backstage (2/21/11) TV-NBC (2011 ***1/4) Written and directed by Kenneth Bowser. NBC's Saturday Night went on the air in 1975 and has somehow managed to keep going, even if Gilbert Godfried describes its current incarnation as "a restaurant in a good location." I have watched the show nearly continuously since it began, though my watching got pretty spotty in the early 1990's. I felt that this show -- which many have argued was just an excuse to show a lot of clips -- was tailor suited for fans like me. There is absolutely a mystique to the show, which this special explored somewhat, talking about it in terms both reverent and also realistic, recognizing that it doesn't necessarily have the same teeth it once had. Then again, the rest of the television industry (Family Guy, South Park) never could have pushed the boundaries if SNL hadn't been there first.
One to Another (Chacun sa nuit) (2/22/11) Netflix (2006 *) Directed by Pascal Arnold and Jean-Marc Barr, starring Lizzie Brochere and Arthur Dupont. When Lucie's brother Pierre, with whom she had an incestuous relationship, is brutally murdered, she won't rest until she finds the killer. Ah, what better way to spend and evening than watching an "erotically-charged" independent French film that's based on true events? I'm not sure what possessed my wife to add this film to her Netflix queue, but I sincerely wish I had the hour and a half back that we spent watching it.
Footlight Parade (2/23/11) TV-TCM (1933 ***) Directed by Lloyd Bacon, starring James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell, with choreography by Busby Berkeley. Chester Kent (Cagney) is a workaholic with a talent for producing "prologues." And if you're wondering what those are, you should watch this movie to find out. This movie was produced "pre-code," and consequently it's a lot racier than many old movies from the 1930's. There were a couple of shots that definitely had my eyebrows raising. This also meant the movie was likely locked away in a vault, unseen for many years. As for the movie itself, the story isn't great, and you probably wouldn't do yourself much harm if you just fast forwarded to the three musical numbers at the end, particularly the second one.

March

The 3 Penny Opera (Die 3 Groschen-Oper) (3/2/11) TV-TCM (1931 **) Directed by Georg Wilhem Pabst, based on the musical written by Bertolt Brecht with music by Kurt Weill, starring Rudolf Forster, Carola Neher and Fritz Rasp. When Mack the Knife is jailed, his wife Polly, daughter of the Begger King, transforms his gang of thugs into bankers. My exposure to much of the music in this film (except for the well-known "Mack the Knife") was from the 1985 tribute album Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill. I must admit that in spite of the English language subtitles I had a difficult time following the plot of this film, and it ended on a decidedly different note than I'd expected.
Stan Lee Meets... (3/2/11) Comics (2007 **1/2) Written by Stan Lee and various, illustrated by various. This volume collects issues 1-5 of the Stan Lee Meets... miniseries, each issue of which contained a combination of new stories featuring Stan Lee and classic Marvel stories penned by Stan "the Man" himself. Let's face it, true believers: This series wasn't great classic literature, nor was it attempting to be. Stan Lee Meets... was a love-fest for a man rightfully beloved by many a comic book fan.
Cell (3/3/11) Novel (2006 **) Written by Stephen King. The zombie apocalypse begins with a pulse that reboots the operating systems of everyone talking on a cell phone. Full confession: I was in the Houston airport and realized (to my horror) that I'd lost my Amazon Kindle. And so I bought Cell so I'd have something to read to pass the time. In my life I have read a surprisingly large number of Stephen King's books and I have often been an apologist for King, defending his writing talents when others have referred to him as a hack. I hate to say it, but it was clear as I read this book that an attention to quality was missing. Even though King thanked Chuck Verrill for editing the book, I ran across several instances of editorial oversights I never could have gotten away with in a writing class. However, there is still something about King's storytelling skill that kept me reading, right all the way through the book to its ambiguous and frustrating ending.
Batman and Robin, Vol. 2: Batman Vs. Robin (3/3/11) Comics (2010 ***1/4) Written by Grand Morrison, illustrated by Cameron Stewart and Andy Clarke. With Bruce Wayne still missing and presumed dead, the contentious pairing of Dick Grayson (Batman) and Damian Wayne (Robin) continues. My beef with Morrison's sometimes hard-to-follow writing resurfaced briefly in the early pages of this book, and for a good fifteen or so pages I wasn't really sure what was going on. Then the obtuse writing gave way to clearer storytelling, and it was quite entertaining. The biggest surprise for me in reading this book was that Damian Wayne, who was introduced in the 2008 "Batman and Son" series / book, has grown on me a bit. I never would have thought that possible.
Broadcast News (3/3/11) TV-FMC (1987 ***1/2) Written and directed by James L. Brooks, starring William Hurt, Holly Hunter and Albert Brooks. The fast-paced world of Network News is an unlikely place for a romantic triangle, don't you think? This was James L. Brooks' follow-up to his 1983 film Terms of Endearment, which one 5 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. I was surprised to learn that my wife hates Broadcast News, mainly because of its ending. For me, the ending, though not entirely satisfying, was an honest extension of the characters involved.
Red (3/3/11) Netflix (2010 **1/2) Directed by Robert Schwentke, starring Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman and John Malkovich. A retired C.I.A. operative finds himself targeted for extermination, so he enlists former colleagues to help him figure out where the orders are coming from. If you're looking for mindless, shoot-em-up action, go no further. I enjoyed it on that level, particularly the pyrotechnic camerawork, but it was frequently apparent that I was watching something based on a graphic novel. I guess my beef is that even with a popcorn movie like this you still have to believe in it on some level. In the case of Red, there were an awful lot of plot holes that stretched my suspension of disbelief to the point where I no longer cared what happened.
Between Two Worlds (3/5/11) TV-TCM (1944 ***) Directed by Edward A. Blatt, screenplay by Daniel Fuchs, based on the play by Sutton Vane, starring John Garfield, Paul Henreid, Sydney Greenstreet and Edmund Gwenn. In war-torn London, a suicide and his wife pass through the curtain of death and find themselves taking a boat to eternity. There was a period around WWII when afterlife fantasies were the rage, movies like Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), Heaven Can Wait (1943), A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and others. This film, which I'd never seen before and watched solely because if its description, seemed more intense in its execution than any of the other ones I'd ever seen in this subgenre. Perhaps that was because it took the subject of individual sorting between heaven and hell so very seriously. The film's structure was quite odd: For the first half of the film most of the passengers didn't realize they'd passed on. Between Two Worlds felt tonally very much like an episode of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone (1959-64). It wouldn't surprise me one bit if I learned Serling had been inspired by this film.
The Member of the Wedding (3/6/11) TV-TCM (1952 **1/2) Directed by Fred Zinnemann, based on the play by Carson McCullers, starring Julie Harris, Ethel Waters and Brandon De Wilde. A twelve-year-old tomboy watchers her brother get married and longs to escape from her small town. Harris was 27 when she played pre-teen Frances "Frankie" Addams, a role she'd created on the stage. Obviously that kind of casting is easier to pull off on Broadway than on the silver screen, and I must admit that cognitive dissonance kept pulling me out of the film. It was impossible to forget I was watching a film adapted from a play. While I'm not a historian specializing in playwriting, I imagine McCullers' script to be representative of plays produced during a certain era. I don't really think what follows constitutes a "spoiler": I am a little embarrassed to admit this, but based on a couple of elements repeated through the film, I imagined a far bloodier ending in which poor little angst-riddled Frankie steals her father's pistol and massacres all the neighborhood girls in that exclusive club of theirs. Whew, it felt good to get that off my chest!
Swiss Family Robinson (3/7/11) TV-TCM (1960 ***1/4) Directed by Ken Annakin, based on the novel by Johann David Wyss, starring John Mills, Dorothy McGuire, James MacArthur, Tommy Kirk, Janet Munro and Kevin "Moochie" Corcoran. A Swiss family on their way to New Guinea is shipwrecked by pirates. As the family builds a new life for themselves, the arrival of an English girl turns the two older brothers into romantic rivals. I loved this movie when I was a kid, and it's easy to see why. Disney made a lot of cheesy live-action films in the 60s and 70s, but the production values on this family adventure were top-notch. Having said that, I was troubled by two things: (1) Women in this film were definitely portrayed as the weaker sex. I imagine Swiss Family Robinson sent many early-60s feminists into an uproar; (2) During the climactic battle with the pirates at the end of the film, there was a significant disconnect between the cheerful, upbeat dialogue and the deadly reality of (for example) dozens of pirates getting crushed to death by rolling logs.
To Be or Not to Be (3/8/11) TV-TCM (1942 ***1/2) Directed by Ernst Lubitsch, starring Carole Lombard, Jack Benny and Robert Stack. A troupe of actors in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, Poland must act as though their lives and the lives of the entire Polish resistance are at stake. I'm always on the lookout for a "lost classic," meaning a really terrific golden age film I've never seen before. I really enjoyed this film, which in spite of its potentially serious subject matter, had a real freshness to it. Jack Benny was quite effective in the role and Carole Lombard was absolutely radiant. It's so sad that this was her final role before dying in a plane crash in January 1942, before this film was even released. To Be or Not to Be was remade in 1983 (under the same title) with Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft in the lead roles. I remember saw it in the theater when I was in my late teens and not liking it very much.
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (3/9/11) TV-TCM (1976 ***1/4) Directed by Herbert Ross, Screenplay by Nicholas Meyer, based on his novel, starring Nicol Williamson, Alan Arkin, Robert Duvall, Vanessa Redgrave and Laurence Olivier as Professor Moriarty. Sherlock Holmes -- with the help of Sigmund Freud -- faces his greatest enemy: cocaine addiction. I'd seen this film years ago, and there had been something about it that stuck with me. That's why I was delighted to see it on the schedule for Turner Classic Movies. Even though the "swashbuckling on the top of a moving train" climax was a bit silly by today's standards, the film still holds up reasonably well. And it also makes me wonder if Holmes' propensity for self-medication will be dealt with in this year's Robert Downey Jr. installment of the new franchise.
The Kids Are All Right (3/10/11) Netflix (2010 ***1/2) Directed by Lisa Cholodenko, starring Annette Bening, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo. A lesbian couple's lives are disrupted by the sudden appearance of their children's sperm donor. This film was among those nominated for Best Picture, and I can see why. I loved that this film and its very smart script (co-written by Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg) had such well-rendered, flawed characters. The bottom line is that everybody makes mistakes at one time or another, but sometimes it all eventually comes down to family. It may not have been the best film of 2010, but it's still well worth seeing.
New X-Men, Vol. 3 (3/11/11) Comics (2008 ***) Written by Grant Morrison, illustrated by Chris Bachalo, Phil Jimenez and Marc Silvestri. Originally printed in New X-Men issues #142-154, this volume contains several story-arcs, including the reappearance of Magneto and ending with a glimpse of a dystopian alternate reality 150 years in the future. Oh, Grant Morrison. You just couldn't resist the temptation to end your multi-year run on a weird note, could you?
The Flight of the Red Balloon (3/14/11) TV-Sundance (2007 *) Directed by Hsiao-hsien Hou, starring Juliette Binoche, Fang Song and Simon Iteanu. A Parisian woman hires a Chinese film student to watch her young son. The connection between this film and the famous short film by Albert Lamorisse (which I watched recently) is quite tenuous. In fact, this film has so little in the way of an actual plot that I frequently wondered if it even constituted a film at all. A handful of brief "magical realist" moments involving the titular red balloon didn't even come close to making up for the boredom I suffered through the balance of the movie. What did the red balloon represent? Oh, I don't know. I guess we're all floating through life like toy balloons or some such bullshit. Ultimately, I don't know and I don't care!
An Idiot Abroad, Series 1 (3/14/11) TV-Science (2011 ***) Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant continually bully Karl Pilkington via cell phone as Karl travels to each of the seven modern wonders of the world. My wife has been a fan of Gervais' podcasts for some time, and we recently watched them in animated form in The Ricky Gervais Show, Series 1. 99% of the humor of that podcast/series came from absurd things Pilkington said or believed. An Idiot Abroad was kind of a logical extension of that, combined with a travel show. For me, however, it only worked up to a point, and while I got the joke (Karl is a grumpy traveler) it wasn't all that funny, especially since the same joke was repeated over and over. All in all, I preferred the animated podcast format, if for no other reason than it allowed Gervais and Merchant to be far more engaged. With that in mind, my favorite episode of An Idiot Abroad by far was the last (8th) one in which they all sat in the comfort of a studio and discussed/recapped what had happened in the preceding seven episodes.
To Kill a Mockingbird (3/14/11) TV-TCM (1962 ****) Directed by Robert Mulligan, screenplay by Horton Foote, based on the novel by Harper Lee, starring Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Phillip Alford and Robert Duvall as Boo Radley. Scout and her brother Jem learn about morality and the complexities of the human condition from the greatest father in the world, Atticus Finch. This is a great film, based on a great book. It's one of those rare films where a lot of great ingredients came together, especially Robert Mulligan's gentle, but sure direction. And playing through it all was a terrific, understated score by Elmer Bernstein. It's no wonder that To Kill a Mockingbird ranks high on so many "great films" lists. It's certainly high on mine.
Introducing Media Studies: A Graphic Guide (3/15/11) Illustrated Nonfiction (2000 *) Written by Ziauddin Sardar, illustrated by Borin Van Loon. The history and concepts of Media Studies is presented in what is theoretically a novice-friendly format. Of the Introducing... series books I've read so far, this was the weakest. While it minimized the snarky commentary found in some other books, its structure left me simply baffled. For most of the book I felt as though I were reading a powerpoint presentation made up of random subtopics without much to link them all together into a coherent whole. It didn't help that even though the printing was new, it was an overview from a ten-year-old perspective, and so it was outdated as well. On an unrelated note, I seriously doubt that proper legal rights were attained for many of the copyrighted images found in Loon's collages. I would love to know that basis for their inclusion in this book and can't help but wonder if the book's multi-country publishing history had anything to do with their use.
Less Than Zero (3/15/11) TV-FMC (1987 **) Directed by Marek Kanievska, based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, starring Andrew McCarthy, Jamie Gertz, Robert Downey Jr. and James Spader. Hollywood youths Clay and Blair try to save their drugged-out friend Julian from the drug-dealing Rip... and from himself. I remembered this film being better than it actually was. Maybe when I was younger all the young adult angst seemed deeper, somehow. I think the core problem with the movie ultimately was that the plot was too linear. There were lots of scenes of people being mad at each other, but not so many genuine narrative twists or turns.
Arthur (3/15/11) Netflix (1981 ***1/2) Written and directed by Steve Gordon, starring Dudley Moore, Liza Minnelli and John Gielgud. Drunk millionaire playboy Arthur Bach must marry a socialite or lose his $750 million inheritance. This is one of those films I saw in the theater when I was a teenager. At the time I liked it so much I went to see it a second time. Though much of my love for it may be sentimental, I think it still holds up, particularly Dudley Moore's wonderful performance. It's hard to imagine the new Russell Brand version topping the original.
Rome, Season 2 (3/16/11) Netflix (2007 ***1/4) Series created by Bruno Heller, William J. MacDonald and John Milius, starring Kevin McKidd, Ray Stevenson, Polly Walker and James Purefoy. Following the death of Julius Ceasar, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo continue their brushes with history in ancient Rome... and beyond. My wife read on the internet that the producers knew going in that this was to be the final season of the series, and so, in season 2, they had to compress the story in order to cover much historical ground. There were two positive side-effects of this: (1) It allowed them to kill off characters with impugnity, and fictional death scenes are always great fun to watch; (2) There didn't seem to be any "filler" B-story scenes, as I've seen in other HBO shows like True Blood, Six Feet Under or The Sopranos. All around, Rome was a very solid series and I'm glad we watched all 22 episodes plus special features.
Vimanarama (3/17/11) Graphic Novel (2005 **) Written by Grant Morrison, illustrated by Philip Bond. Ali and Sofia are two young Londoners of Indian heritage who find themselves smack in the middle of an earth-shattering holy war between demigods. What are you playing at, Grant Morrison? I have to give him props for an original story, and I wonder what his inspiration was. Unfortunately, the story didn't really hold together. The characters consistently behaved in ways that were either unmotivated or implausible. I enjoyed Philip Bond's illustration style, and it was generally well suited to the characters and settings, but the light-comic tone of his drawings was frequently in opposition to the events illustrated.
WE3 (3/17/11) Graphic Novel (2005 **1/2) Written by Grant Morrison, illustrated by Frank Quitely. Three experimental weaponized animals (a dog, a cat and a rabbit) don't take the notion of "decommissioning" particularly well. This was a very quick read, taking less than a half hour. Quitely's illustrative storytelling skills were strong as ever, but the armadillo-like design of the animals' armor, though possibly practical, was a bit distracting. It was also a little hard to know who to root for throughout. The animals wanted to get "home," but it wasn't clear what that meant. Reading WE3 immediately following Vimanarama, I wondered if Grant Morrison wasn't deliberately writing short graphic novel projects with an eye toward pitching them as feature films. WE3 would make an interesting movie.
The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (3/17/11) TV-TCM (1952 ***) Directed by John Brahm, starring Gilbert Roland, Angela Clarke, Susan Whitney and Frank Silvera. In 1917 Socialist Portugal, three children cause a national uproar when they see a woman in a cloud. There are many levels on which one might view this film. Given the times in which it was made, it was clearly an attempt by Warner Brothers to capitalize on the Catholic movie-goers in their audience. There was also a certain political subtext that was obviously more about the iron curtain and the war in Korea than about events in 1917. As a story, the structure was very linear. And of course it also works as Christian inspiration -- or propaganda -- depending on your religious orientation. I'm almost certain that old 16mm prints of this film were once shown regularly in Catholic schools. In one scene the three children were taken to a police station and their faith was tested as they were led away one by one, presumably to be tortured and killed. Putting myself in the shoes of a second or third grade student watching The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima as a special "treat," that scene must have been absolutely horrifying!

The Commitments (3/19/11) DVD (1991 ****) Directed by Alan Parker, based on the novel by Roddy Doyle, starring Robert Arkins, Michael Aheme and Angeline Ball. In Dublin, an impresario wannabe with the unlikely name Jimmy Rabbitte turns a rag-tag bunch of working-class hooligans into a world class band. I simply love this movie, and I'm not exactly sure why. I think maybe it's a combination of Parker's strong direction combined with a collection of likable, relatable characters combined with a soundtrack that's fun to listen to. On a fun note: This film featured Glen Hansard in a supporting role. In The Commitments, Hansard's character is last seen playing guitar for pocket change ("busking") on a street corner. Years later in the wonderful 2006 film Once, we meet his character in that film doing the same thing.

Alice Adams (3/20/11) TV-TCM (1935 **1/2) Directed by George Stevens, based on the novel by Booth Tarkington, starring Katharine Hepburn and Fred MacMurray. A poor girl with a big heart struggles against closed minds and small town class-consciousness. Hepburn certainly delivered a strong performance early in her career, and I appreciated the film on that level. However, neither the main character, the film's "poignant" subject matter, nor the unearned "happy ending" resonated with me.
Planet Hulk (3/21/11) Netflix (2010 **) Directed by Sam Liu, based on the graphic novel by Greg Pak and Carlo Pagulayan, featuring the voices of Rick D. Wasserman and Lisa Ann Beley. The Hulk is sent into space where he crashes into a planet, is forced into slavery and is ordered by an evil king to fight gladiator-style in a coliseum. I have not read the graphic novel on which this made-for-video animated feature was based, and after watching it I don't think I'm going to. The premise sounded interesting, but the plot got bogged down with melodrama based on supporting characters rather than anything emotionally linked to the Hulk himself. Ho-hum.
Bedazzled (3/21/11) TV-FMC (1967 **) Directed by Stanley Donen, screenplay by Peter Cook, starring Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, Elenor Bron and Raquel Welch. In London, a suicidal Whimpy Burger fry cook makes a deal with The Devil (AKA George Spiggott), trading his soul for seven wishes, one for each of the seven deadly sins. This film began strongly, and Moore and Cook were certainly charming enough, but somehow along the way it lost its momentum. I think that was due in part by its linear seven-part structure as well as the fact that several of the "segments" weren't particularly inspired. By its end I'd ceased to care about the characters and was pretty well ready for it to be over.
The Boston Strangler (3/27/11) TV-FMC (1968 ***) Directed by Richard Fleischer, screenplay by Edward Anhalt, based on the book by Gerold Frank, starring Tony Curtis and Henry Fonda. Women in Boston are strangled and brutalized, and the most likely suspect is a family man named Albert DeSalvo. This film had an unusual structure, in that the point of view established in the beginning of the film was that of John Bottomly (Fonda) and the police force hunting an unknown serial killer, then at roughly the halfway point it shifted to DeSalvo (Curtis). Somehow that worked with the material. In addition, this film is famous for its use of multiple camera views presented simultaneously, a risky technique that has been used occasionally since, including Ang Lee's Hulk (2003).
L.A. Story (3/28/11) Netflix (1991 ***) Directed by Mick Jackson, screenplay by Steve Martin, starring Steve Martin, Victoria Tennant, Richard E. Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker. A "wacky" Los Angeles weatherman meets a magical freeway billboard and falls in love, but not with the billboard, because that would be weird. When I first saw this film I was living in Iowa, but living now as I do in Los Angeles I have much more of an appreciation for it. It was also interesting to see how little has changed culturally here in the "City of Angels" in the past twenty years. It was clear with this film and the earlier Roxanne (1987), which Martin also wrote, that Steve Martin was making an effort to be taken seriously as an auteur like Woody Allen. He was mostly successful here, though there were still a few points in the film (like an odd Hamlet reference with Rick Moranis as a grave digger) when it felt like Martin was looking down his nose at his audience, just a bit.
The Clockwork Girl (3/30/11) Graphic Novel (2011 **1/2) Written by Sean O'Reilly, illustrated by Kevin Hanna. A mechanical girl and a wolf boy named Huxley form a friendship against the wishes of their warring "parents." This book was written by the instructor of my UCLA Extension class on Writing for Sequential Art. For a graphic novel, it was a very fast read. Kevin Hanna's art was quite striking, but the story never really grabbed me. Though the Shakespearean touches did hint at a resonance and its heart was clearly in the right place, the story remained a bit light somehow, with its final dramatic climax turning on what amounted to a misunderstanding of character. Also, it wasn't always clear whose story it was. The titular character didn't have much of a presence, and while nominally the main character was Huxley, he never underwent the kind of internal change that was required.
Seaguy (3/31/11) Graphic Novel (2005 **) Written by Grant Morrison, illustrated by Cameron Stewart. In a world without heroes, Seaguy (along with his floating fish best pal Chubby) is the closest thing the Mummy King of the moon can find. Yeah, this was another of those Grant Morrison "weird for the sake of being weird" books, loaned to me by a friend. As a rule, I don't mind weirdness, and I don't hate dream-like logic, but in order to be at least readable a book still needs to make some kind of sense. Seaguy skimmed seductively just beyond that threshold. What's more, its Brazil-like (as in Terry Gilliam's 1985 film) conclusion left me completely dissatisfied.

