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Film/Media Journal Archives

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2012 Media Journal

 

A word about the ratings system used

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

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

****

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

***1/2

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

***

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

**1/2

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

**

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

*

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

 

January

The Beatles: Magical Mystery Tour (1/1/12) Netflix (1967 **) Written and directed by (according to Imdb.com) The Beatles themselves, featuring the Fab Four, a couple of overzealous character actors and a stripper named Jan Carson. Originally created as a TV special, John, Paul, George and Ringo climb aboard a colorful bus and tour the English countryside. This 1-hour video is notoriously bad, and rightly so. By any standard, it was absolutely dreadful, with the best part of it being the music from the Magical Mystery Tour album itself and the low point being a surreal nightmare sequence in which John Lennon shoveled feces-colored slop onto the table of Ringo's morbidly obese aunt (played by Jessie Robins). When I was in my early teens I had recently discovered The Beatles and I talked my grandparents into taking me to a special showing of this "film" at Omaha's Joslyn Art Museum. Well, let's just say we didn't make it past the "feces shoveling" scene.
Help! (1/1/12) Netflix (1965 **1/2) Directed by Richard Lester, starring The Beatles, Leo McKern and Eleanor Bron. Ring-collecting Ringo winds up with an oversized sacrificial ceremonial ring, and the bloodthirsty (and cranky) savages who lost it want it back. This was such an unfortunate followup to the fantastic A Hard Day's Night (1964). The fault for this film's failure lay almost entirely with its horrible screenplay. The Beatles did just fine playing themselves and the cinematography and direction of the individual scenes was superb. The highlight (not surprisingly) were the musical numbers which found The Beatles in a variety of colorful settings and climates. But the film's weak plot, such as it was, made the whole thing virtually unwatchable.
My Man Godfrey (1/1/12) TCM (1936 ***) Directed by Gregory La Cava, based on the novel by Eric Hatch, starring William Powell and Carole Lombard. Poor little rich girl Irene Bullock goes on a scavenger hunt and brings home the snootiest, smart-alecky bum you've ever seen. The last time I watched this film (8/25/2005) was via Netflix and the print was one of the worst I've ever seen, with audio so bad I could barely understand a line. This time the print was so pristine I could form a stronger opinion of the film itself. And I did see a few flaws. The biggest one (identified immediately by my wife) was that Carole Lombard's character never really changed, which all but invalidated the film's ending. In addition, while I appreciate that the film was released during the Great Depression, the moralizing about the class warfare was heavy-handed enough to be annoying and the wealthy characters were painted with a particularly mean-spirited brush.
Hugo (1/2/12) Glendale Pacific 18 (2011 ***1/2) Directed by Martin Scorsese, based on the book by Brian Selznick, starring Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen and Chloe Grace Moretz. An orphan living in a train station repairs a broken automaton, but instead of unleashing a steampunk-flavored robot holocaust, he inadvertently discovers the lost filmmaking pioneer Georges Melies. I had read in several reviews that this film was slow-paced, so I was prepared for that. I had also read the quasi-graphic novel on which it was based, and so I knew what to expect going in. Scorsese's directing was masterful as always, even when working with material far more family-friendly material than that with which he's usually associated. I imagine some in the audience might feel a twinge of betrayal when they discover that Hugo is in large part a PSA for the importance of film preservation. As I left the film, I wondered with a smile how many of the kids seeing this film over the 2011/2012 holiday season would go on to become film preservationists?