April

Green Lantern: Rebirth (4/5/11) Graphic Novel (2010 ***1/4) Written by Geoff Johns, illustrated by Ethan Van Sciver. After a lot of stupid hullabaloo, Hal Jordan is back, and this time he's finally gotten back to basics, in this collection originally published in serial form in 2004-05. How do you take the greatest hero-turned-megavillain and return him to his former purity? That is not an easy problem. After reading this book I have a hell of a lot of respect for Geoff Johns' ability to take decades of murky "event-driven" storytelling and hit the big ol' narrative reset button in the sky. And he managed to do it without pulling any Dallas "it was all a dream" baloney. No, in fact, he was able to solve that storytelling problem in a way that was (relatively) simple and rooted in the character's mythology, even adding to that mythology in the process. Bravo! Of course he had to do a similar thing in Flash: Rebirth. Coincidence? Or is Geoff Johns simply DC's resident "cleaner?"
Legends of the Superheroes (4/6/11) DVD (1979 **1/2) Directed by Bill Carruthers and Chris Darley, starring Adam West, Burt Ward, Frank Gorshin, Charlie Callas, Ruth Buzzi and Ed McMahon. This DVD includes two TV specials I recall fondly from my teenage years. In the first, the heroes race comically (Solomon Grundy as a gas station attendant, for example) against time to locate a doomsday device. In the second episode, the heroes are "roasted" Dean Martin style by Ed McMahon, their friends and their enemies. This was silly, silly stuff, produced by Hanna Barbera, and while it's not great and might actually make your brains drip from your ears, it was also good, comic geeky fun, and it was particularly fun to see ("Mayor") Adam West playing the part he was born to play.
The World's Greatest Super-Heroes (4/7/11) Comics (2010 ***1/4) Written by Paul Dini, illustrated by Alex Ross. The stories in this collection were originally published in the large (and awkward) 10" x 13.3" format. They were also for the most part presented in a "pseudo-comic" format, using captions free of balloons or borders. This gave the stories a "child's picture book" quality, which was the project's original intent. As a side-effect, this also served to minimize the visual impact of Dini's words on Ross's beautiful artwork. Reduced to the still larger-than-normal 8x11" format, the text was frequently difficult to read. However, if you buy this book -- as any fan of Alex Ross should -- you'll probably want to spend as much time looking at the beautiful photo-real artwork as reading the stories.
Let's Make Love (4/7/11) TV-FMC (1960 ***) Directed by George Cukor, starring Marilyn Monroe, Yves Montand and Tony Randall, with cameo appearances by Milton Berle, Bing Crosby and Gene Kelly. Billionaire Jean-Marc Clement pretends to be an actor playing himself in an off-Broadway show and he falls for a knockout singer. Let's be honest: The setup for this movie was a bit convoluted and a lot of the character motivations didn't hold up to close scrutiny. Also, the movie is about a half hour too long. However, the performances by the voluptuous Monroe more than make up for it.
Who Do You Think You Are? Season 2 (4/9/11) TV-NBC (2011 ***1/4) Series created by Alex Graham, executive produced by Lisa Kudrow and others. In what is clearly an advertisement for Ancestry.com, season 2 presents the following 8 celebrities as they trace their ancestral roots: Vanessa Williams, Tim McGraw, Rosie O'Donnell, Kim Cattrall, Lionel Richie, Steve Buscemi, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ashley Judd. I read a review of this series that pointed out that Who Do You Think You Are? offers a welcome counterpoint to the kind of exploitation-based reality TV focused on the ugly side of human nature. While I recognize there was a fair amount of selective editing for drama in this series, my wife and I have come to really watching it. It's a shame that its seasons are so short, though perhaps that's ultimately for the best. I only hope WDYTYA? continues to run for years to come and doesn't get canceled as "too good for network TV." Perhaps it will even inspire its viewers to start digging into their own family trees.
The Way We Were (4/9/11) TV-TCM (1973 ***1/4) Directed by Sydney Pollack, starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford. A handsome all-American writing student named Hubbell falls into a relationship with a Jewish activist named Katie, with Marvin Hamlish providing the memorable musical backdrop. Even though it never quite got to me (I thought Hubbell was an asshole), it's easy to see why this film was as popular as it was. I appreciated that it had at its core a conflict between enjoying life's simple pleasures and standing up for one's personal integrity, and that's a fight I've seen played out in my life, so it was easy to relate to. This film was also a joy to look at; If you were making a new movie shot in the style of the seventies, The Way We Were demands to be studied as -- what my wife often calls them-- a movie "of its time."
Irredeemable, Vol. 3 (4/14/11) Comics (2010 ***) Written by Mark Waid, illustrated by Peter Krause and Diego Barreto. The saga of the world's greatest superhero turned mass murderer continues. In the four issues (#9-12) contained in this volume, The Plutonian takes a back seat and lets the other characters in his ravaged world enjoy some "screen time" as secrets are revealed and new enemies are introduced. There was some risk that the killing spree of previous books was in danger of disintegrating into sub-par superhero soap opera, but never fear. There was one scene toward the end of the book featuring The Plutonian visiting his former foster family that not only provided solid character backstory but was also quite chilling and memorable.
Irredeemable, Vol. 4 (4/15/11) Comics (2010 ***) Written by Mark Waid, illustrated by Diego Barreto, Howard Chaykin and others. What's left of the superhero team "The Paradigm" faces down The Plutonian and must choose between preventing a demonic invasion and the chance that the World's Mightiest Mass Murderer still has a shred of decency remaining. The contents of this volume were originally published in issues #13-15 and Irredeemable Special #1, and buyer be warned: Nearly a third of the book's pages were comprised of the cover gallery and a "free preview" of (advertisement for) Waid's The Unknown: The Devil Made Flesh. Mild feelings of being ripped off aside, I must admit that at one point I'd prepared to quit buying this series, but its supporting cast of second-rate heroes have finally managed to become mildly interesting and sympathetic, if not likable. And so I'll keep reading. At least through Volume 5, which I've already purchased.
Treasure Seekers: The Time Has Come (4/19/11) Hidden Object / Puzzle Game (2011 ***1/4) Produced by Artogon. Tom's sister Nelly has been abducted by a sinister Nazi-like figure with a monocle. Using only his wits (and a time-traveling ring and a magnifying glass that lets him see through walls), Tom must rescue Nelly and coincidentally save the world from the Mayan's 2012 end-of-the-world prophecy. My wife and I hadn't played one of these hidden object games for nearly a year, and this was an almost idea casual gaming experience. The selling point for me was the time travel aspect, and it was integrated into the puzzles quite nicely. We both enjoyed it and hope to play other games in the series in the future.
Parenthood, Season 2 (4/20/11) TV-NBC (2010-11 ***1/2) Series developed by Jason Katims, based on the characters created by Ron Howard, starring Peter Krause, Lauren Graham, Dax Shepard, Monica Potter and Erica Christensen. Set in Northern California, the Braverman clan "braves" lifes ups and downs, exploring myriad facets of being a parent at the same time. My wife and I have watched this show from the beginning, and we've come to really appreciate the strong writing and interesting characters. While it's never particularly flashy, Parenthood is definitely script-based hour-long drama TV worth watching. It seems to have filled the void left by E.R.
Irredeemable, Vol. 5 (4/21/11) Comics (2010 **1/2) Written by Mark Waid, illustrated by Peter Krause. Qubit's secret plan is revealed, as is Modeus' secret hiding place, and is redemption possible for the mentally cracked Plutonian? This volume contains four issues, a 13-page cover gallery and a 14-page preview of Stan Lee and Mark Waid's The Traveler. The previous Volume 4 included the threat of a demonic invasion, and this volume dealt with an alien invasion. It was hard not to see a pattern there, and between some seriously suspect character motivations and a sense of Waid's "making it up as he went along," I wondered how much of The Plutonian's larger story had been sketched out in the beginning.
Jesus Christ Superstar (4/22/11) DVD Party (1973 ****) Directed by Norman Jewison, based on the rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, starring Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson and Yvonne Elliman. In the Israeli desert a bunch of dirty hippies climb out of a bus and put on a show about the son of God. I watched this film at a viewing party held on Good Friday, which was certainly appropriate. Naturally, the others in attendance talked through the whole thing, giving it their best MST3K treatment, but I didn't really mind; I was so familiar with the film that their jokes about the Pharisees' "Jiffy Pop" hats didn't affect my enjoyment. I love this film (and its music) so very much, and even though I know it's technically a "rock opera," it's still one of my favorite musicals of all time.
The Hero's Journey: The World of Joseph Campbell (4/23/11) Netflix (1987 ***) Directed by Janelle Balnicke and David Kennard, narrated by Peter Donat. Writer and philosopher Joseph Campbell devoted his life's work to exploring the power of myth. This documentary, shot prior to his death in 1987, traces Campbell's life and shows him honored and frequently surrounded by students and devoted followers. Regardless of how you feel about his work, it obviously influenced many writers, most famously George Lucas. Though it looked just a little like Campbell was someone who may have loved to hear himself talk, his charisma as a speaker was in clear evidence from the beginning of this hour-long documentary to its end.
Power Girl: A New Beginning (4/23/11) Comics (2010 ***1/4) Written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, illustrated by Amanda Conner. The famously-endowed Power Girl does her best to save her new home base Manhattan from the decidedly evil (and simian) Ultra-Humanite, while simultaneously re-establishing her cover identity Karen Starr as the head of a green tech company. Oh yeah, and you better not mess around with her globes... Her collection of snow globes, that is. For a character who has one of the most convoluted origins in the DC universe, this series is surprisingly light and fun.
Win Win (4/23/11) El Segundo Arclight (2011 ***1/2) Written and directed by Thomas McCarthy, starring Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale and Alex Shaffer. Attorney and wrestling coach Mike Flaherty makes a poor moral choice, but when a troubled young man comes into his life, Mike has a (second) chance at redemption. This was a nice small little film, with extremely well-drawn characters. It lost a little bit of momentum near the end of the second act, but I particularly liked that even though the story was primarily told from an adult point of view, the kids and teenagers were presented in a positive (and very natural) way. Is it Oscar worthy? Perhaps not, but it's still a good little film worth watching.
American Wasteland (4/24/11) Graphic Novel (2010 **1/2) Written by R.D. Hall, illustrated by Mark Kidwell. A trucker winds up in the middle of the zombie/chupacabra apocalypse. This graphic novel was written by a "guest speaker" in an online writing class I was taking and is published by Arcana, my teacher's publishing company. As evidenced by many of my other reviews, I'm generally a fan of zombie-oriented stories like The Walking Dead. While none of the characters in American Wasteland particularly resonated with me, the story was well-structured and fun, and the style of the artwork was a good match for the tone of the writing.
The Road to Morocco (4/25/11) TV-TCM (1942 ***1/4) Directed by David Butler, starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour and Anthony Quinn. Smooth-voiced Jeff Peters sells his pal Orville into slavery (and into the arms of the princess Shalmar) in this seminal buddy comedy. I hadn't watched this film in years, but remembered liking it a lot as a kid. It has a lot in common with the Abbott and Costello movies, which I also loved. The plot might have been pretty flimsy, and the character motivations were a bit on the mean-spirited side, but what stood out was loads of crisp, fourth-wall-poking dialogue delivered with impeccable timing by Hope & Crosby. Even though they didn't have the visual or character contrast of other famous teams (like A&C, Laurel & Hardy or the Marx Brothers), they sure had a lot of onscreen chemistry.
Introducing Linguistics: A Graphic Guide (4/26/11) Nonfiction (2000 ***1/2) Written by R.L. Trask, illustrated by Bill Mayblin. The history, concepts and concerns of the field of Linguistics are presented in an easy-to-read form, supported by clear illustrations. This is almost certainly the best book in this series that I've read to date. Even though the material was a bit dry at times, Introducing Linguistics served my anticipated purpose, and it did so without trying to be overly witty or snarky. I would definitely recommend this as a short overview of the field and/or as a companion piece to someone taking an Introduction to Linguistics class in college.
Only Angels Have Wings (4/27/11) TV-TCM (1939 ***) Directed by Howard Hawks, screenplay by Jules Furthman, starring Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Kid Dabb and Rita Hayworth. Life is cheap in far-away, mystical fogged-in Barranca, when a bush pilot who looks an awful lot like Jim Rockford's dad gets killed. My wife isn't a fan of this film (she chose not to watch it with me) and I can understand why. I hadn't watched Only Angels Have Wings in a long time and I'd forgotten how overlong and dialogue-heavy (almost stage play-like) it was. And yet the film had some good points too. From beginning to end, Hawks captured an atmosphere that was romantic and had a sense of adventure. And then there's Cary Grant. Only he could have made an apparently heartless and unsympathetic brute like Geoff Carter so darn likable.
Becket (4/29/11) TCM Classic Film Festival -- Egyptian Theater (1964 ***1/2) Directed by Peter Glenville, based on the play by Jean Anouilh and Lucienne Hill, starring Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole and John Gielgud. The brutish and profane King Henry II makes his most trusted wenching buddy Thomas Becket the Archbishop of Canterbury... but later regrets it. Okay, clever plot summaries aside, this is one hell of a film. Made the same year I was born, it's a reminder of a kind of (and a level of) acting I often forget about, and that's undoubtedly a shame. And the most amazing part is that one of the two main actors was actually in attendance. This was the first film I attended at the TCM Classic Film Festival, and Peter O'Toole walked literally two feet away from me on his way to the front of the theater, where he was interviewed by Ben Mankiewicz. I'm not above recognizing the honor of being in the presence of a film legend and I'm so very glad to have gotten the opportunity to see him. O'Toole, that is, not Mankiewicz.
Royal Wedding (4/29/11) TCM Classic Film Festival -- Egyptian Theater (1951 ***) Directed by Stanley Donen, screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner, starring Fred Astaire, Jane Powell, Peter Lawford and Sarah Churchill, with Keenan Wynn as transatlantic twins Irving and Edgar Klinger. Dancing siblings Tom and Ellen Bowen take their act to London, just in time for the... you guessed it... Royal Wedding. The ironic coincidence (if indeed it was a coincidence) was that this film was shown the day of the wedding of "Will & Kate" (Prince William and Miss Cahterine Middleton). In his introductory comments, Ben Mankiewicz made reference to the fuss CNN was making about the screening we were about to see. The film itself isn't particularly great: The music was largely forgettable and the casting of Winston Churchill's daughter as Astaire's love interest was questionable. However, Royal Wedding does feature Astaire's classic "dancing on the ceiling" number. After the film, 82-year-old Jane Powell was interviewed by Mankiewicz and she talked about how she was the third choice for this role after Judy Garland (fired due to substance abuse issues) and June Allyson, whom Powell said "took pregnant" shortly before the film.
Girl Crazy (4/29/11) TCM Classic Film Festival -- Egyptian Theater (1943 **1/2) Directed by Norman Taurog and Busby Berkeley, starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. The nightclubbing son of a wealthy publisher gets sent to an all-male mining school out west. I gotta be honest: This may be a good representation of one of MGM's "Backyard Musicals" where Rooney and Garland "put on a show," but it's not a great film. Afterwards, Ben Mankiewicz attempted to interview Mickey Rooney, who claimed to have made 365 films. Rooney was delightful, but his stories didn't necessarily go anywhere. Though Rooney did talk about his first meeting with Frances Gumm (Judy Garland), he seemed more interested in telling Mankiewicz about the ping pong club he belonged to early in his career.
Official Book Club Selection (4/30/11) Nonfiction (2010 ***1/2) Kathy Griffin tells her story of the slow crawl up the Hollywood star machine to the D-List. Last year when Griffin was in Pasadena at a book signing, my wife and I went and bought a book, which my wife read right away, but I didn't quite get around to it. While attending the TCM Classic Film Festival I found myself standing in a lot of lines, and this was the book I used to occupy my time. It's a good book, though it seemed like Griffin and the writer(s) who assisted her didn't quite find their voice until after the first third of the book, which was a little clunky. Having read this book, I think I like Kathy Griffin even more. She seemed to recognize as she wrote this book that she had a responsibility to her readers to be revealing, and she did a good job of achieving that goal.
Summer Magic (4/30/11) TCM Classic Film Festival -- Grauman's Chinese Multiplex (1963 ***1/4) Directed by James Neilson, starring Hayley Mills, Dorothy McGuire, Burl Ives and Jimmy Mathers. Following the death of her father, Nancy Carey and her family leave Boston for a house in the country, singing a ragtime song or two along the way. Disney archivist Becky Cline introduced this film as well as providing a rare intro by Walt Disney himself. I'd never seen this film before, and found it to be sweet and innocent, just like all the Disney live action films I grew up with. None of the conflicts or characters ran particularly deep, but Burl Ives was a lot of fun to watch. After the film, Mills was interviewed by film critic, writer and all-around familiar face Leonard Maltin. Mills (who appears in three different films at the TCM Classic Film Festival) talked about her early career how Annette Funicello was originally considered for her role in Summer Magic..
The Outlaw Josey Wales (4/30/11) TCM Classic Film Festival -- Grauman's Chinese Theater (1976 ***1/2) Directed by Clint Eastwood, screenplay by Philip Faufman, based on the novel by Forrest Carter, starring Clint Eastwood, Sam Bottoms, Sondra Locke and Chief Dan George. A farmer from Missouri swears revenge after the death of his family at the hands of Union "redlegs." Ben Mankiewicz introduced this film in an odd way: He basically said (and I'm paraphrasing): "You know this film you're about to really enjoy? It was based on a book written by a class-A RACIST! See ya later!" After that introduction it was hard to see the film objectively. It was a bloody film, fitting into the same category as Charles Bronson's 1974 film Death Wish. Still, it was clearly a stepping stone for Eastwood on his road to his Oscar winning 1992 film Unforgiven. Is this a film I'd want to see again in my life? Probably not, but for fans of Eastwood it's worth seeing, racist heritage or not.
Citizen Kane (4/30/11) TCM Classic Film Festival -- Grauman's Chinese Theater (1941 ****) Directed by Orson Welles, screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Welles, starring Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore and Ruth Warrick. A relentless reporter interviews those closest to newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane in an attempt to discover what he meant by his dying word: "Rosebud." In a way I've come to think of Citizen Kane as "arguably the best film ever made" as a bit of a cliche'. However, I hadn't seen it in many years and how could I pass up the opportunity to see it on the big screen in Grauman's Chinese? Ben Mankiewicz, understandably proud, introduced the film his grandfather had scripted by relating a story of how William Randolph Hearst (Kane was a fictionalized version of Hearst) used the power of his newspaper empire to exact revenge on Herman Mankiewicz. As many people know, "rosebud" was what Hearst called his mistress Marion Davies' clitoris.
Pennies From Heaven (4/30/11) TCM Classic Film Festival -- Grauman's Chinese Multiplex (1981 ***1/2) Directed by Herbert Ross, screenplay by Dennis Potter, starring Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters and Jessica Harper. A Chicago music salesman with a penchant for compulsive lying escapes the great depression through song. This film was introduced by actress Illeana Douglas, who doesn't have a direct connection with Pennies From Heaven, but it turns out she and I have something in common: We both saw the film in high school, fell in love with it, bought the soundtrack and listened to it over and over. I know rationally that this isn't a great movie. The "abject depression juxtaposed with hopeful music" premise was never anything but problematic and Steve Martin's acting abilities in 1981 weren't up to the challenge presented by his character in this film. I know that. But you know what? I still love this film, and maybe it's because I saw it at just the perfect time in my life to see such a movie. And besides, even after all these years I think the same impure thoughts when I see Bernadette Peters in that one low-cut Bob Mackie dress!

May

That's Entertainment! (5/1/11) TCM Classic Film Festival -- Grauman's Chinese Theater (1974 ****) Written and directed by Jack Haley Jr., featuring introductions and narration by Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelley, Bing Crosby and many others. In celebration of MGM's 50-year anniversary, several of its most famous stars present some of the greatest musical clips of all time. In his introduction to this film, Leonard Maltin reminded us that this film was made in 1974 in a world before VCRs and Blockbuster Video, when movie nostalgia meant something quite different than it does today. After the film, Maltin interviewed dancer/choreographer Marge Champion, who grew up literally "around the corner," on Orange Drive. In fact, she and her brother remembered watching the construction of Grauman's Chinese Theater and the Roosevelt Hotel.
Whistle Down the Wind (5/1/11) TCM Classic Film Festival -- Grauman's Chinese Multiplex (1961 ***1/4) Directed by Bryan Forbes, screenplay by Keith Waterhouse, based on the novel by Mary Hayley Bell, starring Hayley Mills, Alan Bates and Bernard Lee. A group of children find a wounded bearded man in their barn. Is he a hunted murderer... or Jesus Christ? This movie was based on a book written by Hayley Mills' mother. After recently watching The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (1952), I can't help but wonder if Bell's story wasn't originally meant to be a somewhat cynical reaction to that early film or source material. The stories -- both featuring three naive children encountering religious personages in a rural setting -- seem awfully similar. After the film, Hayley Mills was interviewed about her early career, particularly growing up in a show business family. She compared the experience of making a small film like this one with making films for Disney. She also said she had originally been wanted for Stanley Kubrick's Lolita (1962) and admitted that if she'd accepted the part it would have taken her career in a very different direction.
The Uninvited (5/1/11) TV-TCM (1944 ***) Directed by Lewis Allen, starring Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, Gail Russell and Alan Napier. Londoners and siblings Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald buy a beautiful house on an ocean cliff, but it's haunted by the spirits (and secrets) of its previous owners. I'd never seen this film before. It's one of those fun treasures run on TCM that aren't available on video. Tame by modern standards, this is the kind of movie that would have scared the crap out of me if I'd watched it on Creature Feature as a kid.
JSA: Strange Adventures (5/3/11) Graphic Novel (2010 **1/2) Written by Kevin J. Anderson, illustrated by Barry Kitson and Gary Erskine. Set during WWII, pulp science fiction writer Jack Williamson mentors Johnny Thunder as he chronicals JSA's battle against a benevolent dictator in a zeppelin. I ordered this book solely based on the Amazon.com description. The idea of a vintage-era JSA story with a sci-fi bent sounded awesome. Unfortunately I was disappointed. I truly believe Kevin J. Anderson's heart was in the right place with this story, and I appreciated the potential verisimilitude from the inclusion of a real-life person in the plot, but Strange Adventures never quite clicked for me, not one single page. The principal problem, I think, was that the action felt watered-down, never quite firing on all cyliders.
Fringe, Season 3 (5/6/11) TV-FOX (2010-11 ***1/2) Series created by J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, starring Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson and John Noble. The "Crisis on Two Worlds" inches toward its climax, but can Olivia, Peter and Dr. Walter Bishop figure out a way for both universes to survive? Fringe is a well-written show with interesting characters and I think at this point I'm in it for the long haul. Just how long that haul will be is definitely in question. Some of the things the show has done probably haven't made it easy for new adopters. Case in point: This season alternated between two universes, often blurring the lines between the good and bad guys in the process. Without giving anything away, the last episode of this season seemed to indicate the show's creators are taking what they've set up previously one more step further. Will I tune in come fall? You bet!
Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood (5/7/11) TV-TCM (2010 ***1/2) Written and directed by Jon Wilkman, edited by Sergio Palermo, narrated by Christopher Plummer. This seven-part original TCM documentary presents the decade-by-decade story of Hollywood focusing on the origins of the medium and the powers at work behind the scenes. It seems I never get tired of watching documentaries about filmmaking. I wonder why that is? There are other similar documentaries on the birth of Hollywood (like the MGM-centric When the Lion Roared), but I appreciated the "nuts and bolts" approach taken in this one, and it was nice to see the story presented from the business point of view. After all, it does seem like a lot of people nowadays are obsessed with box office and love to play "armchair movie mogul" whenever they get the chance.
Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes (5/7/11) Graphic Novel (2008 ***1/2) Written by Geoff Johns, Illustrated by Gary Frank. Superman is called back to the 31st Century by Brainiac 5 to battle "Earth Man" and his Legion-rejected cohorts. If the description sounds a little dumb, don't be discouraged. Originally presented as a storyline in Action Comics, this was a good book, with lots of solid Legionaire action. Before reading this book I wasn't familiar with Gary Frank's art. He's highly skilled, but his claim to fame seems to be extremely expressive faces, sometimes to the point of his characters looking crazed, even when they weren't supposed to be.
Thor (5/8/11) Glendale Pacific 18 (2011 ***1/2) Directed by Kenneth Branagh, starring Chris Hemsworth, Anthony Hopkins, Natalie Portman and Tom Hiddleston. Stripped of his hammer and powers and cast out of Asgard, the Norse god of thunder must prove himself worthy in a backwards realm called "Earth." True confession time: If as a kid I had held a contest for "characters I would never give a shit about," Thor would have been near the top of the list. So my expectactions for this movie were minimal. I'd heard it was getting good reviews, but I knew it couldn't be that good, right? Especially with Kenneth Branagh at the helm. What does that guy know about superheroes or action? He may have done a find job nearly twenty years ago with Much Ado About Nothing (1993), but come on. But you know what? He did an amazing job, not only with the "Shakespearean" scenes, but also with the fighting sequences as well. Not only that, but after seeing Thor, I am much more excited about the Avengers movie now. Chris Hemsworth was so perfectly cast as Thor and so altogether likable throughout that I already look forward to seeing him and Robert Downey Jr. playing off of each other.
Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds (5/8/11) Graphic Novel (2009 ***1/4) Written by Geoff Johns, illustrated by George Perez. Talk about a superhero explosion! Superman joins with three different parallel universe incarnations of the Legion of Superheroes to battle the bloodthirsty Superboy-Prime and the Time Trapper. I was not a fan of Grant Morrison's Final Crisis book, and in fact I believe I gave it a single star in my review. It's a real testament to Geoff Johns' writing skills that he was able take what seemed at times like hundreds of characters and put them into service in a story I actually cared about. Nice job!
Dial M for Murder (5/8/11) TV-TCM (1954 ***1/4) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, based on the play by Frederick Knott, starring Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings and John Williams. Former tennis star Tony Wendice concocts a plan to "perfectly" murder his rich, cheating wife. First off, this film was originally filmed in 3D and I would LOVE to see it in that format. Like Hitchcock's Rope (1948), Dial M for Murder definitely has the feeling of being a play that has been filmed. Almost all the action takes place in the same apartment and there was little done in the adaptation from stage play to screenplay to open up its world. Milland was well-cast as the borderline sociopathic villian. However, the story had one main flaw: for it to be truly successful the audience needed to sympathize with a woman who cheated on her husband, and even though the role was played by Grace Kelly, that never quite worked for me.
Power Girl: Aliens and Apes (5/11/11) Comics (2010 ***1/2) Written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, illustrated by Amanda Conner. Power Girl goes on a date with a lothario from another galaxy and must fight her best friend Terra, whose brain has been replaced by the Ultra-Humanite! This was at times a silly, silly book, but it's a delight to read and I'm rapidly becoming a true fan. Gray and Palmiotti's deft storytelling skills were perfectly matched by Conner's art. I loved the audacity of basing Power Girl's "love interest" Vartox on Sean Connery's character Zed in the movie Zardoz (1974). That was such a bizarre random in-joke and part of what makes this book so quirky and fun.
DMZ, Vol. 1: On the Ground (5/12/11) Comics (2006 ***1/4) Written by Brian Wood, illustrated by Riccardo Burchielli. Set in a dystopian near-future, a phototech intern finds himself an "embedded journalist" in war-torn Manhattan. This book is very similar to Robert Kirkman's Walking Dead series in that both are about what happens when society completely falls apart and how it emerges from the ashes. There's a lot of that floating around in the zeitgeist lately, though it's interesting that both books began prior to our recent near miss with global economic collapse. I generally liked DMZ, but had some trouble with two things: (1) I don't know that the premise was adequately explained, and even after reading the book I'm still a bit vague on the actual situation; (2) Matty Roth, the main character, seemed to undergo a "shift" very early and very suddenly, and his choice to remain in a war zone seemed undermotivated. Perhaps the problem with the second point is that in the rush to get to the premise of the series right away we weren't given a chance to know who Matty was before the book started.
I Love You Alice B. Toklas! (5/13/11) TV-TCM (1968 **) Directed by Hy Averback, written by Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker, starring Peter Sellers, Leigh Taylor-Young and Joyce Van Patten. Middle-aged Los Angeles attorney Harold Fine meets a groovy pot brownie-baking chick and drops out of the establishment, man! It's risky to judge a 1968 film made about youth culture from the comfortable distance of the 21st century... but I'm going to anyway. At times the film was slow-moving and virtually unwatchable, and I was very much ready for it to end. I don't know the circumstances surrounding the film's creation, but it felt very much like a movie made by middle-aged men about a subculture they were fascinated by but didn't understand on more than a superficial level. The main character was particularly problematic: Harold Fine was poorly drawn and passive for much of the film, and Sellers played him as though he was in a constant state of distraction, like he was listening to a baseball game on a radio inside his mind.
Smallville, Season 10 (5/13/11) TV-CW (2010-11 ***) Series created by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, starring Tom Welling, Erica Durance and Allison Mack. Clark Kent must convince Lois Lane to marry him while simultaneously saving every soul on earth from a dark being known as Glenn Beck, er... Darkseid. Smallville has been a guilty pleasure for me from the beginning, and I knew very early on that I was watching a show apparently aimed at 15-year-old girls. And yet I kept watching. Sometimes the series has surprised me (the appearance of the Legion of Superheroes and the Justice Society of America) and sometimes it's disappointed me. Choosing Darkseid, "Granny Goodness" and Jack Kirby's "Fourth World" as the main story arc for the final season was a strange (and disappointing) choice. I think I read somewhere that Michael Rosenbaum, who played Lex Luthor but left after five or so seasons, didn't want to return for most or all of the final season. For a decade I'd waited for Welling to finally don the familiar red and blue costume, and in the series finale he finally did... sort of. Was the wrap-up of the series as satisfying as I had hoped it would be? Of course not. Smallville was never anything more to me than a guilty pleasure. But it was still a guilty pleasure I kept watching for a decade, and I am a little sad that it's all over.
Green Lantern: No Fear (5/13/11) Comics (2006 ***) Written by Geoff Johns, illustrated by Carlos Pacheco, Darwyn Cooke and others. Hal Jordan rejoins the U.S. Air Force, wrestles with some past emotional baggage and slugs it out with some androids and a shark man (maybe a man-shark?). I was very impressed with Geoff Johns' Green Lantern: Rebirth and thought I'd give the next book in the "reading sequence" a shot. This volume contains the first six issues of the new Green Lantern comic series that began in 2006 as well as a 2005 story originally published in Green Lantern Secret Stories and Origins. I was somewhat disappointed by this book. GL seemed to slip back into a regular comic book continuity, but Johns appeared to be struggling with getting Hal Jordan to work as a an interesting character, and he never quite got there, at least not in this book. With the new Ryan Reynolds movie coming out soon, I am somewhat curious about the "cause and effect" at work here. Certainly there have been a lot of Green Lantern books published in the past five years and I suspect DC Comics was intentionally trying to push him into the cultural consciousness. As for myself, after reading this book I'm not particularly inclined to buy another in the series, but we'll see.
Flash: The Return of Barry Allen (5/14/11) Comics (1996 ***) Written by Mark Waid, illustrated by Greg LaRocque, originally published in Flash #74-79 (1993). Now that Wally West has firmly settled into the big yellow boots left by Barry Allen, how does he react when his mentor and uncle returns from the dead? I'd read this collection years ago, but a friend loaned me a veritable stack of Flash trade paperbacks and this one was the first chronologically. My first reaction was how crude the artwork looked. I've gotten so used to 21st century comic production methods that these comics from 1993 seemed to bear more resemblance to comics from the 1970's than their modern counterparts. This absolutely wasn't helped by LaRocque's pencils, which weren't quite up to the storytelling or emotive requirements of Waid's script. Speaking of which, it was clear that Mark Waid was still growing as a writer and while his work in this book wasn't terrible, it was a bit rough and overly melodramatic at times. Again, reminding me of comics from decades prior. It's astonishing that Waid was only a few years away from writing one of the modern graphic novel classics of all time, 1997's Kingdom Come, though looking back at my 2007 review of that book, perhaps much of the credit for its "classic-ness" may be due to Alex Ross' artwork.

Flash: Terminal Velocity (5/15/11) Comics (1995 ***) Written by Mark Waid, illustrated by Salvador Larrocca and various, originally published in Flash #0, #95-100 (1994-95). When Wally West gets a fatal glimpse of the future, he must learn more about the mysterious "Speed Force" and battles Kobra to save his girlfriend Linda. Mark Waid's skills continue to develop in this book as he expands the "Flash family" and marches Wally West along the path of growing up. This collection of comics-as-single-story-arc wasn't exactly King Lear, and Wally West's reporter girlfriend Linda wasn't exactly Lois Lane, but the story was still a fun read and reminded me a lot of reading comics as a kid.

Flash: Dead Heat (5/16/11) Comics (2000 **1/2) Written by Mark Waid, illustrated by Oscar Jimenez and Humberto Ramos. Originally published in Flash #108-111 and Impulse #10-11 (1995-96). Wally West and the whole "Flash Family" join forces to fight a speed guru named Savitar, but what what price will they pay? Humberto Ramos' quasi-manga illustrative style might have been a good fit for light-hearted Impulse stories, but it wasn't entirely appropriate for more serious storylines like this, and I found it distracting. (MINOR SPOILER) I also wasn't crazy that Waid chose to "kill off" a certain speedster (with a very cool costume) that had been around since the 1940's; It just seemed unnecessary, though I'm sure his "death" was only temporary.
30 Rock, Season 5 (5/16/11) TV-NBC (2010-11 ***) Series created by Tina Fey, starring Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan and Jane Krakowski. TV Producer Liz Lemon and NBC exec Jack Donaghy survive the travails of network television and their own personal idiosyncrosies. I was a bit disappointed by the fifth season. The series seemed to be running on cruise control, with fewer and fewer (as in virtually no) memorable storylines. At this point I find myself watching the show out of habit more than genuine desire. Will Alec Baldwin (who is definitely the highlight of the show) return in the fall? If he does not, I suspect the show may not last much longer unless Liz Lemon... er, Tina Fey, figures out a way to add some real juice to the tired old joint.
Flash: Race Against Time (5/17/11) Comics (2001 **1/2) Written by Mark Waid, illustrated by Oscar Jimenez and others. Originally published in Flash #112-118. Wally West is stuck bouncing around in the future while his 20th century girlfriend / "anchor" is "making time" with his 27th century counterpart. Waid's weaknesses as a writer were in clear evidence in this book. It was nominally a love story, but a problematic one given that the two lovers were kept separated by time and one (Linda) was under the mistaken impression that the other (Wally) was dead and/or not coming back. The main failing, though, was character motivation, and almost without exception all the characters seemed to behave like puppets on strings in service to an awkward plot.
Love and Other Drugs (5/18/11) Netflix (2010 ***) Directed by Edward Zwick, based on the book Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman by Jamie Reidy, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Oliver Platt and Josh Gad. Everybody needs somebody to take care of them, whether you're a woman with early-onset Parkinsons or a pharmaceutical rep for Viagra. This movie was quite touching at times, but more than anything else it seemed like it was based on the winner of a screenplay competition. I know that sounds like a backhanded compliment, but it's actually what I felt while I watched. Gyllenhaal and Hathaway gave strong performances and the film was entertaining and heartbreaking, sure, but every beat and each line seemed calculated for effect. I'm glad I watched it, but with every minute it seemed to want to be so "pitch perfect" that it missed its opportunity for true greatness.
Flash: Emergency Stop (5/19/11) Comics (2008 ***) Written by Grant Morrison and Mark Millar, illustrated by Paul Ryan. Originally published in Flash #130-135 (1997-98). Wally West takes on a villain called "The Suit" and gets his legs broken, then he fights The Mirror Master and other miscellaneous baddies. Even though I have a love/hate relationship with Grant Morrison, he's clearly a big name in comics these days, and I suspect that's the reason DC recently released his late-1990's Flash run (pun slightly intended) in trade paperback form. These stories definitely don't represent his best work though. It was interesting to note that his inventiveness (and there was plenty) tended toward story elements that I suspect were not really accepted as continuity, such as portraying Johnny Thunder as an old man with Alzheimers.
The Office, Season 7 (5/19/11) TV-NBC (2010-11 ***) Series created by Greg Daniels, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, starring Steve Carell, Rainn Wilson, John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer. The employees of the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin face their biggest "family crisis" yet: the loss of their boss, Michael Scott. I've been watching this show from the beginning, and like NBC Thursday lineup sibling 30 Rock, it's definitely been showing signs of wearing thin. The "Jim and Pam" romantic storyline has never been exceeded, and the main story element driving the second half of this season has been the end of Steve Carell's contract and who will "replace" his character. Bringing in Will Ferrell for a 4-episode arc at the end the season was an interesting move, clearly intended as a bridge after Carell's departure. How long will the show last? It's all up to where the producers and writer's take the show at this point. It'll either find a fresh groove or it'll jump the shark straight into oblivion. Some of their past choices haven't really panned out (the Andy/Erin/Gabe love triangle and Kathy Bates' Jo Bennett character come to mind), so I'd say the odds are about 50/50.
Kung Fu Panda 2 (5/20/11) Cast and crew screening, Gibson Amphitheatre (2011 ***1/2) Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson, featuring the voices of Jack Black, Angelina Jolie and Gary Oldman. Po discovers his secret origin and must defend Kung Fu from a deadly peacock with a cannon. Full disclosure: This film was the 8th film I worked on while at Dreamworks (I'm currently finishing work on my 9th), and so there's no way I can be objective about it. Having said that, I was so happy this film ended up as good as it did. First off, I didn't expect it to be as funny as it was: I laughed out loud more times than I could count. The animation was amazing and there was plenty of kung fu fighting action. Finally, KFP2 also worked on an emotional level, and while it didn't leave me sobbing like Toy Story 3, it still resonated with me. I'm very proud to have worked on this film and I hope it does well enough at the box office to warrant a sequel.
Star Tours: The Adventure Continues (5/21/11) Disneyland (2011 ****) The original Star Tours ride opened in 1987. Disney hasn't officially re-opened it, but in the Broadway tradition they seem to have had a "soft opening" the day before we just happened to be at the park. I figured there was no way in hell we'd be able to go on Star Tours, but then on our way to Fastpass Space Mountain we saw it was only a 40 minute wait. We got in line and sure enough, 45 minutes later we were buckling in for the updated version. In addition to the new digital 3D graphics, the new ride offers a new element: randomness. From what I've read, there are 54 different combinations. On our "tour" we visited icy Hoth in the middle of an ice battle, then sped to Jar-Jar Binks' home planet of Naboo. We even got a visit from Yoda, who informed us we had a rebel spy aboard our vessel. All in all, as much as I loved the original, it was time for an upgrade. Maybe in another 10 years or so they'll update the ride once again and we'll be able to enjoy the excitement without wearing polarized glasses!
The Horn Blows at Midnight (5/22/11) TV-TCM (1945 **) Directed by Raoul Walsh, starring Jack Benny and Alexis Smith. Earth is marked for destruction and a trumpet-blowing angel named Athanael is given the task of signaling the end of days. This film wasn't nearly as good as the other Jack Benny film I watched recently, To Be or Not to Be. Part of the problem was that the (literally) earth-shattering story was set up in an obvious "it was all a dream" frame, so it was hard to care about any of the characters. Besides, it was hard to root for a guy whose goal is to destroy my planet! Finally, while I've always liked Jack Benny, when it comes to carrying a comedy like this he was no Bob Hope.
American Dad!, Season 7 (5/22/11) TV-FOX (2010-11 **1/2) Series created by Seth MacFarlane, Mike Barker and Matt Weitzman, featuring the voices of Seth MacFarlane, Wendy Schaal, Scott Grimes and Rachael MacFarlane. CIA employee Stan Smith, his family and their alien Roger cope with highs, lows and occasionally dark side of animated sitcom family life. Seven seasons! Holy crap! I have been watching this show since the beginning and have always thought of it as a Family Guy knock-off. Obviously it shares Seth MacFarlane's DNA with that superior show. But you know what? As many times as it's been on my "maybe it's time to stop watching" fence, I keep coming back. Will I return for season 8? Yeah, probably.
The Simpsons, Season 22 (5/22/11) TV-FOX (2010-11 ***) Series created by Matt Groening, featuring the voices of Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardly Smith and Harry Shearer. Nuclear power plant employee Homer Simpson and his family cope with the highs and lows of animated sitcom family life. After more than two decades, there's something comforting about hearing Homer's "D-oh" or Marge's throaty growl. I've noticed in the past couple of years a certain Family Guy influence creeping in, and occasionally The Simpsons will have a joke that would be more appropriate on a Seth MacFarlane show. The writers on The Simpsons have my sympathy on that front: On the one hand they want to stay fresh, but if they stray beyond a certain line it just feels wrong. Will I keep watching? Of course I will. At this point The Simpsons has become an institution like Saturday Night Live and I'm in it for the long haul.
Family Guy, Season 9 (5/22/11) TV-FOX (2010-11 ***1/2) Series created by Seth MacFarlane, featuring the voices of Seth MacFarlane, Alex Borstein, Seth Green and Mila Kunis. Peter Griffin, his dysfunctional family and their dog Brian cope with the slings and arrows of outrageous animated sitcom fortune. Of the Sunday night "Animation Domination" Fox lineup, Family Guy is definitely the show I look forward to the most. It is a bit of a guilty pleasure, as there's a sense of naughtiness in the show that's not present in The Simpsons or American Dad. The jokes on Family Guy are more overtly raunchy than those other shows, and on the "shock comedy" spectrum I'd place it halfway between The Simpsons and South Park. I hope it never loses its edge. Having said all that, the season finale "It's a Trap!" parody of The Return of the Jedi was fairly disappointing.
Tron (5/23/11) Netflix (1982 **1/2) Written and directed by Steven Lisberger, starring Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, David Warner and Cindy Morgan. Programmer/hacker/user Kevin Flynn enters the "digital domain" and teams up with a security program named Tron to defeat MCP, the Master Control Program. I first saw this film in high school and even though it represents a pretty important milestone in the history of computer animation, even at age 17 I wasn't too impressed by its story. I rented it in anticipation of renting the recent sequel Tron: Legacy, and I suspect it's one of those films that's better as a pleasant childhood memory than as an actual film. It was curious that Disney chose not to re-release (on disc) the original during the sequel's theatrical run but instead waited until the DVD/Blu-Ray release. While watching Tron I wondered if Disney worried that seeing how mediocre the original film was might actually discourage people from going to the new film.
Saturday Night Live, Season 36 (5/24/11) TV-NBC (2010-11 ***) Series created by Lorne Michaels, featuring Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Seth Meyers, Jason Sudeikis and Kristen Wiig. Season 36 began with Amy Poehler and Katy Perry and ended with Justin Timberlake and Lady Gaga. I've been watching SNL almost continuously since it began in 1975, and for more than half that time people have said "it's not as good as it once was." You know what? I think it's generally done all right, and this past season, while not particularly memorable, was generally solid. I appreciate the effort it takes to put on a live weekly show, and it's great to see that it still has the energy it has. If I had one wish for the show it would be to have more and stronger female performers in the cast. Kristen Wiig (who annoyed the hell out of me originally but I've softened towards her somewhat) consistently carries the bulk of the female character work. Who will leave the show and who return in the fall? With SNL that's always the season cliffhanger.
House of Dark Shadows (5/24/11) TV-TCM (1970 **1/2) Directed by Dan Curtis, written by Sam Hall and Gordon Russell, starring Jonathan Frid, Grayson Hall, Kathryn Leigh Scott and John Karlen. Willie Loomis releases 200-year-old vampire Barnabas Collins on an unsuspecting Collinsport, Maine. This bloody horror film was made relatively cheaply in an attempt to cash in on the success of the soap opera on which it was based. As a fan of the TV show, I found it somewhat amusing to see the movie attempt to race through a couple of year's worth of plot in the restricted time of a feature length movie. As I watched House of Dark Shadows, I wondered what storyline the upcoming Tim Burton / Johnny Depp version will cover. There's a lot of great material to work with from the late Dan Curtis' series (vampires, werewolves, witches, ghosts, time-travel) and I look forward to it.
Glee, Season 2 (5/24/11) TV-FOX (2010-11 ***1/4) Series created by Ian Brennan, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, starring Matthew Morrison, Lea Michele, Cory Monteith, Chris Colfer and Jane Lynch. With a song in their hearts and a spring in their step, those plucky Lima, Ohio kids pursue their dreams of making it to the national glee club show choir competition. Quite frankly, this show stretches credulity on a fairly regular basis, never more so than in its season finale. However, even though I resisted watching this show at first, it has grown on me and I'm glad there's a place in this world (and in prime time) for a TV show that features music so prominently. How long will it last? How long will it manage to sustain itself? What will happen with most of the class graduates high school? They can't all be held back, right? I guess my wife and I will just have to keep watching to find out.
The Paleface (5/25/11) TV-TCM (1948 **1/2) Directed by Norman Z. McLeod, starring Bob Hope and Jane Russell. Calamity Jane and a cowardly dentist take on a secret mission and kill a LOT of Indians. As attractive a woman as Jane Russell was in 1948, she sure wasn't much of an actor, unfortunately. As a result, there was virtually no chemistry between her and her unlikely leading man. Growing up, I was a big Bob Hope fan and I'd remembered this film being better when I watched it in my childhood. Part of the reason I didn't enjoy it so much this time around was undoubtedly the depiction of American Indians in the film as savages and/or shotgun fodder.
Road to Singapore (5/25/11) TV-TCM (1940 **1/2) Directed by Victor Schertzinger, starring Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour and Bob Hope. Shipping heir Josh Mallon and his pal Ace Lannigan drop out of life and wind up in a hut in Singapore with a beautiful live-in maid that looks an awful lot like Dorothy Lamour. The first of their "Road" movies contained a surprising amount of pathos, with Hope and Crosby genuinely falling in love with the same woman. It may be hard to believe, but I don't think I've ever seen this film before. Having recently watched Road to Morocco, it was interesting to note the tonal difference between the two, with Road to Singapore making far more of an attempt at a genuine emotional connection.
Modern Family, Season 2 (5/26/11) TV-ABC (2010-11 ***1/2) Series created by Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, starring Ed O'Neill, Sofia Vergara, Eric Stonestreet and Julie Bowen. Jay Pritchett is the patriarch of a family that extends to three households, all within easy driving distance of each other. I'm embarrassed to admit that my wife and I didn't start watching this show until after it won the Emmy last year. But I'm glad we did, and of the shows we've been DVR-ing this past season, Modern Family has consistently been the one we've wanted to watch first. I appreciate that each episode is structurally strong, with a single theme played out in all three of the "sub-families." However, what really makes this show work as well as it does is that the characters are all so different and well defined (not to mention well played). Even with the show's deliberate structural framework, Modern Family still feels character-driven, which is a real testament to its strong writing.
Flash: The Human Race (5/25/11) Comics (2009 **) Written by Grant Morrison and Mark Millar, illustrated by Paul Ryan and Pop Mhan. Originally published in Flash #136-141 (1998) and Secret Origins #50 (1990). In two separate adventures, Wally West is forced to race against his childhood imaginary friend, then he must rescue his girlfriend Linda from the grim reaper-ish "Black Flash." As with the previous volume (Flash: Emergency Stop), this book was published not because the stories or art were good but because it was partially written by Grant Morrison. Well, good for him, I guess. As I continue work my way through that big stack of Flash trade paperbacks my friend loaned me, so far this book has been the weakest of the bunch.
Tron: Legacy (5/26/11) Netflix (2010 ***) Directed by Joseph Kosinski, starring Jeff Bridges, Garret Hedlund and Olivia Wilde. Sam Flynn follows his missing father into "The Grid" and must fight computer programs in a video game arena in order to bring his father home. I am so glad I decided to rent and watch the original 1982 Tron a couple days before watching this recent sequel. It gave me much more of an appreciation for a lot of the in-jokes and references in the film, and there were many. The visuals were stunning (especially on Blu-Ray) and while the "virtual" young Jeff Bridges (as "Clu") wasn't 100% successful, it was still a major technical achievement and he got far more screen time than I expected. Was the story particularly deep or emotionally moving? No, but it was a worthy successor for the original film.
Simplified Anatomy for the Comic Book Artist: How to Draw the new Streamlined Look of Action-Adventure Comics! (5/29/11) Illustrated Nonfiction (2007 ***1/2) Written by Christopher Hart. With lots of action-oriented super-powered illustrations, this book presents (as its title implies) a simplified approach to anatomy and emphasizes an application toward contemporary "streamlined" comic book styles. This book was loaned to me by a friend and I got enough out of it as a potential reference book that I may order a copy of my own. I have been disappointed by some of Chris Hart's books in the past, but the the illustrations in this book (drawn by several different artists) were appealing. I appreciated that the book's target audience skewed young, and I wish this book had existed when I was a teenager. If you know a young man or woman interested in becoming a comic book illustrator, this book would make a great gift.
The Littlest Rebel (5/29/11) TV-TCM (1935 ***) Directed by David Butler, starring Shirley Temple, John Boles, Jack Holt and Bill Robinson. Little Virgie Cary is the most polite, most diminutive southern belle you've ever seen, but her idyllic life is disrupted by that mean ol' civil war! I couldn't tell you the last time I watched a movie with Shirley Temple. (Okay, I can: It was September 2, 2009 and the film was Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, but I don't think that counts.) It's obvious from this film why she was such a box-office draw. She was simply adorable, never more so in a scene near the end of the film where she shares slices of an apple with Abraham Lincoln. While this film isn't exactly politically correct by modern standards, I've seen far worse from the period in which it was made, and it's still worth watching.
Road to Zanzibar (5/30/11) TV-TCM (1941 **) Directed by Victor Schertzinger, starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour. Chuck Reardon and his pal Hubert "Fearless" Frazier brave the dangers of Africa while resisting the come-ons of two female confidence men. This was the third Hope & Crosby "Road" movie I've watched recently, and the one I enjoyed the least. There was a certain mean-spiritedness in Dorothy Lamour's motivations in this film that was troublesome. Also, the narrative structure of the story was pretty messed up, and there was a point early in the third act when it seemed like the story had played itself out. On the plus side, unlike Road to Morocco, in which Bing & Bob played virtually the same character, in Road to Zanzibar, at least their characters were better defined and differentiated, with Crosby playing the master manipulator and Hope the manipulatee.
Bridesmaids (5/30/11) Glendale Mann 4 (2011 ***1/4) Directed by Paul Feig, screenplay by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, starring Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne and Chris O'Dowd. Failed bakery owner Annie is a self-centered mess, and when her best friend Lillian gets engaged and asks her to be her maid of honor, Annie finds herself in competition with Helen, an "ever-so-perfect" wealthy bridesmaid from hell. Bridesmaids contains healthy portions of the gross-out humor you might expect from a Judd Apatow-produced movie. Because of its release in close proximity to the Hangover sequel, many reviewers have called it a "Hangover for women," which I think sells the movie short.
A Caricaturist's Handbook (5/31/11) Illustrated Nonfiction (2010 ***1/4) Written and illustrated by Jim van der Keyl. This book provides a step-by-step walk-through of the theories and practice of caricature, with a handful of exercises and plenty of good examples. Caricature is a skill I highly respect and one for which I have little talent. Jim van der Keyl's book makes it look fairly straightforward and fun. This book was loaned to me by a friend and was actually self-published by a co-worker at Dreamworks. As a person who self-publishes books for a hobby, I appreciated the book as an example of what could be produced under those constraints. While there were a number of typos in the edition I read, I enjoyed the clean layout and use of lots of color photos and images. Though it doesn't go into great depth, I don't think the goal was to be encyclopedic. This book would probably be very useful as an introductory book on a subject that probably requires equal parts craft and talent.