Junebug (1/2/12) IFC (2005 **) Directed by Phil Morrison, screenplay by Angus MacLachlan, starring Embeth Davidth, Alessandro Nivola and Amy Adams. The owner of a gallery dealing in "outsider" art visits her husband's family in North Carolina and gets more of a taste for "honest folk" than she bargained for. While I appreciated this film for Amy Adams' breakout performance and the fact that it was a "gentle character study," Junebug -- for me, anyhow -- never really got around to making anything resembling a point in anything resembling a clear fashion. It was, as my wife put so succinctly, "annoying."
Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1/3/12) TCM (1948 ***) Directed by H.C. Potter, based on the novel by Eric Hodgins, starring Cary Grant, Myrna Loy and Melvyn Douglas. A citydweller's dream of a "castle in the country" comes at a steep price... and with a lot of extras. First off, let's address the elephant in the room: In this film, Cary Grant played a Madison Avenue "Ad Man" given SIX MONTHS to come up with an advertising slogan. What. The. Hell? Another thing: I know this film was made in the late 1940s, but from my vantage point in the year 2012, it's damned hard for me to feel bad for anybody who built a home as depicted in the film for a "grand total" of $38,000. Is this a great film? Not really, but any homeowner who's ever hired a contractor for a "minor" remodeling project can probably relate to Mr. Blandings' tribulations.
Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1/3/12) FMC (1962 **1/2) Directed by Henry Koster, based on the novel by Edward Streeter, starring James Stewart, Maureen O'Hara and Fabian. A patriarch spends a less-than-restful month at the beach with his extended brood... solving everybody else's problems. It's no coincidence that I watched Mr. Hobbs the same day I finished watching Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. This film is definitely "of a kind," with its male protagonist dealing with the myriad frustrations of life/work/family in the modern world while longing for peace, quiet and a time machine to return him to a simpler time. Have we really changed so much? As a movie, it was never intended to be anything more than lightweight early-1960s fare, and though my memory is a bit murky, I probably saw it in my youth as a third (or maybe fourth) feature at the drive-in.
The Little Book of Mathematical Principles, Theories and Things (1/6/12) Nonfiction (2008 ***1/2) Written by Dr. Bob Solomon. The history of mathematics is the history of problems being proposed, then (A) proven, (B) proven impossible or (C) left unsolved for future generations of mathematicians. On a whim, I picked up this book from the sales table at Barnes & Noble and read it over a series of four lunch hours. I'm so glad I did. Besides tickling parts of my brain that had gone un-tickled for far too long, it brought back fond memories of Mr. Waterman's 11th grade Enrichment Math class. The book is not for everyone: It helped that I had some math and computer science background, even if it had been decades since I'd studied them in a classroom. I found Solomon's text to be clear (even when dealing with difficult-to-understand subject matter) and concise, with each of the topics covered in one or two short pages.
How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months (1/7/12) Nonfiction (2011 ***) Written by John Locke. Would you like to sell lots and lots of copies of your eBooks to people you don't know? Entrepreneur and self-proclaimed jerk John Locke reveals his secret system. I learned about this book when I took a 1-day seminar at UCLA Extension taught by Chris Meeks entitled “How to Publish Your Book and Do It Right,” and my wife bought me a copy for Christmas (it was on my Amazon wish list). John Locke (no relation to the philosopher or the character on the TV show Lost) is clearly not the greatest writer in the world, but his writing was quite clear and he is a living example of the degree of entrepreneurship required to be a successful author in today's literary marketplace. On a minor note, I imagine Locke will soon release a revised edition, as one of the key rungs on his ladder of success (prominently featured in the book) was writing what amounted to a “love letter” blog about the recently-disgraced Penn State coach Joe Paterno.
The Beatles Magical Mystery Tour Memories (1/9/12) Netflix (2008 *) Directed by David Lambert, featuring narration by Victor Spinetti and interviews with Neil Innis, Keith McCartney (Paul's brother) and others whose lives were touched by The Beatles and their multi-colored bus. While this wasn't the worst documentary I'd ever seen, it was definitely not a professional production: The anecdotes by the interview subjects often seemed to go nowhere and the sound quality was generally miserable. If I had to guess, I'd say this documentary was made primarily to exploit some grainy 8mm home movies and make some cash from aging Beatles fans with disposable income. On a side note, it's an interesting point of multi-layered trivia that Neil Innis, of The Bonzo Dog Do Da Band featured in the Magical Mystery Tour TV special was responsible for the song "Death Cab for Cutie," the inspiration for the contemporary band of the same name. Innis was also the songwriter for the wonderful Beatles' parody band he created with Eric Idle, The Rutles.