June

The Flash, Vol. 1: Blood Will Run (6/1/11) Comics (2002 ***) Written by Geoff Johns, illustrated by Scott Kolins. Originally published in Flash #170-176 (2001). Wally West battles Cicada and Magenta, then must deal with the possibility that he fathered a young, "flashy" boy during his "wild oat sowing" years. I'm a fan of Geoff Johns and respect him for jumping into the somewhat floundering Flash continuity and attempting to straighten it out and make it his own. The "is this the son of The Flash?" storyline seemed a bit sensationalistic, however, especially considering how it was resolved.
Invincible Vol. 14: The Viltrumite War (6/3/11) Comics (2011 ***1/2) Written by Robert Kirkman, illustrated by Ryan Ottley. This volume contains issues originally published in Invincible #71-78. The "Invincible Family" goes to war, facing villains old and new. Once again, the team of Kirkman and Ottley delivered a satisfying story-arc that combined super-powered action with hyper-real blood and guts (literally). It's the formula used since the beginning of the book, but it still works. I think Invincible may be my favorite "new" comic book, and given the recent mainstream success of Kirkman's The Walking Dead, I hope the book keeps going for years to come. What's more, I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking it might make an awfully good movie... or three.
The Fallen Idol (6/3/11) TV-TCM (1948 ***1/2) Directed by Carol Reed, based on the screenplay by Graham Greene, starring Ralph Richardson, Michele Morgan, Sonia Dresdel and Bobby Henrey. When the wife of a beloved butler dies under questionable circumstances, a young boy attempts to aid the man he admires... and fails spectacularly. I can't tell you how much it pleases me to stumble upon a classic film from yesteryear that (a) I've never heard of and (b) is as good as this film was. While the third act wasn't quite as strong as the first two, this "lost treasure" is definitely worth watching... if you can find it.
Dog Day Afternoon (6/3/11) TV-TCM (1975 ****) Directed by Sidney Lumet, starring Al Pacino, John Cazale, Chris Sarandon and Charles Durning. Based on a true story, would-be bank robber Sonny Wortzik attempts to steal the money for his boyfriend's sex-change operation, but things don't always go according to plan, do they? It had been years since I'd watched this 35-year-old movie and I'd frankly forgotten how good it was or how great an actor Al Pacino was in his time. Do they even attempt to make movies like this anymore? It was also nice to see Pacino reunited with his Godfather co-star John Cazale, who would die only three years later.
Batman and Robin, Vol. 3: Batman and Robin Must Die! -- The Deluxe Edition (6/4/11) Comics (2011 ***1/4) Written by Grant Morrison, illustrated by Frazer Irving and David Finch. With Bruce Wayne lost in time, Dick Grayson and Damien Wayne must form an uneasy alliance of sorts with The Joker to defeat The Black Glove. Originally printed in Batman and Robin #13-16 and Batman: The Return #1. I do enjoy Grant Morrison when he's not trying too hard to f*ck with my mind. This book was a pleasure to read, though I must confess I didn't care much for his Professor Pyg character, who (according to the text at the book's end) was based on early 20th century animal experiments.
X-Men: First Class (6/5/11) Americana Pacific 18 (2011 ***1/2) Directed by Matthew Vaughn, starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, January Jones and Kevin Bacon. In the early 1960's, a powerful telepath and a "master of magnetism" form a team of young mutants to battle a villain intent on igniting World War III. When I saw this film was getting such good reviews, I knew I had to temper my expectations, and I'm glad I did. I absolutely loved the first 2/3 of this film, but toward the end of the second act it seemed to unravel a bit. Funny thing is, I have the same memory of the first film in the series, X-Men (2000), which I still feel was the first big-budget superhero movie where they got it right tonally. As for this latest prequel installment, I was very glad they went with an early 1960's period setting. This was a great fit for the X-Men and allowed for some very stylish fashions. For what it's worth, I was quite vocal years ago that the first (non-Roger Corman) Fantastic Four film should have been set in the early 1960's, exploiting the comic's early space race origins.
The Flash, Vol. 2: Rogues (6/6/11) Comics (2003 ***1/4) Written by Geoff Johns, illustrated by Scott Kolins. Originally published in Flash #177-182 (2001-02). Flash's Rogues gallery methodically put Wally West's allies out of commission one by one, but what endgame do they have in mind? It appears Geoff Johns was settling into his responsibilites as scribe for the "scarlet speedster." He continued to introduce new supporting characters, while slowly working toward a major storypoint involving Flash's "rogues gallery," though he seemed to be taking his sweet time with it.
The Flash, Vol. 3: Crossfire (6/9/11) Comics (2004 **1/2) Written by Geoff Johns, illustrated by Scott Kolins, Rich Burchett and Justiniano. Originally published in Flash #183-191 and Flash Secret Files (2002). Wally West saves both Central City and Keystone City from The Thinker and The Rogues, then deals with some general continuity catch-up and a magic beanstalk. I'm a fan of Geoff Johns, but this collection did not represent his best work, and the trio of pencillers did nothing to make up for that. Kolins was the best of the three, and while he frequently showed promise, his illustration style was often a poor fit for a character whose main super-power involved running really fast.
The West Wing, Season 2 (6/12/11) DVD (2000-2001 ****) Series created by Aaron Sorkin, starring Martin Sheen, Rob Lowe, Allison Janney, John Spencer, Richard Schiff and Bradley Whitford. The greatest fictional president of all time and his staff face the politics and power of the highest office in the land. Season 2 began with the "cliffhanger" aftermath of the shooting of President Bartlett and Josh Lyman and ended with the death of a beloved character and the president's revelation to his staff and the public that he had M.S. Along the way there was the introduction of Republican Party polemic foil Ainsley Hayes, who may have been primarily a narrative device, but she was a device in a very charming and quirky package. Aaron Sorkin wrote nearly all of the 22 episodes for this season. It's not only an accomplishment to write that many shows, but the quality of his writing was truly amazing. I'll be honest: Sorkin's writing squeezed tears from my eyes in more than half of his episodes, it was that good. In case you haven't figured it out, The West Wing was one of the greatest TV shows of all time.
Figure Drawing: Design and Invention (6/13/11) Illustrated Nonfiction (2010 ***1/4) Written and illustrated by Michael Hampton. In this richly-illustrated book targeted toward artists looking to improve their life drawings, Hampton breaks the human body into its component forms, emphasizing a somewhat simplified anatomy. I borrowed this book from a friend, and while I'm tempted to order a copy for myself, I think I may hold off in case I find something better. It's certainly a good book, though it was deficient in two areas: (1) I found the copy often wasn't written in the clearest manner, and even with the fine accompanying illustrations I was still frequently confused; (2) There is almost no attention given to rendering techniques that might be used to increase the impact of one's drawings. The best part of the book, really, was its color-coded diagramatic illustrations of various muscles and muscle groups.
The Flash, Vol. 4: Blitz (6/13/11) Comics (2004 ***1/4) Written by Geoff Johns, illustrated by Scott Kolins and Phil Winslade. Originally published in Flash #192-200 (2003). Crimson speedster Wally West deals with bloodthirsty, power-hungry Gorilla Grodd's breakout from Iron Heights Penitentiary and the return (of sorts) of Professor Zoom. This volume was the most satisfying of Geoff Johns' Flash books so far, and there was clear evidence of him hitting his stride. The key to that lay in two things: (1) He pushed his new supporting cast of characters into the background (with one notable exception); and (2) in the Professor Zoom storyline he took the conflict, gave it depth and made it personal.
From Here to Eternity (6/13/11) TV-TCM (1953 ***1/4) Directed by Fred Zinnemann, based on the novel by James Jones, starring Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed and Frank Sinatra. Ex-boxer / army private Robert E. Lee Prewitt transfers to Hawaii, where he gets treated like crap and falls for the star of the Donna Reed Show... who turns out to be a hooker. This film is a deserving classic and it won the Oscar for Best Picture. It also contains one of the most iconic screen kisses of all time. However, it's also an example of a variety of over-the-top potboiler that was in vogue in the 1950's, and to my 21st century sensibilities it frequently seemed unnecessarily melodramatic.
Super 8 (6/14/11) La Canada 8 (2011 ***1/2) Written and directed by J.J. Abrams, starring Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning and Kyle Chandler. In 1979 a group of Ohio teens shooting a zombie epic witness the derailment of a train carrying a mystery with super-strength. This was not a perfect film story-wise, though in that department it was still undoubtedly better than most of the films that will be released this summer. What Super 8 did amazingly well was work as not just a period piece, but also as a throwback to the Spielberg-directed or produced films of my childhood and teen years, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. and The Goonies. I loved that the story was told from the children's P.O.V. and it was all too easy for me to identify with a group of kids getting together in the middle of a summer night to shoot a film... on Super 8!
The Flash, Vol. 5: Ignition (6/17/11) Comics (2005 ***1/4) Written by Geoff Johns, illustrated by Alberto Dose and various. Originally published in Flash #201-206 (2004). After Wally West has his memory "wiped" by Hal Jordan / The Spectre, he takes a job as a Keystone Police Department mechanic and slowly comes to the realization that he's not just an ordinary man. The tone of this collection was definitely one of transition, and Alberto Dose's indy comics-ish art was well suited for a storyline in which The Flash spent more time in civilian clothes than in the familiar scarlet and gold.
The Flash, Vol. 6: The Secret of Barry Allen (6/18/11) Comics (2005 ***1/2) Written by Geoff Johns, illustrated by Howard Porter and Livesay. Originally published in Flash #207-211, 213-217 (2004). This storyline mostly runs in parallel with the superb Brad Meltzer-penned Identity Crisis. When Wally West learns that his uncle and hero Barry Allen slid down the slippery moral slope and "fixed" the psyche of supervillain The Top, Wally must try to do what he can to put things right, even if it comes at the expense of making his life considerably harder. There was plenty of evidence in this volume that after some period of struggle Geoff Johns finally figured out what made The Flash work as a character and as a book. It was also fun to see him continue to dig into Wally's relationship with the rest of the DC universe, including a touching "best friendship" with fellow original Teen Titan Dick Grayson.
Bathing Beauty (6/19/11) TV-TCM (1944 **1/2) Directed by George Sidney, starring Red Skelton, Esther Williams and Basil Rathbone, featuring Xavier Cugat, Harry James and their bands. A songwriter's marriage to a swimming instructor is derailed, and he must go "back to school" to win her heart. The setup for this musical was positively ridiculous, and most of the musical numbers did nothing to advance the plot. Still, the technicolor was eye-popping and Esther Williams was one heck of a knockout in a one-piece bathing suit, and it's no wonder she went from second billing to top billing.
The Flash, Vol. 7: Rogue War (6/23/11) Comics (2006 ***1/2) Written by Geoff Johns, illustrated by Howard Porter and Livesay. Originally published in Flash # 1/2, 212, 218, 220-225 (2004-05). This volume begins with full-issue backstory explorations of villains Mirror Master and Heat Wave, then transitions into the titular war between active and reformed rogues, and ends with a return of Professor Zoom. As I read this book it was absolutely clear that Geoff Johns really hit his stride. This collection of stories was well written and thoroughly compelling. Highly recommended.
Modern Family, Season 1 (6/23/11) Netflix (2009-2010 ****) Created by Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, starring Ed O'Neill, Sofia Vergara, Julie Bowen and Ty Burrell. A 3-household extended family suffers the slings and arrows of weekly thematically-unified misadventures. Confession time: My wife and I started watching this ABC show late in the first season after it won the Emmy. We then watched and enjoyed the show's second year and then when the regular TV season ended we put this season on our Netflix queue. The 24-episode second season began with a deft introduction to all 11 well-drawn characters (including Cam and Mitch's adopted Vietnamese infant Lily) and ended with Claire Dunphy's attempt to corral everyone for a family portrait in white. This is a terrific show with strong writing and acting, and it consistently balances the fresh ("Modern") with the familiar ("Family"). I predict we'll be regular viewers for years to come.
The Flash: The Fastest Man Alive: Lightning in a Bottle (6/24/11) Comics (2007 ***) Written by Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo, illustrated (mostly) by Ken Lashley. Originally published in The Flash: The Fastest Man Alive #1-6 (2006-2007). When Bart Allen's roommate gains powers and becomes a morality-challenged superhero, Bart must put on a clone of his grandfather's scarlet and gold suit and take "The Griffin" down. Comic book continuity is a funny thing. Seems like just the day before yesterday when I was reading a wonderful Geoff Johns-penned Wally West Flash volume (The Flash, Vol. 7: Rogue War), but in the next book in my borrowed-from-a-friend stack, Wally is gone and the "impulsive" Bart has mysteriously aged four years into young adulthood. Clearly I've missed something along the way. The writing in Lightning in a Bottle wasn't nearly as strong as Geoff Johns at his best, but it wasn't terrible. And while Ken Lashley's art was serviceable, my favorite art in this collection was rendered by Karl Kershl in issue #3. All in all, I'm not crazy about a grown-up Bart Allen as The Flash, but with only two books remaining in the stack I suppose I'll stick with it and see where it goes.
Amazing Stories, Season 1 (6/25/11) Netflix (1985-86 ***) Anthology series created by Steven Spielberg, directed by and starring various. The star-studded (Kevin Kostner, Kiefer Sutherland, Mark Hammill) Season 1 began with the Spielberg-directed "Ghost Train" (which actually played me emotionally like a freakin' violin) and ended with "Grandpa's Ghost," directed by Timothy Hutton. Though ambitious for the time in which it was made, the anthology series was pretty uneven, but the producers sure managed to get some "amazing" talent and production values. One highlight was a period piece called "Vanessa in the Garden," which was -- believe it or not -- written by Spielberg himself, directed by Clint Eastwood, and starred Harvey Keitel, Beau Bridges and Sondra Locke. Another episode, "Mirror, Mirror" was directed by Martin Scorsese! Ultimately, the weak episodes (one called "Hell Toupee" was almost unwatchable) outnumbered the good ones, and I probably enjoyed this show more for the mid-eighties nostalgia factor than for the show itself. Still, if the second season were available on Netflix I'd probably rent it.
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (6/29/11) Netflix (2004 ***) Directed by Adam Mckay, starring Will Ferrell, Christina Applegate, Paul Rudd, David Koechner and Steve Carell as Brick Tamland, the weatherman with an I.Q. of 48. San Diego's top news anchor is on top of the world until his world and ego is shaken by a sexy rival. This movie had a lot going for it, including some awesome cameos and supporting roles by Fred Willard, Ben Stiller, Tim Robbins, Luke Wilson, Vince Vaughn, Jack Black, Fred Armisen, Chris Parnell and Seth Rogen. But even with all it offered, and in spite of decent performances by its romantic leads Ferrell and Applegate, the film never quite rose to the level of classic comedy. It's possible the reason for that lay in the fact that the main characters (especially Ferrell) remained cartoonish throughout (making it hard to care about them) and ultimately the film (though quite clever at times) lacked any underlying depth.

July

The Las Vegas Story (7/2/11) TV-TCM (1952 **) Directed by Robert Stevenson, starring Jane Russell, Victor Mature, Vincent Price and Hoagy Carmichael. When a singer returns to Las Vegas with her ethically-challenged businessman hubby, she runs into an old flame, who's (conveniently plot-wise) now a cop. Robert Stevenson went on to direct many of Disney's beloved films, including Mary Poppins, but he sure didn't have much of a story to work with. It's not a bad movie, but not even Ms. Russell's... er, assets made The Las Vegas Story worth recommending.
Summer Stock (7/3/11) TV-TCM (1950 **1/2) Directed by Charles Walters, starring Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Eddie Bracken and Phil Silvers. A troupe of performers decide to "put on a show" in a farming gal's barn, much to her gosh darned consternation. You'd think after all her pairings with Mickey Rooney that Garland would've been more open-minded about backyard (or in this case barnyard) musicals. While she and Kelly performed their little hearts out, the story was pretty flat and there was almost zero chemistry between them. As I watched Gene Kelly in this film I kept wondering if he was thinking: "So what if this movie's a dog, I'm only two years away from appearing in what many will call the best movie musical of all time!" Having said all that, Summer Stock did feature (even though it didn't really fit with the rest of the movie) Judy Garland singing the memorable (Come on) "Get Happy."
Tim Burton (7/5/11) LACMA - Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2011 ***1/2) This retrospective exhibition, originally organized by The Museum of Modern Art in New York, presented over 700 pieces ranging from high school drawings to high-quality maquettes. Though I enjoyed it and am glad I went, I'm frankly astonished by the incredible popularity of this show. It's apparently one of LACMA's most popular shows ever, as evidenced by the fact that reservations were required for admission. Looking through the artwork on display, it was hard not to feel an affinity for Tim Burton as an artist. He definitely found an aesthetic early on, largely influenced by artists and illustrators of the early 1970's and took it as far as he could go. At the risk of being bombarded by bricks, I did get a sense from the exhibit that Burton may have peaked creatively early in his career. Though he was able to take his art to a grander scope, thanks to working in the medium of multi-million dollar special-effects laden films, I saw no real evidence of his progression as an artist in the past couple of decades. This retrospective underscored the fact that he's been returning to the same well creatively for much of his life.
The Snows of Kilimanjaro (7/5/11) TV-TCM (1952 **) Directed by Henry King, screenplay by Casey Robinson, based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway, starring Gregory Peck, Susan Hayward and Ava Gardner. As novelist Harry Street lies dying from an infected leg, he reflects on his life, his loves and his regrets. As pleasant as it was to watch a movie starring Peck and Ava Gardner, who appeared together years later in On the Beach (1959), this was basically a movie about a self-centered asshole and the women who loved him in spite of themselves. Its running time was under 2 hours but felt longer. I was bored for much of it and was glad when it was over.
Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths (7/6/11) Netflix (2010 ***) Directed by Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery, written by Dwayne McDuffie, featuring the voices of William Baldwin, Mark Harmon, Gina Torres, Chris Noth and James Woods. The JLA travel to an alternate universe to face down their evil "Crime Syndicate" counterparts. This original made-for-video movie borrowed heavily from Grant Morrison's 2000 graphic novel JLA: Earth 2. Considering its humble production values, this was better than I expected. The Blu-Ray disc also featured a bunch of bonus features including: a Spectre short; the unaired 2007 Aquaman pilot starring Justin Hartley (Smallvill's Green Arrow) and the Linda Carter Wonder Woman pilot from 1975.
West Side Story (7/8/11) Hollywood Bowl (1961/2011 ****) Directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, starring Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno and George Chakiris, L.A. Philharmonic directed by David Newman. Tony and Maria are star-crossed lovers who find themselves on opposite sides of a street gang rumble; if you ask me, the whole situation is downright Shakespearean! It's a movie and a live performance! What's not to like about watching a film that is arguably the #1 or #2 best movie musical of all time with the score provided by an amazing symphony orchestra? At $50/ticket (for our mid-range seats, anyhow), the experience could arguably be compared to a very expensive drive-in. But it was also a wonderful night, punctuated only occasionally by the sound of helicopters flying overhead. Damn you, helicopter flyover looky-loos!
Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (7/9/11) Nonfiction (2002 **1/2) Written by David Allen. This book presents a foolproof system for mastering life's myriad to-do items and sorting your in-box. A friend recommended this book and the Omnifocus software based on its core methodology. As I was starting a new project focus and was looking for a little organizational inspiration, I thought I'd give it a read. What I got from the book was a reinforcement for several organizational techniques I was already utilizing and a general sense that the systems I've developed over the years weren't too far off the mark. My main problem with the book was that a fairly small amount of material was presented in way too many pages. Honestly, the book could have easily been edited to about half its length. I found a lot of discussion that didn't necessarily expand understanding. Part of my problem was that the audience for this book was/is people in middle-to-upper management positions, and so it may have been more applicable to me when I was in management. I was primarily looking for something to help me manage multiple creative projects, and unfortunately the system described in Getting Things Done wasn't really ideal for that purpose.
Larry Crowne (7/10/11) Chesterfield Galaxy 14 (2011 ***) Directed and co-written by Tom Hanks, starring Hanks, Julia Roberts and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, with Cedric the Entertainer and Bryan Cranston. A middle-aged white guy is laid off from his job because he never went to college, and so he goes... (wait for it) back to school! I saw this movie while on a weekend family visit to St. Louis. Larry Crowne was my mother's request for a rare outing, and she seemed to enjoy it. I liked it a bit more than I expected to, actually. It wasn't challenging, to be sure, and some of the storylines resolved in odd ways, but Tom Hanks is an awfully likable actor, especially when he's playing characters designed to be likable. I did like his previous directorial offering from a decade and a half ago, That Thing You Do! (1996), and it will be interesting to see if he returns to the director's chair again soon. On a personal/quirky note: Larry Crowne was shot in and around Los Angeles, and Frank's Restaurant, which featured heavily in the film, is actually a real place my wife and I have gone for dinner many times. It was fun to see Hanks and Julia Roberts on the big screen sitting in the same booth my wife and I sat just a few weeks ago.
Twilight Zone: The Movie (7/13/11) Netflix (1983 ***) Directed by (in segment order) John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante and George Miller, starring (in segment order) Vic Morrow, Scatman Crothers, Kathleen Quinlan and John Lithgow, with bookends featuring Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd. In this anthology movie, bigots are beaten, cans are kicked, monsters come in adorable shapes and sizes, and OHMYGOD THERE'S A MAN ON THE WING OF THIS PLANE! Back in the early 1980s, somebody had the bright idea of bringing beloved TV shows back in the form of big-screen features. And so this movie was part of the beginning of a trend that still hasn't quite been exhausted. The movie itself is likely best remembered now for the tragic accident that took the lives of Vic Morrow and two young children. Twilight Zone: The Movie was probably also part of the impetus for Spielberg's mid-1980's Amazing Stories TV show, the first season of which I watched recently.
Shrek the Musical (7/13/11) Pantages Theater, Hollywood (2011 ***1/4) Book by David Lindsay-Abaire, music by Jeanine Tesori, directed by Jason Moore and Rob Ashford, starring Eric Petersen (Shrek), David F.M. Vaughn (Farquaad), Alan Mingo Jr. (Donkey) and Haven Burton (Fiona). Thanks to my our "inside connections," we were invited (okay, my wife was invited and I was her "plus one") to the opening performance of this touring production's L.A. run. I was happy to see my wife's name among those thanked in the program. There were several celebrities in attendance, including Modern Family's Julie Bowen and Greg Brady (Barry Williams) who sat two rows in front of us. We'd seen the show on Broadway, and knew they'd made some tweaks since then. The best change came in the nearly life-size Dragon puppet, which was wonderfully puppeteered while filling nearly the entire stage. Unfortunately, the sound mix was off and it was hard to hear many of the lyrics, and overall the performances weren't quite on par with those in the Broadway version. Then again, it's hard to compete with Tony-winning Sutton Foster, who originated the stage version of Fiona. As someone who proudly worked on the first Shrek movie (as well as the second and third), it was wonderful to see the stage show it inspired. I knew while working on it that it was quite a special movie.
The Flash: The Fastest Man Alive: Full Throttle (7/14/11) Comics (2007 **1/2) Written by Marc Guggenheim, Mark Waid and various, illustrated by Tony Daniel and various. Originally published in The Flash: The Fastest Man Alive #7-13, All Flash #1 and DCU Infinite Holiday Special (2007). Bart Allen must be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice when he takes on his evil clone Inertia and the Rogues at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. As dramatic a volume as this potentially was, I simply wasn't moved or particularly entertained; the art was fine, but the story offered no real punch. The truth is I never truly bought into the idea of Bart Allen as The Flash.
The Flash: The Wild Wests (7/14/11) Comics (2008 **1/2) Written by Mark Waid, illustrated by Daniel Acuna and Freddie Williams II. Original published in The Flash #231-237 (2007-2008). Wally West, his wife Linda and their kids Iris and Jai return from the planet Savoth to defend Keystone City from alien invasion... as a family. As much as I enjoyed Acuna's artwork, I wish I could say I liked the "hyper-accelerated growth kids" premise more. It seems Waid was intent on redefining Wally West / The Flash for seemingly the 105th time, and it just didn't click for me. The core conflict was set up (presumably) to be between the dangers of superheroic battles with deadly threats and keeping one's children (and innocence) safe. It's too bad Waid couldn't take a page from Robert Kirkman's Invincible series, which has explored similar thematic territory, but of course that level of ultraviolence would be way too much for DC's mainstream audience.
An Evening With The Monkees: The 45th Anniversary Tour (7/16/11) Greek Theater (2011 ****) Three of the four members of my favorite childhood band, Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones and Peter Tork, performed their final concert of their 42-city tour to an enthusiastic audience of people roughly my age. The show was preceded by a trailer for their movie Head and several vintage commercials The Monkees appeared in for Kool-Aid and Kellogg's. During the concert, clips from the TV show played on a big screen behind them throughout, which was a brilliant move on the part of the concert producers. It definitely fed the nostalgia factor and embraced the disconnect between the young men running around on the screen and their aged (considerably slower) counterparts onstage. About midway through the show, Micky, Davy and Peter performed five songs from Head, which I actually really enjoyed, but I know those songs weren't as well-known as some of their other music. I imagine many were far less enthusiastic than I was. The question hanging in the air all evening was whether or not Michael Nesmith ("Wool Hat") might make an appearance. That question was answered later when Peter Tork (who had sung all the Nesmith-range vocals) thanked everyone who was there, then invited anyone who not present to "eat dirt." Overall, the energy was surprisingly good, considering the age of the performers. They did their best but weren't the same men they were in their early twenties: Micky Dolenz' voice was all but gone; Peter Tork looked like he weighed about 90 pounds and Davy Jones (whose voice was the strongest of the three) was frequently out of breath and had definitely put on a few pounds around the middle since his younger days. I was frankly impressed by their professionalism (they clearly took the show very seriously) and how quickly (and deftly) they transitioned between songs. In terms of the song selection, they played all their hits but the nearly sold-out concert was also obviously directed at die-hard first-generation Monkees fans like myself. All in all I had a wonderful time, and it was a real kick to go to a concert where I knew each and every song on the setlist!
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (3D) (7/17/11) AMC Burbank 16 (2011 ***1/2) Directed by David Yates, screenplay by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling, starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint. Harry Potter and his amazing friends return to Hogwarts to face down Lord Voldemort, but is Harry prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice? The eighth and final film in the Harry Potter saga has gotten exceptionally positive reviews, and deservingly so. It's nothing short of remarkable that this film series, which could have gone south with each installment, maintained its level of quality throughout. It's not something that happens very often in the film biz. And so the cinematic journey of "the boy who lived" has finally ended, not with a whimper but with one hell of a bang. Bravo, Harry!
A Face in the Crowd (7/18/11) TV-TCM (1957 ***1/2) Directed by Elia Kazan, screenplay by Budd Schulberg, starring Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Anthony Franciosa and Walter Matthau. The daughter of a radio station owner discovers a truly original American guitar-beatin' voice in the local jail and witnesses his meteoric rise. Andy Griffith, who went on only a few years later to become the beloved sheriff of Mayberry, delivered an astounding performance in this film. I have to admit my respect for him escalated appreciably after watching it. Even though the film is over fifty years old, its message about the power and the peril of charismatic public figures is still painfully valid for our celebrity-drenched modern world.
Batman: Under the Red Hood (7/19/11) Netflix (2010 ***1/2) Directed by Brandon Vietti, written by Judd Winick, based on his 2005 graphic novel, featuring the voice talents of Bruce Greenwood, Jensen Ackles, John Di Maggio and Neil Patrick Harris. Ten years after the death of Jason Todd, the second Robin, a red-hooded figure with mad ninja skills arrives in Gotham and starts taking over the drug gangs. This was a very faithful and effective retelling of Winick's graphic novel, which I read several years ago. I'm also old enough to have bought the original "Death in the Family" books, which led up to the 900-number call for Jason Todd's death. One of the several bonus features on the disc gave a solid overview of that event, including interviews with those involved.
True Blood, Season 3 (7/20/11) Netflix (2010 ***1/4) Series created by Alan Ball, based on the book series by Charlaine Harris, starring Anna Paquin, Stephen Moyer and Alexander Skarsgard. Sookie Stackhouse, a waitress (who almost never actually goes to work) in Bon Temps, Louisiana, is up to her supernatural eyeballs in vampires, werewolves, shape-shifters, witches and... fairies? In season 3, Sookie becomes a "person of interest" and her amazing friends must defend her from a powerful 3,000-year-old vampire king named Russell Edgington. Here's my beef with this series: When it was good, it was awesome, but as season 3 wore on I increasingly found myself annoyed by storylines and characters I had no interest in. I had the exact same fundamental problem with Ball's previous HBO series, Six Feet Under. Will I keep watching? Hell yeah! Who knows what kinda crazy shit that cute little Bon Temps waitress with the mixed lineage will get into next. Of course, I could just ask my wife, who read all Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse books last year.
Superman / Batman: Public Enemies (7/24/11) Netflix (2009 ***) Directed by Sam Liu, screenplay by Stan Berkowitz, based on the graphic novel by Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness, featuring the voices of Kevin Conroy (Batman), Tim Daly (Superman) and Clancy Brown (Lex Luthor). In a world where Lex Luthor's been elected president and a meteor made of green Kryptonite is hurtling toward earth, naturally Luthor's top priority is framing the "Man of Steel" for murder and putting a billion dollar bounty on his spit-curled head. I'd read the original graphic novel on which this made-for-video film was based, and I was impressed by how well it worked in animated form, even though at least half the 75-minute running time was spent on all-out slugfests. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) As I've watched several of these videos lately I've felt as though I'm almost watching a new hybrid medium, something that exists in-between an animated half-hour TV show and a big-budget live action superhero film. It's been apparent that a lot of care has been given to the quality of these films, even given the limitations of the budgets.
Pageant of the Masters 2011: "Only Make Believe" (7/24/11) Laguna Beach Festival of Arts (2011 ***1/4) A tradition since 1932, The Pageant of the Masters is something that's hard to understand unless you've actually seen one. This was my wife's third time at the Pageant, and it was an experience she wanted to share with me. One way to describe this annual summer event is as a lot of people wearing a lot of makeup standing completely still for 90 seconds at a time. But another way to describe it is as a genuinely original theatrical experience that celebrates the visual arts. The theme for 2011 was "Only Make Believe," and all the works featured fantasy settings, including elves, dragons and time-obsessed white rabbits. Many of the pieces were astounding in their degree of artistic execution, and there were a few fun surprises sprinkled throughout the show. If you go, I highly encourage you to take along a pair of binoculars, so you can appreciate the level of detail. We did and it made a big difference.
The Ox-Bow Incident (7/25/11) TV-TCM (1943 ***1/2) Directed by William A. Wellman, screenplay by Lamar Trotti, based on the novel by Walter Van Tilburg, starring Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews and Anthony Quinn. A posse bent on veneance come across three men who may or may not be the murderers they're after; naturally mob psychology results in a fair and balanced resolution, just like it always does. This is another classic movie I somehow never got around to watching until my late 40's. For some reason I could've sworn Rod Serling was associated with the screenplay, but I obviously confused it with another film. This was a pretty solid movie and its exploration of the courage it takes to stand up for what you believe in even when it runs against the bloodthirsty urges of an angry mob made it well worth watching. The film's message was all the more powerful considering it was made in the middle of World War II.
Programming in Objective-C 2.0 (7/25/11) Nonfiction (2009 ***1/4) Written by Stephen G. Kochan. The syntax and structure of the Objective-C 2.0 programming language is fully described, including plenty of code examples along the way. Well, this is a first for this blog: a review of a programming book! As someone who wrote a lot of C code "back in the day" but never quite fully made the transition to C++, I appreciated the author's approach to this language, which was built on top of C: Kochan treated it as though the reader was learning Objective-C 2.0 as their first programming language, digressing occasionally to discuss some of the legacy C features that ran counter to the object-oriented paradigm. The book was exceptionally clear to read and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to someone trying to learn the language. My motivation in buying this book is that I recently decided to try my hand at writing Apps for the iPad and iPhone. I had bought and begun reading another book (Beginning iPhone 4 Development) and quickly realized (mainly because of Objective-C's odd syntax and memory management) that I needed a second book to understand the first. This was that second book, and it has fulfilled its job admirably.
Superman / Batman: Apocalypse (7/27/11) Netflix (2010 **1/2) Directed by Lauren Montgomery, screenplay by Tab Murphy, based on the graphic novel by Jeph Loeb and Michael Turner, featuring the voices of Kevin Conroy (Batman), Tim Daly (Superman), Summer Glau (Supergirl) and Andre Braugher (Darkseid). Superman's teenage cousin crash lands on earth and tries to adjust to her new home and new powers, but then Darkseid kidnaps her to turn her into the captain of his Apokolips cheerleading squad, or something along those lines. I've been watching a lot of these DCU made-for-video 75-minute movies lately, and this is one of the few where I hadn't read the original source material. It's also (so far) the one with the weakest writing. There were lines of dialogue that absolutely made me cringe, like: "I'd tell you to go to hell... but that would be redundant." On the art front, I didn't care much for the character designs, which differed from the Ed McGuinness-inspired designs used in Superman / Batman: Public Enemies. I don't know why it bothered me as much as it did, but Superman / Clark Kent's full lips looked like they were constantly pursed together for a kiss.
Captain America: The First Avenger (7/30/11) Glendale Americana Pacific 18 (2011 ****) Directed by Joe Johnson, starring Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell and Tommy Lee Jones. An ultra-masochistic kid from Brooklyn becomes an ultra-human super-soldier (and hunk), but the ultra-Nazi Red Skull keeps him from getting ultra-laid. I've wanted to see this film for a long time and tried my best to keep my expectations in check. You know what? I absolutely loved it. I loved everything about it. Johnson and the screenwriters did a fantastic job of exploiting everything that was awesome about one of my favorite childhood heroes. They even managed to sqeeze his original shield in there! I had my doubts about casting Fantastic Four's Human Torch as "The Star-Spangled Man with a Plan," but Chris Evans was perfect in the role. He had the physique to handle the action sequences believably, but he was also unbelievably likable! I wasn't sobbing like a baby or anything, but I was quite touched by the FX-enhanced pre-bulkifying scenes early in the film. His deep sense of patriotism and dislike for bullies like the Nazis really got to me. In the "wish fulfillment" domain it ranked exceptionally high as well as triggered old memories of a code of right and wrong I got from reading comics as a kid.
All Star Superman (7/31/11) Netflix (2011 ***) Directed by Sam Liu, screenplay by Dwayne McDuffie, based on the graphic novel by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, featuring the voices of James Denton (Superman), Anthony LaPaglia (Lex Luthor), Christina Hendricks (Lois Lane) and Ed Asner (Perry White). Superman's dying from solar radiation and in his final months must perform superhuman feats while finding closure with his greatest love... and his greatest nemesis. As DC Universe made-for-video feature-length adaptations of graphic novels go, this wasn't bad, though its melancholy tone and the fact that it (spoiler alert) literally depicts the death of Superman may have some scratching their heads. The film's story was also a bit disjointed, but that was really due to the deliberately episodic nature of the source material, which was (ironically, given the main storyline) intended by Grant Morrison to evoke a sense of the "fun" Superman of the 1950's and early 1960's. I know it's a matter of picking nits, but I was bothered by one story point: In the prison scene in which Parasite absorbs Superman's solar power and goes on a rampage, it appeared that Clark Kent let an awful lot of prisoners get killed in order to preserve his secret identity.