The Artist (1/9/12) Academy Screener (2011 ***1/2) Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, starring Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, James Cromwell and John Goodman. When the movies start talking, silent movie star George Valentin steps aside to make room for adorable ingenue Peppy Miller. This film recently won “Best Picture” at The Critics Choice Awards and is certainly in the running at The Oscars. I greatly admired the filmmaking that went into it as well as the chutzpah it took to produce a silent film in 2011. However, as much as I enjoyed it, I didn't think the film was necessarily a slam dunk. Much of the magical effect of The Artist relied on the suspension of disbelief that I was watching a period film, and that effect varied for me throughout, depending largely upon casting. While Dujardin was amazing and perfectly cast, Bérénice Bejo (in my humble opinion) was not, and every time she was on the screen, the rhythms of her body and modern acting style reminded me that I was watching a new film. My wife pointed out that the contrast between acting styles may well have been intentional (old versus new), but I'm not convinced. Is The Artist an accomplishment and a film worth watching, particularly for film buffs like myself? Absolutely! Is it the best film of 2011? I'm not so sure.
The Walking Dead, Vol. 15: We Find Ourselves (1/12/12) Comics (2011 ***) Written by Robert Kirkman, illustrated by Charlie Adlard. While Rick Grimes waits to see if his comatose son Carl will wake up, he begins to feel hopeful that society be rebuilt and thrive, even in a zombie-infested, post-apocalyptic world. Part of the frustration of reading Kirkman's Walking Dead series in serial form is that his narrative approach for this long-running story is to present lengthy stretches where nothing much happens, punctuated with extreme action and intensity. Unfortunately, in this volume (which followed the far more exciting Vol. 14: No Way Out), things were generally pretty dull, with a lot of talking and pages devoted to digging ditches. While there was the suggestion of conflict and a teasing that things might happen, that conflict never truly materialized in physical form. Am I looking for melodrama? No. All I'm saying, Robert Kirkman, is that if you take the metaphorical pot off the burner before it boils... Well, it's not particularly satisfying.
Moneyball (1/13/12) Blu-Ray (2011 ****) Directed by Bennett Miller, screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, based on the book by Michael Lewis, starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane risks all when he fights an unfair system... with mathematics. If you tell me Aaron Sorkin has written (or even co-written) a film's screenplay, count my wife and I in. Moneyball recently won the Critics Choice Award for best adapted screenplay and deservedly so. Man, I love good writing! Who would have thought a true-life story about baseball would be so interesting? And the performances were terrific as well, with Brad Pitt onscreen nearly 95% of the time, delivering possibly the best performance of his career. In addition, Jonah Hill showed that he could share the screen with Pitt, and he seems to have grown nicely out of the “Seth Rogen Junior” roles that marked his early career. Is he aiming to be cast in Paul Giamatti roles? I wonder.
The Descendants (1/14/12) DVD (2011 ***1/2) Directed by Alexander Payne, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller and Beau Bridges. Set in Hawaii, Real estate attorney and “understudy parent” Matt King's world is turned upside down when he learns his comatose wife was cheating on him. I'm a big fan of my fellow Omaha native Alexander Payne (About Schmidt, Sideways), and the two elements I particularly love about his films are: (1) He offers us fresh physical and emotional situations, ones that don't feel like an echo of something I've seen before; and (2) All his characters, even the minor ones, are well-drawn and interesting. The Descendants offered us both of the above. However, the central premise (a man pulling the plug on his wife) and the continual stream of characters in various stages of grief was so downbeat it made it hard to enjoy the film's quirky and comic moments.
Batman, Season 2 -- Part 1 (1/17/12) TV-HUB (1966 ***1/2) Series created by William Dozier and Lorenzo Semple, Jr., starring Adam West and Burt Ward. 30 episodes, originally aired 9/7/1966 - 12/15/1966. Caped crime-fighters Batman and Robin fight a cavalcade of colorful costumed crooks in good ol' Gotham city... in color! Belive it or not, the second season of Batman aired a phenomenal SIXTY episodes, so I've decided to break my season review into two parts, beginning with this one. Guest villains for the first set of 30 episodes were: Art Carney (Archer), Julie Newmar (Catwoman), Van Johnson (Minstrel), Victor Buono (King Tut), Shelley Winters (Ma Parker), Walter Slezak (Clock King), Vincent Price (Egghead), Liberace (Chandell / Harry), Burgess Meredith (Penguin), Otto Preminger (Mr. Freeze), Cesar Romero (Joker), Carolyn Jones (Marsha, Queen of Diamonds), Cliff Robertson (Shame), plus second visits by Catwoman and The Penguin. Highlights included: Liberace playing dual roles as an effete piano player and his tough gangster brother; Mid-1960s political/social commentary as Batman and Penguin ran against each other for Mayor of Gotham City; Otto Preminger as Mr. Freeze's catch-phrase "Wild!"; Alfred and his corrupt twin confessing a predilection for strippers. For me the low-point of the first half of the season came with The Joker inventing a hand-held device that allowed him to speed up, slow down and reverse... time itself. For some reason, that plot device really bothered me because it poked such a gaping hole in the show's operating level of reality.
The Apartment (1/17/12) TCM (1960 ****) Directed by Billy Wilder, screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray. Manhattan insurance man C.C. Baxter has found a clever -- albeit morally slippery -- route up the corporate ladder: Lending his upper west side apartment to executives so they can cheat on their wives. This is a great movie with brilliant dialogue, and it mixes suicidal depression with comedy like no other. For people of my generation who grew up watching Fred MacMurray as the Absent-Minded Professor and the dad on My Three Sons, it was especially delightful to see him play the sleeziest slime-ball executive of all time. On a personal note, young Shirley MacLaine looked so much like my wife in this film, including many of the same mannerisms. The irony is that when I first saw this wonderful movie as a young man I identified with Jack Lemmon and prayed that God would someday send me an adorable woman like MacLaine's Fran Kubelik (but without the "sleeping with a married man" business). It took awhile, but He or She finally did.
Young Frankenstein (1/19/12) FMC (1974 ****) Directed by Mel Brooks, screenplay by Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks, starring Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman and Teri Garr. Legitimate medical practitioner Froderick Fronkensteen discovers his grandfather's lost journal and creates... A MONSTER! I know a lot of people love Blazing Saddles, what with the beans and the farting and all, but in my opinion Young Frankenstein is the best movie Mel Brooks ever made. It was somehow respectful to the original Frankenstein (1931) and the other classic Universal monster films while being very quirky and funny at the same time. And to top it all off, Teri Garr played one hell of an adorable sexpot... er, lab assistant. Woof! What knockers, indeed!
Strangers On a Train (1/22/12) TCM (1951 ***1/2) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, screenplay by Ramond Chandler and Czenzi Ormonde, starring Farley Granger, Robert Walker, Ruth Roman and Leo G. Carroll. "You do my murder and I'll do yours. Criss-cross!" When a tennis player meets a weirdo on a train who offers to kill his estranged, bespeckled wife, he never imagines the lunatic will actually go through with it. Even in 1951, Hitchcock was one weird mama-jamma, and this great film is the proof. In it, the act of murder was presented from beginning to end as though it were a sexual fetish. It was pretty daring stuff for the early 1950s, and I'll bet it made audiences squirm in their seats in equal parts discomfort and delight. Robert Walker's portrayal of Bruno Anthony, the guy you least want to meet on a train in your life, was funny, creepy, terrifying and altogether thoroughly intoxicating.