August

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (3D) (8/1/11) DWA Screening (2011 **1/2) Directed by Michael Bay, screenplay by Ehren Kruger, starring Shia LaBeouf, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Patrick Dempsey, John Turturro, Frances McDormand and (for reasons I don't quite understand) John Malkovich. It turns out the 1960's race to the moon was inspired by the crash-landing of a Cybertronian spaceship, which leads inevitably to the destruction of Chicago. Michael Bay was at his "Bayest" in the latest installment of the Hasbro toy-inspired Autobot / Decepticon saga. I loved the first Transformers, HATED the second and was somewhere in the middle on the third. Honestly, my expectations were set pretty low, and I didn't expect anything in the way of a relatable story this time around. And so I was able to sit back and enjoy (in 3D that varied from effective to practically nonexistent) giant robots hitting each other and knocking over buildings as well as multiple in-jokes about Leonard Nimoy, who provided the voice for Sentinel Prime.
The Trouble With Angels (8/3/11) Netflix (1966 **1/2) Directed by Ido Lupino, based on the novel by Jane Trahey, starring Rosalind Russell, Hayley Mills and June Harding. Mary and Rachel, a couple of cigar-smoking troublemakers, cause mayhem in St. Francis Academy for three years, but who will win the battle of wills: the girls or the Mother Superior? I put this on my Netflix queue back in May after seeing Hayley Mills in person at the TCM Classic Film Festival. The Trouble With Angels an odd duck of a film, nearly Disney-ish (though released by Columbia Pictures), but I don't think Disney would have allowed the scenes of the girls smoking. To be honest, the girls were never THAT bad. Putting bubble bath powder in sugar bowls or giving tours of the "off limits" nuns quarters wasn't exactly like shooting up heroin in the girl's room or having sex with the groundskeeper. It seemed very much like a movie I might have seen at the drive-in in my childhood, and perhaps I did; as I watched nothing triggered any definite memories of seeing this (rather forgettable) film before. It's perhaps telling that the film's sequel (Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows) isn't currently available on Netflix.
Hairspray (8/5/11) Hollywood Bowl (2011 ***1/4) directed by Jerry Mitchell, starring Marissa Jaret Winokur, Harvey Fierstein, Susan Anton, John Stamos, Drew Carey, Corbin Bleu and Nick Jonas. 1962 Bubbly Baltimore teen Tracy Turnblad fights racism and "weightism" through the power of dance. Based on John Waters' 1988 film, this stage production was a lot of fun and decidedly high energy, though the Hollywood Bowl isn't the best venue for musical productions of this type. My wife and I didn't buy a program or pay attention to who was in the cast, and so during the first half of the show we wondered why so many of the young ladies in the audience kept screaming and swooning. During intermission we were told that Nick Jonas (and to a lesser degree Corbin Bleu) were the cause. It was a fun show and the celebrities in the cast added to that, though some fared better than others. I gotta give it to Drew Carey for giving it his all, but it was clear that he was somewhat out of his element and in fact reminded me of what I might look like if I were suddenly thrust upon the stage. Not that that's happening anytime soon.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (8/6/11) Glendale Pacific 18 (2011 ***1/4) Directed by Rupert Wyatt, screenplay by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, starring James Franco, Freida Pinto and John Lithgow and featuring the digitally-captured body and facial motion of Andy Serkis. An adorable superintelligent Chimpanzee named Ceasar and his adoptive human father are responsible for the downfall of human civilization. Yeah, thanks a lot, cure for Alzheimers! After seeing a trailer for this film (which pretty much showed the entire story) I knew I had to see it on opening weekend, even if my wife wasn't interested. It had gotten generally positive reviews, though many of them singled out the film's weak dialogue. And it really was pretty atrocious at times. In fact, the non-speaking apes were often more believable than the humans! Thankfully that didn't really get in the way of my enjoying the movie. While I found the design choices for the CG version of young Ceasar a little off-putting, Andy Serkis' performance was very effective, and Weta Digital's technology (and many animators, I'm sure) did an effective job of communicating Ceasar's emotions onscreen.
Dexter, Season 1 (8/6/11) Netflix (2006 ***1/4) Series created by Daniel Cerone, Clyde Phillips and Melissa Rosenberg, based on the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay, starring Michael C. Hall, Julie Benz, Jennifer Carpenter and Erik King. A Miami-based serial killer and sociopath kills serial killers in a serial fashion. We've had this series on our Netflix queue for a long time and finally got around to watching it. I gotta tell you, after the weak writing for the first four episodes I was close to calling it quits, but then the writing improved a little and the show seemed to find its proper tone. Making a serial killer sympathetic takes a lot of "pet the dog" moments, but ultimately what made the show work was that it tapped into something very universal: We all have versions of ourselves we show to the world and versions we keep to ourselves and thos closest to us. Dexter Morgan just takes that quality and takes it to its logical extreme.
Hulk, Vol. 3: Hulk No More (8/7/11) Comics (2009 **1/2) Written by Jeph Loeb, illustrated by Ed McGuinness. Originally Published in Hulk #10-13 and Incredible Hulk #600. The Green Goliath joins with The Silver Surfer, The Sub-Mariner and Doctor Strange to fight for the women they loved... and lost. This collection, which can be read cover to cover in about a half hour, contains what is advertised as an earth-shattering event in the life of The Hulk, but was actually pretty anticlimactic. It's been quite a while since I've read a Hulk comic, but I saw this at my favorite used book store and I'm a fan of Loeb and McGuinness' work. This was definitely a disappointment though. The best parts of the book were: (A) the boxing poster-inspired graphic design scattered throughout the hardcover edition and (B) McGuinness' artwork.
No One Cares What You Had for Lunch: 100 Ideas for your Blog (8/7/11) Nonfiction (2007 *) Written by Margaret Mason, creator of www.mightygoods.com and www.mightygirl.com. I bought this book for my wife several years ago and saw it sitting on her bookshelf and thought I'd give it a read. It took me less than an hour to read it cover to cover, but that time was still wasted. I don't often give 1-star reviews, but this book deserves it. No One Cares What You Had for Lunch was SO lacking in anything resembling useful information that I felt like I'd just read the empty calories equivalent of a bag of marshmallows. However, it did work splendidly as evidence that one could write a book in what I'm guessing was about 8 hours total, using only research pulled from no further than one's own rectum. As someone who has put a lot of time and effort into creating and self-publishing several books, the message I got from Ms. Mason's book was that I've been working too hard.
DC Showcase: Superman / Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam (8/8/11) Netflix (2010 **1/2) Directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, featuring the voice talents of George Newbern (Superman), Jerry O'Connell (Captain Marvel) and James Garner (Shazam). After 5,000 years of banishment, the wizard Shazam's worst mistake returns to earth to find and kill a kid named Billy Batson, and only Superman stands in his way. I've rented several of these made-for-video animated films lately and had gotten used to a pattern: 75-minute main stories, with a "Showcase Presents" short. This disc was made up of four shorts, three of which appeared on other discs I'd rented. And so I was surprised when the main Superman / Captain Marvel story was over as quickly as it was. It was fun story (I'd read the graphic novel on which it was based) but I do wish it had been extended to feature length.
Midnight in Paris (8/8/11) DWA Screening (2011 ***1/2) Written and directed by Woody Allen, starring Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams and Kathy Bates. A writer visiting Paris stumbles through time into the "golden age" of the 1920s, where he encounters F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and other luminaries of the period. Bravo, Woody! This is probably the best movie Woody Allen has made in the last 20 years, and it's done box office business to back that statement up. As someone who's often been forced into the position of being his apologist, it was such a pleasure to sit in an audience of my co-workers and their guests and listen to them laugh again and again at Allen's writing. And not only that, but the movie offered a beautiful message about the pleasures and dangers of romanticizing the past. What made this movie even more fun to me personally was that its premise was effectively "stolen" from one of Allen's own jokes from his early standup career ("...and then Hemingway punched me in the mouth."), which makes me wonder if one of his next films will be about taking a moose from upstate New York to a costume party.
Beginning iPhone 4 Development: Exploring the iOS SDK (8/10/11) Nonfiction (2011 ***1/2) Written by David Mark, Jack Nutting and Jeff LaMarche. In 20 chapters (18 of which are structured as tutorials), you too can learn to write programs for Apple's iPhone or iPad. Yes, I decided to take the plunge into the heady waters of app development. After reading the reviews of several different books on the subject, I selected this one. And it was a good choice for me with only one caveat: I discovered early into the book that the syntax for the Objective-C language was foreign enough that I had to buy and read a second book to get the most out of this one. I very much appreciated the clear language -- and just the right amount of wit --with which the material was presented. I highly recommend this book, but be warned: It does expect its readers to have prior experience with Objective-C and programming in general, so it's not a book for beginners. The book also relies heavily on downloading its accompanying material (code and image/sound assets), though that was helpful for me to save me time typing code directly from the book. While it wasn't a perfect book (I'm still a little unclear about what "app delegates" are and when to use them), it definitely got me started in the right direction.
Deranged Stalker's Journal of Pop Culture Shock Therapy (8/14/11) Cartoons (2010 ***) Written and illustrated by Doug Bratton. A cartoonists biggest fan loves his comic strip, but when so many of the comics hit so close to home, the fan's adoration slowly becomes murderous rage. This book was primarily a collection of Bratton's Pop Culture Shock Therapy cartoons, with an added framing device thrown in. It was an interesting choice, and the "mad rantings" scattered throughout the book definitely created a secondary narrative, though it was sometimes distracting. I picked this book up used, more or less on a whim, and I wasn't familiar with Bratton's strip (which apparently appears in more than 50 college and independent newspapers) previously. Flipping through the book, the source for his cartoons were mostly all near and dear to me: Superheroes, animated characters, Muppets and the like. It was a fun read, with or without the rantings.
The Mouse That Roared (8/16/11) TV-TCM (1959 **) Directed by Jack Arnold, based on the book by Leonard Wibberley, starring Peter Sellers, Jean Seberg and William Hartnell. To save their economy, the Duchy of Grand Fenwick declares war on the U.S., fully intending to lose, but things don't go according to plan, thanks to bumbling, seasick-prone Tully Bascombe. Peter Sellers sure made a lot of movies where he played multiple roles, didn't he? I wonder if he got paid extra? Obviously it's a given that the cold war themes of the film were more relevant 50-some years ago. However, even taking that into account, I didn't find the film engaging at all, and in fact I was fairly bored about 25% of the time. What went wrong? To begin with, none of the characters really worked as more than 2-dimensional cut-outs. That might be acceptable in a late-50s comedy... if only it had been actually funny. Unfortunately, The Mouse That Roared never quite managed to get there.
The Help (8/16/11) DWA Screening (2011 ****) Directed by Tate Taylor, based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett, starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Set in Jackson Mississippi in the early 1960s, an aspiring female writer with the unlikely name 'Skeeter' decides to write a book based on interviews with the town's black housemaids. I don't give 4-star reviews very often, and I do so here -- with a minor caveat / disclaimer: This is a wonderful movie and I loved it and recommend it whole-heartedly. Its message spoke to me and I was moved by it. However, it was also very much an idealized and superficial "feel good" story about race relations in America, a pretty complex subject. Did I care about that while I watched it? Not really. However, I watched the film through the eyes of a liberal, white, middle-aged man. It's not hard to imagine someone of a different slant, color or age seeing it quite differently. But you know what? My 4-star review still stands. The Help is a good movie and deserves the success it has received.
The Walking Dead, Vol. 14: No Way Out (8/18/11) Comics (2011 ****) Written by Robert Kirkman, illustrated by Charlie Adlard. Where the f*ck are all the zombies coming from? Rick Grimes and his band of post-apocalyptic survivors must protect their reinforced "gated community" from a huge herd of the undead. But in protecting themselves, they take collateral damage, some of it coming tragically close to home. This volume was one of the best in the series. At times I was so caught up in the action that I turned the pages furiously, wanting to know what happened next. It's rare when a comic has me that emotionally engaged and just... excited. Once again Robert Kirkman delivered unexpected and resonating twists along the way. They were so random and true-to-life that sometimes it has begged the question: Does Kirkman have a set of old D&D dice sitting beside his keyboard that he rolls to make his plot choices? Sometimes it's felt that way, but I suppose we may never know.
Oceans Eleven (8/19/11) TV-TCM (1960 **1/2) Directed by Lewis Milestone, starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Cesar Romero and Sammy Davis Jr. Danny Ocean and his U.S. Airborne buddies decide to rob five of Las Vegas' top casinos at midnight on New Year's Eve. While I'd seen the Steven Soderberg version (and its sequel), I'd never watched the original. It's an odd film, particularly structurally. Its characters (like Angie Dickinson) kind of came and went without really contributing to the narrative. Also, the movie's last twenty minutes was unusually anticlimactic and really strange tonally. Quite frankly, I kept waiting for a final plot twist that never came. The best part of Oceans Eleven for me was the highly stylized dialogue, and the film may be worth watching just for that. Many of the characters talked in a kind of hipster "code," and I just wanted some minor character to listen to it and say: "I don't know what the hell anybody's talking about!"
Wild at Heart (8/19/11) TV-Sundance (1990 **) Directed by David Lynch, based on the novel by Barry Gifford, starring Nicolas Cage, Laura Dern and Willem Dafoe. "Manslaughterer" Sailor Ripley breaks parole and takes to the road with his best gal Lula Fortune, but along the way they encounter a lot of weird shit, the weirdest being a psychotic named Bobby Peru. God knows I love David Lynch, but some of his films are pretty hard to watch. I'm not quite sure what the creative goal was. Wild at Heart, with Nick Cage's extended Elvis impersonation and its frequent nods to The Wizard of Oz almost worked as a comedy, but not really. For fans of Lynch it's required viewing, but for "normal" people, it's probably unwatchable.
The Music Man (8/21/11) TV-TCM (1962 **) Directed by Morton DaCosta, based on the musical by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey, starring Robert Preston, Shirley Jones, Buddy Hackett and "little" Ronny Howard. Professor (and con-man) Harold Hill whips Riverside, Iowa into a band-loving frenzy, but what he really wants is to get into a pretty librarian's panties. This "beloved" musical falls into the same category as Oklahoma and Carousel, musicals with stories that are really pretty awful and seedy if examined closely. I loved watching Robert Preston on-screen. His movements (though he wasn't really a dancer) were almost ballet-like, as if he could've given Gene Kelly a run for his money in that department. However, the character he played was pretty despicable and motivated solely by money and lust. Of course he underwent a necessary transformation, but that change didn't happen until well into the third act. Preston's "person of romantic interest" was played by the lovely Shirley Jones, whose voice was about an octave too high to be pleasant to my modern ears, seeming like a throwback to the musicals of the late-20s. It was the kind of voice that would've killed on Broadway but seemed shrill in our living room. As for the music, the film contained several memorable numbers ("76 Trombones," "Till There Was You") but even more forgettable ones. Now for a weird factoid: When Buddy Hackett started singing "Shipoopi," my wife and I had the exact same reaction: We thought Seth MacFarlane had written it originally for Peter Griffin to perform (quite memorably) in an episode of Family Guy. How the HELL did they get away with a song named "Shipoopi" in a family musical in the 1950s???
Mad Men, Season 1 (8/22/11) Netflix (2007 ***1/2) Series created by Matthew Weiner, starring Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, January Jones, Vincent Kartheiser and John Slattery. It's 1960 and Don Draper is the top Creative Director at Cooper-Sterling, a 2nd-tier ad agency. Draper also has a dark secret in his past. True confession time: I've always had an affinity (bordering on past-life memories!) for this specific period and location in American history, and at one point in my 20s I actively fantasized about having a time machine that would allow me to have a "day job" working on Madison Avenue at an advertising firm in 1959. And so you may find it shocking that it took me as long as it did to start watching this show. In hindsight, I think what held me back was the fear that a TV show (even an award-winning one) could never capture the story in my own imagination. Well, guess what? Mad Men, Season 1 came pretty damned close. The episodes were all well-written, well-acted and well-directed. But in addition to that, it was clear the creative team put a great deal of effort into doing the research to be true to the period. That made for a truly immersive experience and the world in which the story was set became an integral part of the show. The alternative could have been a prime-time, basic cable soap opera that gave little more than superficial lip service to a rich and fascinating (to me, anyway) time and place.
The Long, Long Trailer (8/23/11) TV-TCM (1953 **) Directed by Vincente Minnelli, based on the novel by Clinton Twiss, starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Honeymooners Ricky and Lucy... I mean "Nicky" and "Tacy"... buy a "home on wheels" and embark in what may well be the last adventure of their married lives. Shot during a 6-week I Love Lucy hiatus and clearly designed as a Technicolor vehicle for America's favorite TV couple, this movie had promise... which it entirely failed to deliver upon. Even with Minnelli at the helm, there was a sense that the writers left the "funny" at home and quite frankly a lot of the scenes involving various mishaps and near disasters with the trailer ended up just stressing me out!
Dexter, Season 2 (8/24/11) Netflix (2007 ***1/2) Series created by Daniel Cerone, Clyde Phillips and Melissa Rosenberg, based on the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay, starring Michael C. Hall, Julie Benz, Jennifer Carpenter, Keith Carradine and Jaime Murray. When Dexter Morgan's underwater "dumping ground" is discovered, Special Agent Dale Cooper... I mean Frank Lundy... is brought in. Meanwhile, Dexter-hating Sergeant Doakes does some investigating of his own. I absolutely LOVED the second season of Dexter. Considering the writing for this series started so weak in Season 1 I thought about throwing in the towel, this season really stepped it up, particularly story-wise. I especially loved how Dexter found himself fighting a war to protect his "secret identity" on so many different fronts: Lundy, Doakes and Lila, his psycho Narcotics Anonymous sponsor. The tension at times kept winding tighter and tighter and it was frequently apparent that our favorite fictional serial killer of all time had nowhere to go. Great writing.
Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star (8/25/11) TV-TCM (2002 **1/2) Written and directed by Peter Fitzgerald, featuring interviews with Anjelica Huston, Diane Baker, Christina Crawford and many others who either acted with, slept with or were abused by... Ms. Crawford. The real "elephant in the room," of course, was the infamous book written by Crawford's adopted daughter Joan, Mommie Dearest ("No more wire hangers EVER!!:"). This 2002 Turner Classic Movies documentary attempted to portray Joan Crawford as a complex and driven woman who was more than just the abusive alcoholic portrayed in the book and 1981 movie. I don't know that it was altogether successful in that. With Christina Crawford as one of the primary interview subjects, it was obvious that Crawford's daughter was still bitter and very, very angry 25 years after her mother's 1977 death. Also, the documentary definitely painted a portrait of Crawford as a woman who bedded nearly any (powerful) man who came into her path. There was clearly a dramatic tragedy in the fact that the woman who won an Academy Award for Mildred Pierce, yet ended her career with the1970 movie Trog about a caveman named... well, "Trog." Ironically the main effect this documentary had on me was it made me want to rent Mommie Dearest.
Blackest Night (8/28/11) Graphic Novel (2010 ***1/4) Written by Geoff Johns, illustrated by Ivan Reis. Originally published in Blackest Night #0-9 (2009-2010). When dead heroes and villains start returning from the dead, it's up to Green Lantern, his amazing friends and a rainbow of ring-bearing corps ranging from red to indigo to find a way to return them to their graves. Let's face it, I love zombies! And you don't have to look any further than Marvel Zombies to find evidence that combining superheroes and the undead can work. I loved the premise of this book, and the execution of that premise wasn't bad. At its core was an awareness that many, many heroes and villains have died over the years and so many have returned from the grave that the DC afterlife's "revolving door" policy has gotten a little silly. This series attempted to explain that and even address it a little bit. It suffered only on a few fronts: (A) The heroes figure out pretty quickly that the "evil loved ones" that have returned are essentially illusions; This took a lot of the dramatic punch out of the emotional horror show. (B) There was a vague assurance at this volume's conclusion that from now on in the DC Universe death might be somewhat more final, but neither the characters voicing that sentiment nor I really believe that. (C) I doubt I'm giving much away by writing that at the end of the book some "deceased" characters did get another chance. Unfortunately, many of the choices made for "who stayed dead and who was resurrected" had me scratching my head. There was probably an explanation for the choices, but I had a hard time seeing any pattern.
The U.S. vs. John Lennon (8/29/11) TV-Sundance (2006 ***) Written and directed by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld, featuring interviews with Yoko Ono, G. Gordon Liddy, George McGovern and Ron Kovic. This documentary explores John Lennon and Yoko Ono's activist activities in the late 1960's into the 1970's. Did they single-handedly end the Vietnam war? No, of course not. They did, however, cleverly take their celebrity spotlight and redirect it to a cause they believed in: Peace. The late 60s/early 70s was a fascinating era and this film examined a chapter of Lennon's post-Beatles life that hasn't received a lot of cinematic attention. As a fan, I know from some other materials I've read that the film glossed over some of the negatives (Lennon's early 1970's "bad boy" clubbing, drinking and drugging) to paint a more saintly picture. However, it was still a fine film with great interviews, and I imagine the film's slant may well have been why they were able to get Yoko Ono to participate.
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (8/30/11) TV-TCM (1957 ***) Written and directed by Frank Tashlin, based on the play by George Axelrod, starring Tony Randall, Jayne Manfield and Joan Blondell. An ad man, desperate to keep his job, invents a fictional headline-grabbing relationship between himself and sexy heartthrob "Rita Marlowe." Before long, "Loverdoll" (Randall) finds himself causing teens to swoon and his fiancee to pass out from breast-enlarging exercises. He gets promoted, even receiving the key to the executive washroom. In short, he gets everything he wanted, except for the genuine love his soul needs. While this wasn't a great film by any stretch, its stars high likability factor and Frank Tashlin's "animated" direction made it a lot of fun to watch.
Green Lantern: Blackest Night (8/31/11) Graphic Novel (2010 **1/2) Written by Geoff Johns, illustrated by Doug Mahnke. Originally published in Green Lantern #43-52 (2009-2010). As the super-powered zombie apocalypse continues, this volume begins with an issue-length (back)story about the origin of the Black Hand, filling in the blanks between the original silver age villain and his role in this miniseries event, then focuses on the "Blackest Night" events as seen from the POV of Hal Jordan, Star Sapphire and Sinestro. The "Blackest Night" mega-event was the strangest story to wrap my head around. It's a little like Kurosawa's Rashomon, but with flying zombies. Each book in this series was by its nature incomplete, offering only a sliver of truth. I appreciated the intellectual desire for fragmented multi-dimensional storytelling and acknowledge that it's reflective of our 21st century times. However, it's not quite as satisfying as a linear (non-pan-dimensional) story.

September

Totally 80s Hollywood Bowl: The Human League, B-52s, The Fixx & Berlin (9/2/11) Live Performance (2011 **1/2) One night, four bands, lots of annoying chitchat in the audience! I don't know what was in the air at the Hollywood Bowl on Friday, September 2... Well, let me take that back; I definitely know what the guy diagonally in front of us was smoking. Anyhow, the people seated around us simply would not shut up! Seriously, people! What's wrong with you? It's a mystery to my wife and I why in God's good name The Human (freakin) League got top billing over The B-52's. (They must have pretty damned good representation, I guess.) Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson and the rest of the B-52's were definitely the high-point of the concert. How is it possible that there was never a cartoon series or animated movie based on that band? There you go, Hollywood. That's my big idea for 2011! My wife and I were plenty sore day after the concert from all the dancing we did. Okay, full disclosure: We left right after the B-52's and didn't actually stick around for Human League. Why? (A) We wanted to catch the first shuttle bus back to the L.A. Zoo and (B) knew it couldn't be anything but anticlimactic.
The Big Picture: AFI's Great American Movie Quiz Hosted by Alex Trebek (9/4/11) Hollywood Bowl (2011 ***) How's this for a fun, interactive movie-themed evening at the Hollywood Bowl? Multiple-choice trivia questions were "answered" using red, green and blue glow sticks. Following each "answer," a movie clip was shown, with its orchestration provided by the live orchestra. I've been a sucker for glow sticks since I was in my early teens, and I LOVE movie trivia. This evening (our second trip to the Bowl in a single weekend!) was a lot of fun, even though the individual clips ran a bit too long. Also distracting from the evening's enjoyment... and I'll phrase this in the form of a question... "What quiz show host really loves to hear himself talk?" You guessed it, Alex Trebek, himself. You wouldn't guess that about him, would you? Anyhow, Mr. Trebek may know a lot of things about a lot of things, but he clearly had some gaps in the category of "Live Show Pacing."
Green Lantern Corps: Blackest Night (9/3/11) Graphic Novel (2010 ***) Written by Peter J. Tomasi, illustrated by Patrick Gleason. Originally published in Green Lantern Corps #39-47 (2009-2010). The sky is filled with flying Black Lanterns as Green Lanterns Kyle Rayner, Guy Gardner and Kilowog join forces with a fellow corpsman literally the size of a planet. I wrote previously about the inherent dissatisfaction in reading a jagged facet of a much larger story. However, the narrative in this particular volume, which included Guy Gardner's turn as a member of the bloodthirsty Red Lanterns, seemed to work, mostly because it had a clear focus with a beginning, middle and end. Yeah, I'm a sucker for that. Why did it work where Green Lantern: Blackest Night didn't quite? Perhaps it was because of the "story space" occupied, or perhaps it was because Tomasi was able to do something the DC events chief architect, Geoff Johns, was unable to do: Find coherence in bedlam.
Travels of Thelonius (Fog Mound) (9/3/11) Graphic Novel (2007 **1/2) Written by Susan Schade, with illustrations by Jon Buller. Floodwaters carry a chipmunk named Thelonius ("Thelonius Chipmunk," get it?) to a post-apocalyptic city, where the decayed remains of human civilization hide new dangers... and new friends. I "discovered" a fairly beaten-up copy of this book on sale at my favorite used book store. I was intrigued by its more-or-less 50/50 split of prose and graphic novel presentation. I'm admittedly curious about the publication story there: Was the book/series originally conceived as a full-on graphic novel but they only had the budget for X pages of illustration? Perhaps. I think I may have preferred a full-on graphic novel to this hybrid, though the story simply wasn't all that gripping, regardless of how it was told. While this was the first "chapter" in a series, I'm not particularly motivated to buy any further installments.

Dexter, Season 3 (9/6/11) Netflix (2008 ***1/4) Series created by Daniel Cerone, Clyde Phillips and Melissa Rosenberg, based on the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay, starring Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Carpenter, Julie Benz, David Zayas and Jimmy Smits. Miami's favorite serial killer Dexter Morgan accidentally kills an "innocent" guy and makes a new friend in the process -- the victim's brother! The tension during the second season was so delicious because at each turn it really felt like Dexter was going to get caught. The tension in Season 3 never reached those same heights. Having Dexter's new "friend" turn out to have an appetite for revenge killing was an interesting twist, and Jimmy Smits was terrific in that role. However, it just wasn't nearly as gripping as the preceding season, leading me to wonder what was going on behind-the-scenes on the set. In fact, the first episode of Season 3 even looked weird, with strange pinkish highlights in the lighting. Did they try shooting with a new type of camera or something? Enquiring minds want to know...

Okay, following a quick Google search I was able to determine they did change cameras between Season 2 ("Panavised Sony F900" with an "Arri 435 film camera for ramping and slowmotion work") and Season 3 ("Sony CineAlta F23"). Hmmm. Not necessarily a change made for the better, I would say.

Mad Men, Season 2 (9/7/11) Netflix (2008 ***) Series Created by Matthew Weiner, starring Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, January Jones and Christina Hendricks. Don Draper's lifestyle choices cause the gradual erosion of his marriage with Betty. Meanwhile, Peggy Olsen's power at Cooper Sterling grows, but will she ever make a scratch in the glass ceiling? In all honesty I spent most of Season 2 wondering where the hell the season was headed story-wise. Don't get me wrong: I love the show and especially continue to love the "high fidelity" of the early 1960s world. However, I'm finding that the stories increasingly vague. Get to the point, Mad Men!
Tchaikovsky Spectacular with Fireworks (9/9/11) Hollywood Bowl (2011 ***1/2) The Los Angeles Philharmonic, led by conductor Bramwell Tovey is joined by master cellist Christian Poltera and the USC Trojan Marching Band for a 4-part Tchaikovsky program featuring Romeo and Juliet, Rococo Variations, Music from Act IV of Swan Lake, and ending with the 1812 Overture. This was a wonderful, albeit somewhat surreal evening at the Bowl, one made all the more entertaining by Tovey's hilarious commentary: The show began a few minutes late, thanks to a trio of circling helicopters hovering around a small fire (as Tovey assured us) "just on the other side of that hill." We learned later that it had been one of Jack Nicholson's houses on fire. (Gotta love living in Hollywood.) Once the helicopters flew away, the program settled down until the fireworks finale. My wife and I have seen the fireworks at the Bowl a number of times, but never, evidently, when the wind was blowing toward the audience. Within two minutes of the fireworks beginning, smoke filled the front of the bowl, surrounding us in our seats, leading us to whisper plans for an emergency escape, should one become necessary. What's more, because of the atmospheric haze from the smoke, each time the fireworks went off, the entire world seemingly blazed with that color: red, green, blue. It was one of the most incredible visual things I've ever seen, what I imagine being inside a cloudbank during a lightning storm would be like. The smoke was so thick at one point that we could barely see the Trojans as they "slipped onto" the walkway in front of the stage, and the musicians behind them were pretty well engulfed. How they managed to gather enough breath to play their instruments I have no idea. With smoke filling the Bowl and the final note fading, we practically leapt from our seat to make our way to our bus and the L.A. Zoo, leaving behind us the world famous Hollywood Bowl and yet another memorable season. See ya next year, L.A. Philharmonic!
Real Steel (9/13/11) DWA Screening -- Burbank AMC 16 (2011 ***) Directed by Shawn Levy, screenplay by John Gatins, starring Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo and Evangeline Lilly. A broken-down ex-boxer and his 11-year-old kid take a scrappy broken-down underdog boxing robot named Atom all the way to the top. Equal parts The Champ, Rocky and Rock-Em, Sock-Em Robots, Real Steel was maddening at times because it was such a dumbed-down version of what could have been a truly awesome movie. But I'll be damned if the end didn't have me cheering in my seat and even tearing up a little. As much as I loved the CG robots knocking the holy rivots out of each other, the best part of the film by far was Dakota Goyo, who got to play the most adorable annoying kid I've seen in a long time. Shawn Levy, who previously directed the Night at the Museum films may still have a lot to learn about directing non-CG actors, but I'm glad he never (apparently) asked young Goyo to "tone it down."
Contagion (9/25/11) Glendale Americana Pacific 18 (2011 ***) Directed by Steven Soderbergh, written by Scott Z. Burns, starring Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Laurence Fishburne. What do you get when you cross the DNA of a bat with that of a pig? A global pandemic that makes smallpox look like the freaking sniffles. It's hard to explain what drove me to see this movie. It may have been the idea of an intelligent, star-studded, well-acted horror film about the disintegration of society. Contagion certainly delivered that, beginning with (mild spoiler alert) Gwyneth Paltrow's death and autopsy within the first five minutes of the film. I couldn't help thinking as I watched that as terrible as the pandemic scenario was and how realistically it played out on the screen that I was almost completely unmoved emotionally. Why was that? The sequence of events was fairly matter-of-fact, and there was occasional melodrama in the dialogue, yet none of the characters appeared genuinely shaken to their very core by the staggering loss of life happening all around them.
Mad Men, Season 3 (9/29/11) Netflix (2009 ***1/2) Series created by Matthew Weiner, starring Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, January Jones, Vincent Kartheiser and John Slattery. As the employees of Cooper Sterling grow used to their recent acquisition by their British overlords, Don Draper's mysterious past finally catches up with him at home. Clearly one of the best-written series on TV (and with the awards to back that up), my complaint about the second (preceding) season was that the show never seemed to know where it was headed. In Season 3, the Madison Avenue world of 1963 clicked along with almost all its cylinders firing. One delightful highlight was the sixth episode, "Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency," which had one genuine "HOLY F*CKING SHIT!" moment that caused me to literally jump up from the couch and stare at the screen in disbelief as to what I'd just witnessed. My only real nitpick with Season 3 was that the show's depiction of the historic, tragic events of November 22, 1963 didn't have anywhere near the emotional resonance I'd expected. I wanted more, somehow. However, Mad Men more than made up for that in the next episode, the season finale, aptly entitled "Shut the Door. Have a Seat" which shook up the show's premise and provided a wonderful "narrative slingshot" into Season 4.

October

Batman, Season 1 (10/6/11) TV-Hub (1966 ****) Series created by William Dozier and Lorenzo Semple, Jr., starring Adam West and Burt Ward. "Atomic batteries to power! Turbines to speed!" Batman and his youthful sidekick Robin defend Gotham City from a parade of pugnacious villains. And what a rogues gallery it was! Originally aired between January 12 and May 5th, 1966, this first 34-episode season featured the following guest villains: Frank Gorshin (Riddler), Burgess Meredith (Penguin), Cesar Romero (Joker), George Sanders (Mr. Freeze), Anne Baxter (Zelda), David Wayne (Mad Hatter), Malachi Throne (False Face), Julie Newmar (Catwoman), Victor Buono (King Tut) and Roddy McDowall (Bookworm). I may have been ape for The Monkees and bananas for The Banana Splits, but Batman was my absolute favorite TV show when I was a kid: I had a Batman insignia on the head of my baby bed (recently my mom told me it helped me to sleep) and I broke my left arm at age 8 by jumping off a swing playing... you guessed it... Batman and Robin (I was Robin, in case you were wondering). In an age where every TV show ever made is apparently available 24/7, this is a difficult show to watch. The release of the series on DVD has been held up apparently indefinitely due to a rights dispute between Fox and Warner Bros. And so I got pretty excited a few months ago when I saw the original series was playing on the Hub channel, whose programming concept I'll admit I don't really understand. Thanks to modern DVR technology I've been able to record the episodes and then watch them in their original broadcast order, just as though I were watching them on DVD (albeit fast-forwarding through commercials). I hadn't watched the series since sometime in the late 1980s / early 1990s. I must admit I was a little afraid to watch now: I had such fond childhood memories and I know a lot of things from the past don't hold up when viewed through older, more modern eyes. I was delighted (and relieved) by how well Batman held up. Though there was a definite formula and tone established early in the series, and some episodes were better written than others, it's not hard for me to see why this show exploded upon the popular consciousness the way it did back in 1966. Of course it appealed to me when I was a toddler and grade schooler for different reasons than it appealed to me later on. (Lets just say the skin-tight outfits worn by some of the female "molls" didn't hurt.) Will there be a resurgence of interest in this, the "Campy Caped Crusader" version of the Dark Knight? I guess only time will tell. I for one would love to see the Batman I knew and loved from my childhood return in a few years in the form of a feature-length animated film, maybe similar in visual style to Dreamworks' Megamind or Pixar's The Incredibles. But if that's going to happen with any of the original voices, it better happen soon. I recently attended a celebrity autograph show in Burbank and had my photo taken with (Mayor) Adam West, Burt Ward and Julie Newmar. And while the roly-poly Burt Ward still has plenty of spring left in his step, the other two aren't getting any younger.
The Garfunkel and Oates Hour (10/7/11) Live Performance -- Upright Citizen's Brigade (2011 ***1/2) Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci are, respectively, "Garfunkel" and "Oates," a singing comedy duo. To my middle-aged frame of reference, they're a 21st century female version of The Smothers Brothers who perform their own fem-hipster songs like "Pregnant Women are Smug" and "Weed Card." My wife has been a fan of theirs for a couple of years, very much enjoying their Youtube videos. I must admit that I've enjoyed the videos but had a hard time making out a lot of the lyrics. Seeing them in person (as a special 5-year anniversary treat for my wife) was a great time. My understanding is that they play at the Upright Citizen's Brigade about once a month and at $10 a ticket, it's a terrific deal. I do recommend getting there early for a good seat, however. If you arrive late you may end up sitting on the stage, no joke. Their hour-long show included a fun gift bag with stickers and a working kazoo as well as a visit by a downbeat female comic, whose name I didn't catch and whose (apropos to nothing, really) non-starting car was towed away later in the evening.
Blackest Night: Black Lantern Corps, Vol. 1 (10/9/11) Comics (2010 ***) Written by James Robinson, Peter J. Tomasi and J.T. Krul, illustrated by various. This volume collects material originally presented in Blackest Night: Batman #1-3, Blackest Night: Superman #1-3 and Blackest Night: Titans #1-3. The "Blackest Night" event affects the entire DC universe, sometimes targeting 3-issue arcs. I have to hand it to Geoff Johns; When he throws a "crisis," he doesn't screw around. When I talked my friend David into buying all the DC "Blackest Night" trade paperbacks (of which there were seven), we did a little research and found the books split between two sets. The first set (Blackest Night, Blackest Night: Green Lantern and Blackest Night: Green Lantern Corps, which I've reviewed previously) contained the "core" story of the event, while the remaining four books fleshed out the remaining tendrils. It's an interesting way to present a story, though I imagine the decision was made at least in part based on guys like me and David who would buy the whole damned thing. (For the record, David bought the "core" story books and I bought the other four.) Anyhow, this book represented the first book in that second set, and while it was necessarily fragmented narratively, it wasn't unsatisfying. Three issues is a decent amount of space in which to tell a story, and it was interesting to check in to see how various heroes dealt with their former friends and/or enemies and/or dead children returning from the grave.
Blackest Night: Black Lantern Corps, Vol. 2 (10/10/11) Comics (2010 ***) Written by Geoff Johns, James Robinson and Greg Rucka, illustrated by various. This volume collects material originally presented in Blackest Night: Wonder Woman #1-3, Blackest Night: JSA #1-3 and Blackest Night: Flash #1-3. Geoff Johns' "Blackest Night" crisis event continues to touch everybody in the DC family. Please refer to my review of Vol. 1 for a description of where this book fits in the 7-book "Blackest Night" collection. One thing I didn't mention in my previous review was that because several different writers and artists were involved in these "spotlight" stories, there was a bit of unevenness. In a book like this, however, the 3 story-arcs could be thought of as "chapters." Honestly, there's a fragmented-ness to the entire "Blackest Night" event, which interfered with my ability to really get into the story. At this point, I definitely feel that the "right" thing (as a reader) to do would be to get to the end of the set of books (only two more to go!), then turn around and re-read the entire thing. I'm not going to actually do that, mostly due to time constraints and the fact that I haven't been enjoying this series nearly as much as I might have expected... from a freakin' all-out zombie invasion of the DC Universe.
Mr. & Mrs. Smith (10/14/11) TV-TCM (1941 **) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery. When a bickering couple learn their marriage isn't valid, they split up and go their separate ways... but will they get back together again? It was obvious from this film why Hitchcock didn't direct more comedies, even if The Trouble With Harry ran pretty deep into "black comedy" territory. I'm a big Hitchcock fan, with nothing but respect for his films, but thanks to his strong, signature directing style, there were a few points in this film when I half expected a man in a trench coat to step out of the shadows with a gun! But to be fair, Hitchcock didn't really have much to work with story-wise. Carole Lombard was adorable, but her character's motivations were uneven and Robert Montgomery's character was so generally unlikable I didn't really want him to get back together with his wife. So, if you want to see Hitchcock direct a comedy, be my guest, but classic romantic comedy, this ain't.
Carry On Sergeant (10/14/11) TV-TCM (1958 **1/2) Directed by Gerald Thomas, based on the novel The Bull Boys by R.F. Delderfield, starring William Hartnell, Shirley Eaton and Eric Barker. Retiring Sergeant Grimshawe has his hands full with a mess of National Servicemen in-training. I've been marginally familiar with the British "Carry On" movies since I was a wee lad. They combined British wit with "spicy" double entendres, resulting in kind of a proto-Benny Hill aesthetic. So what's not to like? Of course by modern standards they're new seen as pretty tame. One bonus for me and my "hearing impaired" pair of ears was that these films (new to TCM) were actually closed captioned, which allowed me to understand the film's cheeky dialogue in spite of the thick English accents.
Johnny Guitar (10/17/11) TV-TCM (1954 ***) Directed by Nicholas Ray, based on the novel by Roy Chanslor, starring Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge, Scott Brady and Ernest Borgnine. A tough, pants-wearing lady saloon owner hires her guitar-playing ex-boyfriend, but when Johnny arrives he finds himself splashing down into a boiling pot of trouble! Wow! It's no wonder Johnny Guitar has attained such cult classic status: This film, nominally a western, is so over-the-top on so many levels I frequently wondered if I weren't watching an early David Lynch film. As a matter of fact, I recently watched Lynch's 1990 film Wild at Heart, and though it was made nearly 40 years after Johnny Guitar, there were definitely tonal similarities. My guess is Nicholas Ray's film may well have inspired Lynch and other later directors.
Paul Simon: So Beautiful or So What 2011 Tour (10/19/11) Gibson Amphitheatre (2011 ***1/2) I lucked into getting tickets for this show when somebody at work offered them for sale on an internal newsgroup. For me, seeing Paul Simon live was high on my concert "bucket list." I had actually tried to get tickets when they first went on sale, but they'd sold out almost immediately. Strangely, when we arrived for the show we were told the mezzanine was closed and were given "upgraded" tickets on the main floor. Though our seats were still in the second-to-back row, they were center seats and offered a fairly good view of the stage. The opening act was The Secret Sisters, a lovely duo of actual sisters Lydia and Laura Rogers, who sang and played old-style country music, mixing it up between covers and original songs. My wife and I agreed we liked them enough to pick up one of their CDs. After a short break, Paul Simon came out, flanked with nearly a dozen band members. Almost immediately some guy yelled out "We love you Paul!" which prompted Simon to turn to the audience and ask: "Is there anybody here who doesn't love me? Now's your chance. Is there anybody here who's like 'I hate your guts. Nope, never cared for you.'?" Hilarious! The song selection that followed was a mix of old and new, gravitating toward the familiar as the night went on. I found it interesting that Simon kept returning to the music from his 1986 Graceland album (which won the Grammy for album of the year), and by my count he sang 6 (maybe 7) of Graceland's 11 songs, ending his second encore and the show for the night with "You Can Call Me Al." But along the way he sang several newer songs (many of which I'm ashamed to say I didn't recognize) but lots of other favorites, like "Sounds of Silence," "Only Living Boy in New York," and "Kodachrome," as well as the song about his ex-wife Carrie Fisher, "Hearts and Bones," which caused both my wife and I to tear up. Musically, the band was solid, playing a variety of instruments. Paul Simon's voice had seen better days, particularly when he tried reaching for the upper range, but there was still plenty of magic in his music. I can't fault him for his voice weakening with time: He celebrated his 70th birthday less than a week before, on October 13th, providing a trivial connection I have with him: He was born in 1941, just three days after my mother... on my birthday.
Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog Charity Screening (10/22/11) North Hollywood Regency Valley Plaza 6 (2008 ***) Original web series directed by Joss Whedon, starring Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion and Felicia Day. This screening (which was preceded by Season 4 of The Guild (also starring Felicia Day) was organized to benefit the "Kids Need to Read" charity. Though the start time was delayed by a half hour or so, it was for a good reason: a special guest appearance by actors Nathan Fillion and Alan Tudyk. The evening featured fun costumes and a raffle drawing for prizes, including an autographed poster for Joss Whedon's 2012 film, The Avengers. The audience members ranged from the normal to the super-geeky and everybody in-between. Between this event and a recent celebrity autograph show I attended, I have to say I'm feeling positive normal! I did, however have flashbacks to the third date I ever had back in high school, when I took a girl to an Omaha science fiction convention. Let's just say there was no fourth date with that particular girl. Anyhow, the Dr. Horrible screening included a goodie bag filled with props to be used throughout the program, which was kind of silly and fun, but also a little distracting. It felt to me like it was trying too hard to be Rocky Horror, if you know what I mean. I had a good time, though I do wish the theater's DVD projector had been brighter. It's a minor nitpick, but seriously, it would've made a difference.
Mad Men, Season 4 (10/23/11) Netflix (2010 ***1/4) Series created by Matthew Weiner, starring Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Christina Hendricks and January Jones. Madison Avenue CLIO-winning "Ad Man of Mystery" Donald Draper hits rock bottom, then tries to pick up the pieces of his broken double life. Though Elisabeth Moss' Peggy Olson was originally introduced in Season 1 as a "second lead" for the show, the spotlight for this 13-episode season was clearly focused on Don Draper. Other characters were still present, serving up juicy, sometimes thematically-related B storylines on a weekly basis, but Season 4 was all about the D-man. It was particularly interesting to see Don's wife Betty (January Jones), who was featured so prominently in previous seasons, pushed way into the background. At about the halfway point of the season I was getting a little concerned about how downbeat the show had become. But then it turned around and the remainder of the season was all the more satisfying, to the point where I was really rooting for Draper to "succeed in business... by really working hard." My only real nit to pick for this season is that when I first started watching Mad Men, I was knocked out by its immersive time-travel feel of the show. Unfortunately, that 1960s verisimilitude has faded progressively, with its fourth season retaining a mere fraction of that immersive quality.
The Innocents (10/26/11) TV-TCM (1961 **1/2) Directed by Jack Clayton, based on the novella The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, starring Deborah Kerr, Peter Wyngarde, Pamela Franklin and Michael Redgrave. A governess is hired to look after two children at a lavish country estate in rural England, where her days are filled with sunshine and... OH MY GOD, IT'S A FREAKING GHOST! Somehow I never quite managed to get around to reading The Turn of the Screw, and as is the case of a lot of movies based on a book, the largest effect The Innocents had on me was to make me want to read the original source material. Never exactly scary, this 50-year-old movie was, at best, unsettling. I can only imagine how much it frightened audiences when it was originally released. Oddly, one of the strongest associations I kept getting as I watched was Dan Curtis' original Dark Shadows TV show / soap opera. Aside from his co-opting Henry James' original story (fans might remember a storyline about a music box and a character named "Quentin."), I can't help but think Curtis was strongly influenced by this movie; there were many tonal similarities, not only visually but also in the situations, characters and dialogue.
Blackest Night: Rise of the Black Lanterns (10/28/11) Comics (2011 **) Written by various, illustrated by various. This volume features single-issue stories involving the following DC characters and/or titles: The Atom, Hawkman, The Question, The Phantom Stranger, Starman, Captain Marvel, Catwoman, Green Arrow and Weird Western Tales. The already fragmented "Blackest Night" event splinters even further in this collection of single-shot issues. In my opinion, this collection was the weakest of the seven Blackest Night trade paperbacks so far, but I suppose it may offer some value to the completists. For me, more than anything else it offered a glimpse into the nooks and crannies of the recent DC Universe. I mean, what the hell was Metamorpho's Simon Stagg and Java doing in Weird Western? My advice? If you're planning on buying the whole set of Blackest Night books, this is probably one you can safely skip; I found none of the stories in this volume particularly compelling.