The People vs. George Lucas (1/22/12) Netflix (2010 ***) Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe and Michael Ramova, featuring interviews with Mark. A. Altman and many, many other George Lucas fans, detractors and both. Love him or hate him, George Lucas has touched a lot of childhoods. While I respected the production values and research that went into this documentary, and I was never bored, I can't say I actually learned anything new from it. Was I (like a lot of people) disappointed by Star Wars Episodes I-III? Of course. Do I feel that George Lucas raped my childhood? Not really. I simply don't feel as passionately about Star Wars as the "superfans" featured in this documentary, though part of me can identify with them. There but for the grace of God, go I. Or something.
The Thin Man (1/22/12) DVD (1934 ****) Directed by W.S. Van Dyke, screenplay by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett, starring William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O'Sullivan and Cesar Romero. Nora Charles nudges her high-functioning alcoholic husband Nick out of retirement to solve a Manhattan murder or two. (Previously reviewed 4/21/06) The Thin Man films are high on my wife's list of cinematic favorites, which is why I bought her the boxed set of the first 4 films for Christmas. Nearly 70 years after this first film provided escapist entertainment for Depression-era audiences, the antics of Nick and Nora (and Asta too) still provide welcome joy. The plot of this first film in the series (based on Hammett's book, which I reviewed back on 10/22/05) may have been overly-convoluted and its resolution less than stellar, but that was never what made this movie popular enough to inspire five witty banter-filled sequels, was it?
Portrait of Jennie (1/23/12) TCM (1948 ***1/4) Directed by William Dieterle, based on the novel by Robert Nathan, starring Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Ethel Barrymore and Lillian Gish. A depressed painter with an empty belly yet otherwise full of ennui, finds inspiration in an attractive time-traveling ghost. This is one of my father's favorite films and knowing him I can understand why. The tortured quest of an artist, not only for inspiration but for his very soul, has rarely been presented in such a romantic fashion. I certainly enjoyed Portrait of Jennie; it was kind of the Somewhere in Time of its day, I suppose. But there was something clunky in the presentation that kept pulling me out of the story, annoying me, and the movie could have been far stronger had it been less lyrical and heavy-handed.
Susan Slept Here (1/23/12) TCM (1954 **1/2) Directed by Frank Tashlin, starring Dick Powell, Debbie Reynolds, Anne Francis and Alvy Moore. 49-year-old Dick Powell plays a 35-year-old Hollywood screenwriter who gets mixed up with a 17-year-old delinquent played by 21-year-old Debbie Reynolds. (Whew!) This was a pretty twisted film (Powell's last in front of the camera) that sort of turned Lolita on its head. The entire driving force of its story was whether or not Powell and just-below-the-age-of-consent Reynolds were going to have sex, sex, sex! And you know what? As flimsy as that premise was, it kept my interest all the way to the end, and that's all due to Debbie Reynolds' performance. I'm more than a little embarrassed to admit that I've never seen her sexier than she was in this film, playing a 17-year-old. Talk about messed up, Daddy-o.
Sylvia Scarlett (1/24/12) TCM (1935 **) Directed by George Cukor, based on the novel by Compton MacKenzie, starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Edmund Gwenn. A young woman disguises herself as a boy and through a series of misadventures discovers a lot about life, love and herself. I guess the plot of Sylvia Scarlett is what my high school English teacher would have called a "picaresque," like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Don Quixote. The only problem was that while I watched it, it just felt like the writer (Compton MacKenzie, I suppose) had just made the story up as he went along, and it never really added up to a satisfying whole. To make matters worse, Cary Grant played a grade-A asshole, even though he was presented as an asshole with a few redeeming qualities, he was still pretty much an asshole. And I hated watching him in that role. It was especially ironic, considering he played such a lovable character when he was re-teamed with Hepburn 5 years later for my wife's favorite film, The Philadelphia Story (1940). As for Hepburn's gender-swapping lead performance, the less said the better. Let's just say it wasn't hard to see why she was considered "box office poison" at this point in her career.