November

Super (11/1/11) Netflix (2010 **1/2) Written and directed by James Gunn, starring Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler and Kevin Bacon as the egg-loving Jacques. A loser with a penchant for heavenly visions attempts to rescue his wife from a drug dealer by donning a red superhero costume and shouting "Shut up, crime!" I wanted to like this indie film more, and it's hard to identify exactly why it was a cinematic base hit instead of a home run. Possibly the core problem was with the core premise, and the fact Super violated one of my basic rules of screenwriting: As sympathetic as James Gunn tried to make the film's hero Frank Darbo, It's always asking a lot of an audience to identify with a protagonist who's mentally unbalanced. Even though Super was obviously a small film shot on a small budget, it looked good and did more right than it did wrong, including a wonderful animated title sequence and casting lots of recognizable talent. Though Ellen Page was an absolute delight as The Crimson Bolt's youthful (and sexy) sidekick Boltie, Rainn Wilson (also one of the film's executive producers) occasionally slipped into his Dwight Schrute character from The Office.
Heavy Metal (11/2/11) TV-TCM (1981 **) Directed by Daniel Potterton, written by Daniel Goldberg & Len Blum, featuring the voices of John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Harold Ramis and others. A glowing green orb of indescribable evil affects all who encounter it, in a manner that curiously resembles an R-rated comic book anthology. First of all, how cool is it that in 2011 Heavy Metal is playing on Turner Classic Movies? My uncle took me to see this film during its original release. Watching it now for the first time in many years I was forced to admit how much it had influenced much of my own animation efforts in college. It owed at least half its animation DNA to the films of Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat, Wizards), and perhaps Heavy Metal was largely an attempt at a more commercial version of Bakshi's films. It might be very cool to see a contemporary update, though looking on Imdb.com it appears my idea isn't original: There was apparently a Heavy Metal 2000 made 11 years ago. Is it worth renting? Hmmm...
The Alphabet Murders (11/2/11) TV-TCM (1965 **) Directed by Frank Tashlin, based on the novel The A.B.C. Murders by Agatha Christie, starring Tony Randall, Anita Ekberg and Robert Morley. Belgian detective Hercule Poirot solves a series of murders in London, beginning with that of a diving clown (was that ever a thing?) with the initials "A.A." I really wonder what was the story behind the making of this movie. Former animation director Tashlin had previously directed Randall in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter (1957), a film I watched recently. As I watched The Alphabet Murders, I couldn't help but think it was made more than anything as a response to the popularity of Blake Edwards' "Inspector Clouseau" films (The Pink Panther was released in 1963, A Shot in the Dark in 1964). There were certainly similarities, up to and including Randall's very French-sounding Belgian accent, though from The Alphabet Murders it's not hard to see why The Pink Panther series is the one that endured.
Village of the Damned (11/2/11) TV-TCM (1960 ***) Directed by Wolf Rilla, based on the novel The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham, starring George Sanders, Barbara Shelley and Martin Stephens. Everyone in the English village of Midwich falls asleep for several hours and when they wake up every woman of child-bearing years is pregnant. Tame by modern horror standards, this movie would have disturbed me terribly if I'd seen it as a young child. And it is a scary premise. You can't get much more universal than the idea of evil superintelligent blonde children who can read your thoughts. George Sanders (who won a best-supporting Oscar for All About Eve in 1950 and who committed suicide in 1972) was well-cast, as was young Martin Stephens, the leader of the evil superintelligent blonde children.
The Adventures of Tintin (11/3/11) DWA Screening (2011 ***1/2) Directed by Steven Spielberg, based on the comic book series by Herge, featuring the voice talents of Jamie Bell, Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis. Youthful Belgian journalist Tintin teams up with the whiskey-loving Captain Haddock to find lost pirate treasure. Thanks to a friend of mine who loaned me his collection of Tintin books 8 or 9 years ago, I was familiar with the stories of this boy adventurer and his pet dog Snowy. I think that helped me appreciate the movie more. I find I'm less bothered by the "uncanny valley" (Google it) aspects of the motion capture technique used in this film, and I respect the effort it took to make it work as well as it did. It was also very exciting to me to see Spielberg direct an animated film! The Adventures of Tintin delivered an exciting roller coaster of double-fisted, gun's a-blazin' action. The CG environments were superb, though some of the character designs varied considerably on the stylized/realistic spectrum. The only thing missing was heart: Imagine the original Back to the Future film without the emotional stakes of Marty reuniting his parents. Still, I'd happily watch Tintin again, just for the sheer spectacle and technical accomplishment.
DC Universe: Legacies (11/4/11) Graphic Novel (2011 ***) Written by Len Wein, illustrated by various superstars, including George Perez, Scott Kolins and Joe Kubert, originally presented in serial form in DC Universe Legacies #1-10. From his rough childhood in Metropolis' "Suicide Slum" to his career as a police officer and detective, everyman Paul Lincoln observes the history of the DC universe, multiple crises and all, mostly from the sidelines. My friend Dave read this book and described it as an illustrated Wikipedia entry on the history of DC Comics. I was naturally reminded of the Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross' 1994 masterpiece Marvels, which took a similar view on the Marvel universe. While Legacies provided a rich visual tour through DC's history, I felt it didn't reach anywhere near its potential, largely due to Wein's writing, which I found clunky at best, as though his heart wasn't really with the characters he was writing. Having said that, I don't regret buying this book and would give it a mild recommendation, as the premise and the visuals helped make up for its narrative weaknesses.
Night of the Living Dead (11/4/11) TV-TCM (1968 ***) Directed by George A. Romero, starring Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea and Karl Hardman. "They're coming to get you, Barbara!" When the dead return to snack upon the living, you can't do much better than holing up in a deserted farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. I can't remember the last time I watched this film, but it was probably in college. Romero's first zombie film is pretty tame by contemporary standards; AMC's The Walking Dead TV series is more graphic on a weekly basis. I have great respect for the independent filmmaking backstory behind the making of this film, and it undoubtedly served as an inspiration to a generation of filmmakers. Due to the year in which it was released (1968) and the lack of a proper copyright notice, this film is now in the public domain, so feel free to find a copy of it on the web and re-edit it to your zombie-loving heart's content!
Batman (11/5/11) Netflix (1966 ***1/2) Directed by Leslie H. Martinson, screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr., starring Adam West, Burt Ward, Lee Meriwether, Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith and Frank Gorshin. Batman and Robin's greatest foes combine forces as The United Underworld to take over the world, and only Gotham City's caped crusaders can stop them. Oh my God, oh my God! You MUST rent or buy this movie on Blu-Ray. It looks AMAZING! It is absolutely worth it. Because of the conflict between Warner and Fox over the Batman TV show, the only way to (legally) watch that version of Batman on DVD is to watch this feature film they made and released the summer between the first and second seasons, at the height of Batmania. I hadn't watched the film in years, though I recently watched the first season via reruns on the Hub channel. It holds up very nicely, and the direction, writing and acting was surprisingly tight. It must have been a real treat for all those juvenile Bat-fans in the summer of '66. (Somebody ought to write a song or film about that summer!) Sadly I was a few months short of my second birthday when this movie was released, but I do have a particularly fond memory of my mom surprising me by taking me to a Saturday matinee showing of Batman sometime in the early 1970s. It was pretty magical.
Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (11/6/11) TV-TCM (1958 **) Directed by Nathan Juran, screenplay by Mark Hanna, starring Allison Hayes, William Hudson and Yvette Vickers. A rich woman deals with a murder attempt by her two-timing husband and a close encounter with an alien giant the only way she knows how: By growing to a height of 50 feet and stomping out a path of destruction through the center of town. What's not to like about a scantily-clad giantess? If you're into that kind of thing, I mean. Unfortunately, far too little time was spent in this movie on oversized feminine rampages and the effects weren't nearly as impressive as the movie's poster would have you believe. However, having said all that, if you're thinking about renting this movie and watching it "just for kicks," it might help your decision to know this "feature-length film" is only 65 minutes long! Like the lady in the Woody Allen joke said, "The food was terrible... and in such small portions!"
Blackest Night: Tales of the Corps (11/6/11) Comics (2011 **) Written by Geoff Johns and various, illustrated by various. This volume collects material originally presented in Tales of the Corps #1-3, Green Lantern #49 and Adventure Comics #4-5. In this, the seventh and final trade paperback collection of DC's "Blackest Night" event, we get short backstories of the event's players as well as a visit with the "Earth Prime" Superboy. And so the fragmented corners of Geoff John's Blackest Night storyline splinter further and fizzle out. The final "Superboy" story in the book seemed to have a "fourth wall" agenda beyond that of the main storyline, and it was hard for me to really care about the characters. As with the preceding book (Blackest Night: Rise of the Black Lanterns), if you're planning on buying the full set, this is another volume you can feel free to skip.
The Misfits (11/9/11) TV-TCM (1961 ***1/2) Directed by John Huston, screenplay by Arthur Miller, starring Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift and Eli Wallach. A knockout divorcee falls in love with a dirty old cowboy. In terms of film history, this was the last film Monroe and Gable ever made, and the stuff that made them stars was clearly visible on the screen. It also featured post-accident Clift in one of his final films as well. Arthur Miller's stunning screenplay reminded me that "no one writes 'em like that anymore." The only thing stopping me from giving this film four stars is that its subject matter, particularly the final twenty minutes of the film, was incredibly downbeat. As such, as much as the film had going for it, I'm hard-pressed to wholeheartedly recommend it unless you want to see an example of superb writing.
Paul (11/10/11) Netflix (2011 ***1/2) Directed by Greg Mottola, written by (and starring) Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, also featuring Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader and Jason Bateman. Two British nerds have a close encounter with a foul-mouthed fugitive from another planet. I really loved Frost & Pegg's Shaun of the Dead (2004), though I was less thrilled by Hot Fuzz (2007). I appreciate the genre-jumping thing they've done in the past, and so I saw Paul as a continuation of that, kind of their loving tribute to Steven Spielberg's Sci Fi classics. When the movie was released it got mediocre reviews (72% on Rotten Tomatoes), so I added it to my Netflix queue instead of racing to the theater. With my expectations set to "low," I enjoyed Paul more than I'd expected. The language was consistently coarse throughout, but that didn't bother me much. It was pretty cool to me that we've gotten to the point in economical visual effects where it was viable money-wise to have an animated main character in a relatively small film.
Madison Avenue (11/10/11) TV-FMC (1962 *) Directed by H. Bruce Humberstone, starring Dana Andrews, Eleanor Parker, Jeanne Crain and Eddie Albert. A Madison Avenue ad man learns what's really important... in the dullest way possible. I recorded this dud because my wife and I had recently watched the first four seasons of AMC's Mad Men and I thought it would be a hoot to watch a movie about the "ad game" actually made in the early 1960s. But this movie was decidedly not the one to watch. For starters, within the first five minutes, the action moved to Washington D.C. and for the most part stayed there for the remainder of the film! It was so dull I kept drifting off to sleep, only stirring occasionally to ask my wife "Are you sure you want to keep watching this?"
Becoming Jane (11/11/11) Netflix (2007 ***) Directed by Julian Jarrold, starring Anne Hathaway, James McAvoy and Julie Walters. Before she wrote some of the English language's greatest books and before she achieved fame as a zombie hunter, Jane Austen was a simple country girl with a sharp tongue. While I don't seek out 18th Century costume dramas, I don't mind them, and there is something about films based on Jane Austen's work that is comforting and pleasing to the eye. Not being intimately familiar with Austen's biography, it's hard for me to know the extent to which this film was fictionalized, but I admired the premise (Jane Austen as a character in one of her books), and it was executed well.
Carry on Nurse (11/12/11) TCM (1959 ***) Directed by Gerald Thomas, starring Kenneth Connor, Shirley Eaton and Charles Hawtrey, with Wilfrid Hyde-White. Patients in the men's ward of Haven Hospital misbehave badly, leaving the nurses no choice but to insert daffodils into their patients' rectums. Watching this relatively tame film from the safe distance of the 21st century, over 50 years after its original release, it's hard to believe how insanely popular this film and the "Carry on" series that followed it was. And while the world of 1959 may have been a very different one, the depiction of a nurse being stripped, bound, gagged and bedded -- which happened late in the film in order for one of the "crazy" patients to swap places with her -- is still fairly naughty.
Green Lantern (11/17/11) Netflix (2011 ***1/4) Directed by Martin Campbell, starring Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Peter Sarsgaard and Tim Robins. A dying purple alien bequeaths an emerald energy ring to a smarmy test pilot with commitment issues. When this film came out earlier this year to mediocre reviews, I added it to the "Saved" section of my Netflix queue. And so when it arrived in the mail, I watched it with my expectations set to about a '3' on a scale of 1-10. And you know what? As is so often the case, I enjoyed it far more than I expected. I will even go so far as to say that Ryan Reynolds was a good choice to play one of DC comics' most recognizable second-string characters. Having recently read so many contemporary Green Lantern-related graphic novels and comics, I appreciated that the storyline of the film was closely aligned with the source material. Since the film didn't do great box office, I suspect there won't be a sequel, which is sort of a shame. I'd love to see Hal Jordan go head-to-head (and power-ring-to-power-ring) with... (OBLIGATORY SPOILER WARNING)... Sinestro.
The Muppets (11/23/11) Glendale Exchange 8 (2011 ***1/2) Directed by James Bobin, screenplay by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, starring Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper and... well, The Muppets. "Maniacal laugh! Maniacal Laugh!" When the original Muppet Theater is threatened by an evil oil baron, two brothers from "Small Town" (one of them considerably shorter and felt-covered than the other) convince their favorite stars to get back together again for one last show. I had been waiting for this film with great anticipation, and so I was delighted when our studio let us go home early on the day before Thanksgiving and my wife suggested we go see The Muppets... on opening day! I count 1979's The Muppet Movie among my top "sentimental" favorites. The somewhat postmodern approach to the new film ("Are The Muppets still relevant?") worked pretty well for the characters. I absolutely LOVED all the references to the original TV show and early films. I also spent a large percentage of the film with tears in my eyes: Kermit and the muppets pondering their relevance wasn't too different from Woody and Buzz pondering their mortality in Toy Story 3. Speaking of Toy Story: The Muppets was preceded in the theater by Pixar's "Short Fry," which explored the fascinating realm of Happy Meal toys, but in a far less interesting way than I would have expected (I'd give it a disappointing 2 out of 4 stars). But back to The Muppets: As much as I enjoyed the new film, the music wasn't nearly as memorable as that in the 1979 film. It also had a slightly different energy than the original Jim Henson-era muppets, and three days after seeing The Muppets, the universe gave me an excellent frame of reference when my wife and I visited Muppet*vision 3-D, one of the attractions at Disney's California Adventure and the last film directed by Henson before his death in 1990. In that film, with all its madcap antics, Kermit and the muppets felt more like themselves.
The Hanging Tree (11/27/11) TCM (1959 ***) Directed by Delmer Daves, based on the novel by Dorothy M. Johnson, starring Gary Cooper, Maria Schell, Ben Piazza and Karl Malden. A doctor with a dark past and control issues interferes with the lives of people in a Western town until they've had enough and decide to "string him up!" I don't watch a lot of westerns, but my father had mentioned The Hanging Tree on several occasions. While it wasn't a great film, it had a surprisingly complex main character and an interesting story. The dramatic focus of much of the story, however had to do with the ever-present threat of rape. But as unsavory as that element was, it was handled well; I'm not sure how he did it, but Karl Malden played a character even creepier than Rod Steiger in Oklahoma! In addition to the stars already mentioned, The Hanging Tree also featured George C. Scott in his first film appearance.
The F.B.I. Story (11/27/11) TCM (1959 **1/2) Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, starring James Stewart, Vera Miles and Murray Hamilton. The history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation from disorganized paper-shufflers to gun-wielding G-Men is presented through the eyes and travails of a fictional amalgam. Apparently the F.B.I. monitored and approved every step of this film's production, and it did feel at times like a whitewashed advertisement for the agency, with a little family melodrama thrown in. J. Edgar Hoover even played himself briefly in one dialogue-free scene, though he was a key character (or at least presence) in the film. While I found the material engaging enough for me to finish the film even after I realized how long it was, I don't know that I can recommend it, even for fans of its star. In his long career, Jimmy Stewart gave us many wonderful performances, but in the case of The F.B.I. Story, I think he may have just been cashing a check.
Show Boat (11/27/11) TCM (1951 **) Directed by George Sidney, based on the musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, starring Kathryn Grayson, Koward Keel, Ava Gardner and Joe E. Brown. The daughter of a Mississippi River show boat owner gets tangled up with a gambler who doesn't seem to comprehend how random chance works. Show Boat is one of those classic movie musicals I never quite got around to watching. And it turns out I didn't miss much: With the exception of a couple of memorable songs ("Ol' Man River" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man"), there was little to grab and keep my attention. Its thin characterizations and over-the-top melodrama certainly didn't do it.
Dynamic Figure Drawing (11/28/11) Illustrated Nonfiction (1970 ***) Written and illustrated by Burne Hogarth. The illustrator of the comic strip Tarzan and co-founder of NYC's School of Visual Arts puts on his professorial hat to teach students how to draw figures in deep space. The paperback version I read was published in 1996, though there's no indication the content was modified from Hogarth's original 1970 hardback book. My purpose in buying and reading this book? I've been attending figure drawing sessions at my studio for years and recently I've decided to take my skills "to the next level." It's vitally important to note that the focus of Hogarth's book is on inventing figure drawings, rather than drawing from life. Hogarth's writing, which accompanies hundreds of drawings, reads like something from another time: It was dry and professorial to the point of being incomprehensible at times. He often used ten words when three would have sufficed. I attribute this to the era in which it was written. I generally found the book to be useful as an instructional resource, but I also found it interesting that in a book that repeatedly referred to drawing figures in space and foreshortening that Hogarth deliberately chose a "flattened out" orthographic space throughout the book, with little reference whatsoever to drawing figures in true perspective. Perhaps he felt it was too advanced a topic for his audience. If you'll permit me a whimsical side-note: The nude, bald male figure Hogarth used for 90% of his examples kept reminding me of Doctor Manhattan in Alan Moore's Watchmen graphic novel; I wonder if Watchmen illustrator Dave Gibbons used Hogarth's book for inspiration?