The Front (1/25/12) TCM (1976 ***) Directed by Martin Ritt, screenplay by Walter Bernstein, starring Woody Allen, Zero Mostel, Michael Murphy and Herschel Barnardi. Set during the height of McCarthyism, An apolitical cashier / bookmaker named Howard Prince agrees to help out a blacklisted TV writer friend... at a cost. The Front, which featured formerly-blacklisted talent in front of the camera as well as behind it, told a shameful chapter in entertainment history that had happened a mere 20 years before it was made. Though it wasn't really intended as a full-on comedy, there were certainly some funny moments. Woody Allen has acted in very few movies that he didn't direct, with The Front being probably the best of the lot. I can't help but think that Allen was influenced by director Martin Ritt, since Allen seemed to have incorporated some of Ritt's directing touches (such as staging with speaking characters offscreen) in his later films.
Best Worst Movie (1/26/12) Netflix (2009 ***) Written and directed by Michael Stephenson, featuring George Hardy, Michael Stephenson and Darren Ewing. Nearly 20 years after its release in 1990, Troll 2 is the gift that kept on giving. The heart and focus of this documentary was George Hardy, a practicing dentist whose "claim to fame" is that he played the Dad in Troll 2. The documentary was written and directed by the grown-up child actor who starred in the original film, and Stephenson did a commendable job with material that was obviously very close to his heart. I wasn't entirely comfortable, however, with his editorial choices related to the obviously mentally-troubled actress Margo Prey, who had played Diana Waits, the mother in Troll 2. That criticism aside, Best Worst Movie was an interesting look at the making of (and the limits of) a cult phenomenon, and I was intrigued just enough to put Troll 2 next on my Netflix queue. Still, the best part of this film by far was the effusive, upbeat dentist George Hardy himself, though toward the end of the documentary even he seemed to be running a bit low on gas.
Salt and Pepper (1/27/12) TCM (1968 **1/2) Directed by Richard Donner, screenplay by Michael Pertwee, starring Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford. A dead call girl / government agent named Mai Ling is just the beginning of this high spy adventure set in swinging, shagadelic London, baby! Obviously conceived as a potential franchise that actually had a sequel (One More Time, directed by Jerry Lewis!), this upbeat film was undoubtedly on the list of films that inspired Mike Meyers to create Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery. Even though Salt and Pepper would make wonderful MST3K fodder, it wasn't a terrible film, but it didn't quite work, either. "Rat pack" members Sammy D ("Charles Salt") and Peter L ("Christopher Pepper") were fun to watch punching, kicking, shooting and generally cavorting, and they had a pretty good onscreen chemistry. Unfortunately quite a lot of the scripted humor fell flat and the plot (which involved nuclear missiles and an overthrow of the British government) was sometimes confusing. I also can't help but wonder if the sex and drug references were a little too overt for 1968 audiences. Either that or they weren't overt enough.
Lover Come Back (1/28/12) TCM (1961 **) Directed by Delbert Mann, starring Rock Hudson, Doris Day and Tony Randall. In this misnamed, supposed light-hearted comedy, a smarmy ad executive named Jerry Webster deliberately assumes a false identity to get frigid Madison Avenue competitor Carol Templeton into the sack. It's been decades since I last watched a light-hearted Doris Day / Rock Hudson (or James Garner) rom-com romp. I was flabbergasted by how offensive this one was from a feminist perspective, and I don't even really consider myself that enlightened! I can can only imagine Gloria Steinem's head exploding while watching it in its initial release. Not only that, but Doris Day's acting range in the film was limited to the narrow band of the emotional spectrum between "consternation" and "fuming." Though I hate everything this film stood for, I'm generously giving it 2 stars because... well, it was slightly more watchable than Manos: The Hands of Fate and it also featured very representative early-1960s interior design.
Burn After Reading (1/28/12) FXM (2008 **) Written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, starring Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, George Clooney, John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton. Embittered ex-secret agent Osborne Cox writes his tell-all memoir, which subsequently falls into the hands of a couple of gym employees. Let me be frank: I expected much, much more from the Coen Brothers. A star-studded cast couldn't help this movie's story, which included a conclusion (don't worry, no spoilers ahead) that was as unsatisfying as they come. The film's only saving grace was -- and this wasn't enough for me to recommend it -- interesting performances by Clooney, Malkovich and especially Brad Pitt.