December

The Next Voice You Hear... (12/1/11) TCM (1950 ***) Directed by William A. Wellman, starring James Whitmore, Nancy Davis and Gary Gray. When God takes over the radio airwaves for several days in a row, mankind speculates if his message of love and peace is a hoax or if God is vying for a regular gig as a disc jockey. Though the writing was weak...-ish and the characters were a bit thin, I still found this story of an everyman dealing with the purpose of existence to be moving. There's a whole genre of films based on supernatural/afterlife themes, from The Bishop's Wife to A Guy Named Joe. And there has always seemed to be a "line in the sand," as it were, related to how directly the films dealt with the nature of God. This film definitely straddled the line, often crossing it, which may have made some viewers uncomfortable. On another note, according to Imdb.com, Ms. Davis didn't have much of an acting career, but she still looked awfully familiar, bags under her eyes and all. In my mind's eye, somehow I picture her wearing red...
Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (12/2/11) TCM (1952 **) Directed by Charles Lamont, starring Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Charles Laughton and Hillary Brooke. Two waiters stumble upon a treasure map and wind up sharing a ship with one of history's most notorious pirates. One of the most remarkable things about this movie is that it was one of only two A&C movies shot in color (Jack and the Beanstalk was the other one.) The film itself definitely wasn't A&C at their best. It was short and the musical numbers were dreadful. The comedy "set pieces" were either re-hashed, drawn out or both. In fact, this movie seemed at times almost like a computer simulation of an Abbott and Costello movie. It was very interesting how much Charles Laughton threw himself unabashedly into the role of Captain Kidd... and the physical comedy the role demanded. I can't help but wonder if Laughton didn't end up in the film as the result of losing a bet.
Batman: Year One (12/4/11) Netflix (2011 ***) Directed by Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery, based on the comic story by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli, featuring the voices of Bryan Cranston (Jim Gordon) and Ben McKenzie (Batman / Bruce Wayne). Can an honest cop and a masked vigilante find friendship and hope in a city as corrupt as Gotham? I hadn't read the source material in several years, but as far as I can recall this new animated version was quite faithful to the original. The experience of watching it in animated form was somewhat different, though. And in the case of this adaptation I have to wonder why it was done? Does the animated version add anything to the original? Not really. Still, the strong storytelling from the original comic book series was still there. Also, the support material on the Blu-Ray DVD was helpful in explaining the historical context of its publication.
A Christmas Story (12/8/11) TCM (1983 ***) Directed by Bob Clark, based on the novel In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash by Jean Shepherd (who also narrated), starring Peter Billingsly, Melinda Dillon and Darren McGavin. All Ralphie wants for Christmas is a Red Ryder BB gun. You'd just better hope he doesn't shoot his eye out! When I first watched this movie on cable in the mid-1980s I wasn't particularly impressed by it. But in the nearly 30 years since then, this movie has become a "beloved yuletide tradition." But does it deserve that status? I'll admit there was much in the "Kid's eye view" of the movie for me to identify with, but there just wasn't much to the film's story as a whole. In fact -- and I know some might want to punch me in the face for what I'm about to write -- the whole build-up throughout the film of the BB gun? The pay-off for that was completely anticlimactic and more than a little disappointing. And I don't think that's only because I'm reviewing this film with 21st Century eyes. Look, if you're looking for a family-friendly film to hoist onto the pedestal of "Holiday Perennial," I suppose you could do worse than this lightweight little film. But let's not go confusing it with REAL Christmas Classics like Miracle on 34th Street (1947) or It's A Wonderful Life (1946)!
Batwoman: Elegy (12/9/11) Comics (2010 ***1/4) Written by Greg Rucka, illustrated by J.H. Williams III. Originally published in Detective Comics #854-860 (2009-2010). When the red-headed Batwoman takes on a Lewis Carroll-quoting mass murderer named "Alice," she strips away layers of secrets until her own origin story is revealed. This book was my first introduction to the new Batwoman, though a few years back I'd read some of the press related to her status as DCs first major lesbian superhero. It was not inappropriate then for this volume to begin with an introduction by MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, who announced herself as a fan of Greg Rucka's writing. Hey, who knew Rachel Maddow read comics? Cool! I had read almost none of Rucka's work previously, though apparently he contributed to Blackest Night: Black Lantern Corps, Vol. 2, which I read only a couple months ago. I found his writing to alternate between being nicely grounded in reality and being a little too lyrical for my tastes. There was also a sense he kept circling his main character, Kate Kane, trying to figure out what made her tick.
UHF (12/11/11) TCM (1989 ***1/4) Directed by Jay Levey, starring "Weird Al" Yankovic, Victoria Jackson, Kevin McCarthy and Michael Richards. A "weirdo" and a janitor take struggling UHF channel U-62 to the top of the ratings. I saw this film when it was originally released, back when "Weird Al" was actually "weirder" than his co-stars Jackson and Richards. I still have a certain affection and respect for "Weird Al," even though at the time UHF was released my Mom told me I looked like him. Geez, thanks Mom! The story structure of the film was and is surprisingly sound, even though its "underdog triumphing against the odds" theme was probably well-worn even in 1989. If you do watch it, do so with a gentle warning: Some of the very un-politically-correct humor is a bit hard to take in the 21st Century, and Michael Richard's portrayal of mentally handicapped janitor / kiddie show host Stanley Spadowski was particularly offensive.
Allen Gregory (12/11/11) TV-FOX (2011 **) Series created by Jarrad Paul, Jonah Hill and Andrew Mogel, featuring the voices of Jonah Hill, Nat Faxon and Will Forte. 7 episodes, originally aired 10/30/11 - 12/11/11. "Pretentious" is the operative word, as 7-year-old bachelor playboy Allen Gregory De Longpre attempts to fit into a public grade school where he falls in love with his principal. I liked the premise of this show and respect some of the chances it took, but it suffered from a major cardinal sin: Nearly all the characters were unlikable, including the main one. Also, as my wife put it, the show tried too hard to be shocking and "blow your mindy" and just ended being incomprehensible and "sucky." On a positive note, I enjoyed Jonah Hill's character voicework and won't be too surprised if he finds his way back into animated form at some point in the future.
A Boy Named Charlie Brown (12/12/11) ABC Family (1969 ***1/2) Directed by Bill Melendez, written by Charles M. Schulz, featuring the voices of Peter Robbins (Charlie Brown), Pamelyn Ferdin (Lucy) and Glenn Gilger (Linus). Round-headed blockhead and general loser Charlie Brown travels to the big city to compete in a National Spelling Bee. Back when I was in single digits, Charlie Brown and the Peanuts cast of characters were a huge part of my world. My mom took me to see A Boy Named Charlie Brown in the theater, possibly during its original release. I still remember the magical feeling of sitting in the theater and see my favorite characters on the big screen. In particular, I remember the effect the Rod McKuen songs had on me: I left the theater with the music and lyrics haunting me for days and weeks ahead. And I'll be damned if those songs didn't have the same "earwig" effect watching the movie 40 or so years later. I can't claim A Boy Named Charlie Brown is a great film, and it has some obvious flaws: a few of the animated sequences (like Snoopy skating at 30 Rockefeller Plaza) might be considered dull by today's standards. But I don't care, I still love it. After all, its message (as expressed in the film's final lyric) is still universal: "...people after all / Start out as being small. / We're all a boy named Charlie Brown."
The Fog (12/12/11) TCM (1980 **) Directed by John Carpenter, starring Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh and Hal Holbrook. The residents of Northern California's Antonio Bay celebrate their town's 100th birthday. But hey! Who the hell invited the ghost zombie sailor lepers? Yeah, this was an odd choice for me, but I was in the mood for a good old fashioned 1980s horror film starring Adrienne Barbeau, and the pickings were slim. This film started out reasonably well but then halfway through the script took several missteps and ended on a decidely weak note. The biggest story sin of all? Barbeau's character found herself physically separated from her young son, a fact she just accepted. What a wasted story opportunity! Any single mom (fictional or real) I know would have let nothing natural or supernatural get between her and her son, be they leper pirate zombie ghosts or even... (GASP!) GHOST ZOMBIE PIRATE LEPERS!!
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (12/12/11) Netflix (2010 **1/2) Written and directed by Woody Allen, starring Anthony Hopkins, Naomi Watts, Josh Brolin and Gemma Jones. When Helena's husband leaves her after 40 years of marriage, she turns to a London fortune teller named Cristal, who basically tells her what she wants to hear. You know me, I'm one of Woody's biggest fans. But despite its London setting and terrific cast, this film -- well made as it was -- never quite achieved lift-off for me. The problem was that its multiple storylines never developed into a unified whole, and nearly all of them ended in ways that weren't particularly... well, enjoyable. In addition, the theme that related them wasn't clear until the film's final minutes. Add to that a screenplay that boasted numerous unlikable characters and you've got a recipe for disappointment soup. Fortunately Woody made up for it with his next, audience-pleasing (and critic-pleasing) film, Midnight in Paris.
My Sister Eileen (12/12/11) TCM (1955 **1/2) Directed by Richard Quine, starring Janet Leigh, Jack Lemmon, Betty Garrett, Bob Fosse and Dick York. Two sisters (one pretty, one... less so) from Ohio move to Greenwich Village where they try to make it on their own, one as a writer, the other as a model. (Guess which is which?) While there was much to like about this little musical (including Bewitched's Darrin #1 as a musclebound wrestler), it never managed to elevate itself beyond the level of disappointing and forgettable. How terribly sad.
The PhD Movie (12/14/11) DWA Screening (2011 ***) Directed by Vahe Gabuchian, written by Jorge Cham (based on characters he created for his comic strip Piled Higher and Deeper), starring Raj Katti, Alexandra Lockwood, Zachary Abbot and Evans Boney. Winston and Cecilia, two grad students at a large university, experience the realities and inevitabilities of institutionalized higher learning. From its opening image of Richard Feynman playing the bongos (accompanied by an appropriate Feynman quote), this movie surprised me. Let me be honest upfront: This was a cute little film, and as a former graduate student I could relate to it, but The PhD Movie was not a professional production. Its actors were all actual grad students, professors and university personnel, and the dialogue was pretty unnatural at times. Still, I admire Cham and his team for what he managed to accomplish with this film, and I hope it reaches the niche audience it deserves to find.
Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics (12/15/11) Netflix (2010 ***1/4) Written and directed by Mac Carter, narrated by Ryan Reynolds and featuring interviews with Neal Adams, Denny O'Neil, Neil Gaiman and many others from DC Comics' long history. Though nominally directed toward comic book fans, this documentary was general enough to be enjoyed by a wider audience. Though I was already well familiar with the 80% of the material, I appreciated how well the historical narrative was presented, with various DC Comics high-points highlighted, not only in the medium of comics, but also film and TV as well. The fact that the documentary began with my favorite childhood artist, Neal Adams, was also a big plus. On a broader note, not to take anything away from those who produced this documentary, but I've found that the current state-of-the-art in lower-end film and video equipment has resulted in much better-looking documentaries within the past 5 years or so.
Batgirl: Batgirl Rising (12/20/11) Comics (2010 ***) Written by Bryan Q. Miller, illustrated by Lee Garbett and Trevor Scott, originally published in Batgirl #1-7 (2009-2010). Stephanie Brown, with a little help from her friends, is Gotham City's latest Batgirl. Let's face it, there's no Batgirl as awesome as Barbara Gordon was in her heyday, even when she was handled by writers who didn't understand her. Too bad Alan Moore and his 1988 Batgirl-crippling The Killing Joke put an end to that. But over the course of the seven issues presented in this collection I will admit this latest (Stephanie Brown) incarnation began to grow on me. It helped that Miller included Barbara Gordon herself playing a significant role in the story. Now, considering I recently read and reviewed Batwoman: Elegy, it may be fair to ask: "Do I have a thing for Batwomen?" Perhaps.
Carry on Teacher (12/21/11) TCM (1959 ***) Directed by Gerald Thomas, screenplay by Norman Hudis, starring Kenneth Connor, Charles Hawtrey, Leslie Phillips, Joan Sims and Hattie Jacques. When students at the Maudlin Street School learn their headmaster wants to leave, they launch a campaign of pranks, antics and shenanigans. Having recently watched the first two films in the series, I found this third entry a bit naughtier (Sims' character was named "Sarah Allcock" and her name was repeated frequently) and also more entertaining than the two that preceded it, even though the film's sentimental resolution was fairly obvious from the first scene. With this film I began to see the brilliance of placing a "stock company" of actors in different roles and different situations. I wonder how well a similar approach might be taken to a movie series today?
Carry on Constable (12/21/11) TCM (1960 ***) Directed by Gerald Thomas, starring Sid James, Kenneth Connor, Charles Hawtrey, Kenneth Williams, Leslie Phillips and Joan Sims. When a flu epidemic reduces the staff numbers at a police station, it must "staff up" with three newly-graduated recruits. With each new entry in the "Carry on" series (of which there were eventually a whopping 31!), the "naughty dial" seemed to inch up ever so slightly. In the case of Carry on Constable, the audience was treated to a glimpse of the four main (male) characters' backsides. This was the last of the four "Carry on" films presented on Turner Classic Movies and captured on our DVR, and so it's the last one I'll be reviewing... at least for awhile. A smattering of others in the series are available on Netflix, though I can't quite bring myself to add them to my queue.
The Copywriter's Handbook (12/22/11) Nonfiction (2005 **) Self-proclaimed master copywriter Robert W. Bly explains the ins and outs of (as he claims in the book's subtitle) "writing copy that sells." The paperback volume I read was the 3rd Edition of Bly's 1985 book. Some revision of the original had evidently been done, and there was some lip service paid to the job of the copywriter in the 21st Century, including chapters on "Writing for the Web" and "E-Mail Marketing." Unfortunately, Bly's book needed far more "freshening up" than it apparently got; I grew quite tired of its continuous stream of dated references to "contemporary" ad campaigns such as those featuring Emmanuel Lewis and the late Clara Peller asking "Where's the Beef?" I won't say I didn't find the basic principles of copywriting to be helpful, but that information could have been covered in about 20 or so pages. Roughly 80% of the content of Bly's 400+ page book fell solidly into the "common sense" category, to the point where it felt like his target audience was in junior high. According to the back cover of the book, Bly is the "author of more than sixty books." Based on the titles of the 14 of them listed inside this book, it appears many of them cover the same subjet matter he explored (at least on a superficial level) in this book. Good work if you can get it.
Mister Roberts (12/23/11) TCM (1955 ****) Directed by John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy, starring Henry Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell and Jack Lemmon. Executive Officer Doug Roberts wants nothing more than to get transferred off a South Pacific Navy supply ship so he can join the "real" war. Funny thing about honest-to-God 4-star movies: There aren't a lot of them, but when you're watching one, even one made more than half a century ago, you know it. Mister Roberts, even though it comes across very much like the stage production on which it was based, is one of those movies. What's more, watching this film made me realize that while George Clooney is often compared to Cary Grant, we really have no contemporary acting equivalent of Henry Fonda. He truly was an American original.
The Philadelphia Story (12/24/11) TCM (1940 ****) Directed by George Cukor, starring Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart and Ruth Hussey. A man with the unlikely name C.K. Dexter Haven does his best to interfere with the (re)marriage of his ex-wife, Traci Lords... er, Tracy Lord. This is the film my wife has chosen as her all-time favorite, and what a wonderful choice it is! The dialogue (based on the play by Philip Barry) is just as snappy and crisp today as it was seventy-plus years ago. Grant, Stewart and especially Hepburn were at the top of their form, and the film features plenty of bonus “screwball comedy” business like Tracy's kid sister Dinah (Virginia Weidler) playing “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” on the piano with a crazed energy strait out of Reefer Madness. If you're looking for a movie night pick that's a veritable “gateway drug” for becoming a classic film buff, you can't do any better than The Philadelphia Story.
The Shop Around the Corner (12/25/11) TCM (1940 ***) Directed by Ernst Lubitsch, starring Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart and Frank Morgan. Alfred and Klara, two co-workers at a shop in Budapest hate each other's guts, yet love each other on paper, as pen pals. I'm not sure why this film was set in Budapest. Its “exotic” locale never really entered into the storyline, and it may as well have been set in Boise, Idaho. If the plot sounds familiar, it's because it was remade by Norah Ephron's 1998 You've Got Mail, with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. With the ending set during Christmas, it's nominally a Holiday movie, but don't go looking for any larger themes: I'm hard-pressed to claim it's about anything more than a cute little comedy of errors / love story.
Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol (12/26/11) AMC Burbank Town Center 8 (2011 ***1/2) Directed by Brad Bird, starring Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton and Simon Pegg. Double super duper secret agent Ethan Hunt bounces athletically from explosive international set piece to set piece, all in an effort to thwart global nuclear annihilation. What a guy! After making a helluva name for himself as the director of animated films The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, M:I4 is Brad Bird's first live-action film. But judging by the sensational job he did, it won't be his last, though I must confess I still hope he someday returns to Pixar to direct a sequel to The Incredibles. With Ghost Protocol coming 5 years after M:I3, Tom Cruise showed his age a bit, but only really in his face. The country-hopping pace was fast and the action – unbelievable as it was at times – was hot. I wondered as I watched where the Mission:Impossible / Ethan Hunt franchise fits along the same spectrum occupied by James Bond and Jason Bourne, and after lengthy consideration I'm not exactly sure. Considering how implausible some of the scenarios were, perhaps I should include Austin Powers as a data point.
Young Adult (12/27/11) Pacific Theaters Glendale 18 (2011 ***) Directed by Jason Reitman, written by Diablo Cody, starring Charlize Theron, Patrick Wilson and Patton Oswalt. A “YA” author with a long list of mental problems returns to her Minnesota home town hoping to insinuate herself between her high school boyfriend and objective reality. Based on the TV commercials and trailer, I knew going in that this was going to be a downer of a movie. A well-written, acted and directed downer, but a downer nonetheless. And in spite of a number of laugh-out-loud moments... it ultimately was. To top it all off, the ending was intentionally ambiguous. Of course it was. Still, considering Young Adult marks a re-pairing of Juno's Reitman/Cody duo, this may be your cup of tea. And I must admit that Theron delivered an amazing portrayal (possibly even an Oscar-worthy one) of a beautiful woman who's ugly to the bone.
Home Alone (12/27/11) FMC (1990 ***1/4) Directed by Chris Columbus, written by John Hughes, starring Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern and Catherine O'Hara. When his family flies to Paris for Christmas, 8-year-old Kevin McCallister gets lost in the shuffle and left behind in upscale suburban Chicago. Naturally he must protect his home from burglars using elaborate traps and machinations that would make Wile E. Coyote proud. I hadn't watched this movie in years (decades more like it), though I did see it when it was originally released. I think it's gotten a bad rap for a long time, though it seems to be creeping slowly into the list of adored Christmas classics. Thing is, it's clear that Home Alone never attempted to be more than what it was meant to be: A family-friendly holiday comedy rich with sentiment and slapstick. And far more of the former and less of the latter than I remembered.
Mail-Order Mysteries: Real Stuff from Old Comic Book Ads! (12/28/11) Illustrated Nonfiction (2011 ***1/2) Written by Kirk Demarais. As a kid, did you ever wonder what you'd get if you ordered “X-Ray Spex?” Now you can find out what you would have received in the mail. My wife bought me this book for Christmas (it was on my Amazon wish list) and it turned out to be awesome! The structure of Mail-Order Mysteries is quite simple: The original comic book ad for each item (and in some cases collections of related items) is shown, followed by photos of the actual item(s) and an analysis of what was promised versus what was delivered. In many cases, additional background information is given about the origins of the product. The message of Demarais' well-written and lovingly-curated volume is that most “mysteries” were real disappointments. And yet others were surprisingly good values, much like his book. By my count, in my youth I ordered or owned ten (possibly eleven) of the wondrous items contained within, including: The Haunting Record, Vampire Blood, The Life-Sized Vampire Bat, The Magic Brain Calculator, The Vacutex Blackhead Remover, 50 Bike Decals, The Secret Book Safe, The Secret Agent Spy Camera (though it may have been my uncle's), The Chinese Prayer Vase and, the most famous of all, Sea-Monkeys. But somehow the item I remember as being most eye-opening (e.g. disappointing) was the U-Control 7-Foot Life-Sized Ghost, which turned out to be a balloon, a white plastic sheet and a spool of fishing line.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever (12/28/11) Illustrated Fiction (2011 ***1/2) Written and illustrated by Jeff Kinney. Greg Heffley, a kid with a penchant for autobiography and (borderline) criminal mischief, gets into hot water with the police but is saved (ironically) by a blizzard. Nearly two years ago (January 2010), I read the first book to my wife in bed when she was under the weather, and it really lifted her spirits. And so this year I bought Cabin Fever, the 6th book in Jeff Kinney's Wimpy Kid series as a Christmas present with the purpose of recreating the original experience. And we did. Perfectly healthy this time, we lay in bed and took turns reading sections to each other. Though the book's intended audience is described by Amazon.com as “8 and up,” its juvenile humor was still perfect for a couple who are perpetually 12 years old at heart. Even though I hadn't read any of 4 intervening books in the series (books 2-5), I was pleased to see that Cabin Fever still maintained much of the fun of the first book.
Miracle on 34th Street (12/28/11) TCM (1947 ****) Written and directed by George Seaton, based on a story by Valentine Davies, starring Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O'Hara, John Payne and a little newcomer named Natalie Wood. A delusional psychotic believing himself to be Santa Claus casts a spell over every innocent soul he meets, making them believe in GOODWILL, HOPE and CHRISTMAS MAGIC! Were I making a list of my top Christmas films, this one would go very close to the top, maybe even at position #1. Why? It not only provided an entertaining story with wonderful characters and performances, but it was very effective at making the "meaning of Christmas" (the belief that doing good is good for the bottom line) meaningful in the modern world. Also, it doesn't hurt to be reminded that part of the human condition means occasionally believing in things that are a bit crazy. Though it's been remade many times and even colorized, the original (and delightful) Miracle on 34th Street remains worthy of its status as a holiday tradition.
Little Women (12/28/11 TCM (1933 **1/2) Directed by George Cukor, based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott, starring Katharine Hepburn, Joan Bennett and Paul Lukas. Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy March are four Massachusetts sisters unlucky enough to “come of age” during the American Civil War. It's hard to believe that I, a 47-year-old man, have never seen any of the approximately 15 versions of this film, nor have I read the book on which it was based. Judging by this film, I can't say I missed much. While I respected this film's status as a “classic,” I found many of its component parts highly annoying, particularly the melodramatic plot and the over-the-top performances, including the one delivered by one of my favorites, Katharine Hepburn herself. I'm pretty sure her grating portrayal of the “tomboyish” authoress Josephine March contributed to Hepburn becoming known as... at least for a few years... “box office poison.”
Power Girl: Bomb Squad (12/29/11) Comics (2011 ***) Written by Judd Winick, illustrated by Sam Basar. Karen Starr (AKA Power Girl) must deal with the disintegration of her high-tech company due to embezzlement while simultaneously slugging it out with super-powered brutes masterminded by none other than... Maxwell Lord. Reading Power Girl is a bit of a guilty pleasure for me. I truly enjoyed the first two volumes penned by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray. Though Winick (Batman: Under the Hood) seemed at times to attempt to maintain that established spirit, he didn't do the best job of it, and much of the joy of the first two volumes got lost. And without that “fun factor,” Power Girl became just another super heroine with ginormous bazzooms.
Woody Allen's New Orleans Jazz Band (12/29/11) UCLA's Royce Auditorium (2011 ***1/2) Woody Allen, Eddy Davis and the rest of a 7-piece band played authentic Dixieland jazz to an appreciative, sold-out audience. If you can believe it, this is the third time I've seen my childhood idol Woody Allen live, and the second time playing his clarinet. The previous time I saw him play was in October 2009 at the Carlyle Hotel in New York, and as I mentioned in my review of that performance, our bill (dinner + drinks + cover charge) cost more than my first car (a used 1966 AMC Rambler Classic)! This time around, the tickets were considerably more affordable, though still not exactly cheap, and the “highbrow” crowd was polite and generous with their applause. As a matter of fact, we were seated across the aisle from the actor James Spader (Boston Legal, The Office)! As for the music itself, I'm not exactly a New Orleans Jazz aficionado. Many of the songs Woody and his band played were unfamiliar, and I must admit the first seven or so all sounded to me like variations on Johnny S. Black's “Paper Doll.” As wonderful as the band and the music was, my guess is that most in the audience were there for the same reason my wife and I were: To see living legend Woody Allen in person.
That's Entertainment! III (12/30/11) TCM (1994 **1/2) Written and directed by Bud Friedgen and Michael J. Sheridan, with appearances by Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Ann Miller and more. Produced nearly 20 years since That's Entertainment, Part II (1976), this sequel documentary focused on never-before-seen gems from the MGM “vault.” I suspect this mid-1990s film was made in large part to promote the availability of Ted Turner's MGM library on VHS video. While it was interesting to see some of the “deleted scenes” and special material, the overall effect was very much like watching a set of “DVD extras.” Contrast that to the first two That's Entertainment films, which consisted of the best show-stopping MGM musical numbers ever produced! It was also a bit sad to see Gene Kelly (who provided the documentary's “bookends”) in his waning days, clearly winding down: This film was released less than two years before his death in February 1996.
We Bought a Zoo (12/31/11) AMC Burbank Town Center 8 (2011 ***1/2) Directed by Cameron Crowe, based on the book by Benjamin Mee, starring Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones and Thomas Haden Church. A grieving widower and his family look for a new place to live and their real estate agent sells them... Aw, come on, were you even slightly paying attention to the title? Of the movies Cameron Crowe has made over the years, this is possibly the least Cameron Crowe-ish (kinda like when David Lynch directed The Straight Story), but Crowe's firm but gentle directorial hand was still present in every shot. We Bought a Zoo is truly a film for the entire family and Matt Damon was well-suited for the lead and was nicely supported, with Johansson delivering what may have been the most convincing performance I've ever seen her give, though that's not saying much. Also, it was such a special treat to see a grown-up Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous) in a minor role.