After the Thin Man (1/29/12) DVD (1936 ****) Directed by W.S. Van Dyke, starring William Powell, Myrna Loy, James Stewart and Sam Levene. Nick and Nora barely get back to their San Francisco home following their New York "Thin Man" adventure when Nora's overacting cousin asks for help finding her missing Lothario husband. It's such a delight to watch the "Thin Man" films all over again, and this, the second in the series, is possibly the best of the lot. I think the filmmakers learned a big lesson from the overly-plotted first film: While there were still plenty of "whodunnit" twists and turns, the spotlight remained focused brightly on Depression-era America's favorite high-functioning alcoholic couple, Nick and Nora Charles. And their dog Asta, too, of course. By the way, if you're a fan of Jimmy Stewart (and who isn't?), After the Thin Man features one of his more amusing early performances.
Gone Baby Gone (1/30/12) Netflix (2007 ***1/2) Directed by Ben Affleck, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris. When a 3-year-old is taken in the middle of the night, missing persons investigator Patrick Kenzie promises her drugged-out, white-trash mama he'll bring her home. My first reaction to this film was probably the same as most people: "Holy shit! Ben Affleck is a pretty good director!" He certainly demonstrated his directing chops with this film. From a storytelling standpoint, I particularly appreciated how awesome Casey Affleck's main character was: Patrick Kenzie's fearlessness, even in the face of "crapping-your-pants" danger, was a breath of fresh air. Uh... so to speak. He was also a guy with a resolute moral code worthy of the old West, something you don't often find in modern films.
Eye of the Gods (1/30/12) Graphic Novel (2009 ***) Written and illustrated by Gerimi Burleigh. Set in the near future, comic book artist Sean Black (who is coincidentally both black and bald...) goes under the knife for the new NuEyz procedure and ends up with crazy mad remote viewing skillz. A little background: I met this book's artist/writer Gerimi Burleigh in Karl Gnass' Draped Figure and Costume drawing class at the Animation Guild in North Hollywood. I'd overheard him talking with another student about the graphic novel he'd self-published. And so I bought a copy, which he graciously autographed, and gave it a read. I was impressed. Thought not quite on par with the polished graphic novels produced by the big publishers, the characters and story were quite engaging. The book had plenty of paranoia-fueled action, with space left over for a little sex too. I have little doubt (especially after seeing his artwork in class) that Gerimi's next project will be even stronger, and I very much look forward to watching for his future projects.
Troll 2 (1/31/12) Netflix (1990 **) Directed by Claudio Fragasso, written by Rossella Drudi and Fragasso, starring Michael Stephenson, George Hardy, Margo Prey and Robert Ormsby. Young Joshua Waits and his family (and Joshua's dead grandpa) do a house-swap in Nilbog, and faster than you can say "Hi, I'm Gene Freak," they run into inhuman bloodthirsty vegetarians! Not exactly a cinematic masterpiece, Troll 2 was the focus of the documentary Best Worst Film (2009), which I watched and reviewed recently. And so you can understand why I immediately bumped this film -- which got a jaw-dropping 0% on Rotten Tomatoes -- to the top of my Netflix queue. Don't worry, no Trolls were harmed in the making of this film, nor did any actually appear. (If you're confused, just spell the name of the town backwards, if you haven't already.) The dialogue was, I'm guessing, largely first draft, "placeholder" dialogue, meaning it was so exposition-laden and on-the-nose I nearly got a nosebleed. The best way I could describe it would be as what a beginning screenwriter would get if he or she asked the internet to translate his script from English into Italian... and then back again. Something was clearly lost in the translation. Look, I get why this is a cult classic. But while I can see why some (especially teens and young adults) might find this film fascinating, it never quite got under my skin. Maybe it's a generational thing. Sure I laughed out loud a few times at the atrocious writing and acting, but I remained generally under-impressed, even as kitsch. In other words, if I need a "midnight movie" fix, I'll stick with The Rocky Horror Picture Show and reruns of MST3K.

February

Planet of the Apes (2001) (2/3/12) FXM (2001 **1/2) Directed by Tim Burton, based (very loosely... okay, not at all) on the novel by Pierre Boulle, starring Mark Wahlberg, Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Roth. Space station astronaut Leo Davidson crash lands on a mysterious planet where apes are the dominant (and I mean dominant!) species. After watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) this past year, I was curious to see why Tim Burton's attempted reboot ten years before had been such a misfire. As Linus Van Pelt might say, "It wasn't such a bad little movie, Charlie Brown." But it also came nowhere near realizing its potential. Why? First things first: Allowing the other human characters to speak? Idiotic. Also, at this point in his career, Mark Wahlberg wasn't quite the accomplished (or convincing) actor he was in The Departed (2006) or The Fighter (2010). But the film's greatest sin? Lack of jeopardy. Planet of the Apes never took itself as seriously as it needed to in order to make me feel like any of the characters were actually in danger of dying. Without that, the battle sequences and other miscellaneous fisticuffs (flying chimps and all) fell kinda flat.
Kathy Griffin: Live in Concert (2/4/12) Pantages Theater, Los Angeles (2012 ***1/2) The queen of the D-List herself performed 2+ hours of comedic storytelling for a sold-out crowd in her home town. A highlight was a special walk-on appearance early in the show by Kathy's aging, box-wine-loving mom, Maggie. Even though I didn't buy one of the reasonably-priced T-shirts, I guess you could call me a member of "Club Griffin." Yeah, I'm a fan. I have enjoyed Kathy for multiple seasons on her Bravo TV show, My Life on the D-List, and I even bought and read her autobiography, Official Book Club Selection. I was disappointed to learn Griffin would not be continuing her "D-List" reality series, and at first I thought it was a bad career move... But then I heard she will be starting a weekly interview show on Bravo (where else?), beginning early this year. As for the live show itself, I feel I might have gotten more out of it if my TV viewing habits were different. I simply have never made room in my TV schedule for Keeping Up With the Kardashians or The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. And all Ms. Griffin's jokes about Kim Richards just made me sad; I used to have SUCH A CRUSH on her when I was younger. Still, I'm glad I bought the Kathy Griffin tix and will probably do so again. LIke I said, I'm a member of "Team Griffin."
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2/6/12) DWA Screening (2011 ***1/2) Directed by David Fincher, based on the novel by Steig Larsson, starring Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara and Christopher Plummer. A disgraced journalist and a titular-tattooed and pierced cyber-spy team up to find a teenage girl who disappeared in 1966. I somehow managed not to read the late Mr. Larsson's book nor watch the Swedish version of this film, and so while I'd heard inklings of its shocking scenes, I was mostly ignorant of any details. Bottom line: I very much enjoyed this film, which was at its heart a detective story with some interesting characters, a fresh setting (urban and rural Sweden) and a real sense of jeopardy. At 160 minutes (at least 20 of it occurring after the main plot line was resolved), it felt about 10% too long, but if you asked me what 16 minutes to cut I couldn't tell you.
The Glenn Miller Story (2/7/12) TCM (1954 ***1/4) Directed by Anthony Mann, starring James Stewart, June Allyson and Henry Morgan. Glenn Miller was a young man with a trombone, a supportive wife and a dream about a band with a... whatchacallit... sound. From Charles Lindberg in The Spirit of St. Louis (1957) to amalgam agent "Chip" Hardesty in The F.B.I. Story (1959), Jimmy Stewart seemed to have found a niche playing the lead in mid-century biopics (or pseudo-biopics). And I have to admit I'm a sucker for them. No more so than in The Glenn Miller Story, which not only had at its heart a lesson about believing in yourself and following your dream, but also wall-to-wall classic (and beloved) Glenn Miller big band music from "Moonlight Serenade" and "String of Pearls" to "Little Brown Jug." Made just ten years after Major Glenn Miller's plane was shot down over the English channel, this loving tribute must have been a big hit with his fans.
The Invisible Woman (2/9/12) TCM (1940 **1/2) Directed by A. Edward Sutherland, starring Virginia Bruce, John Barrymore and John Howard, with Margaret Hamilton as "Mrs. Jackson" and Shemp Howard as "Frankie." Professor Gibbs talks an attractive young model named "Kitty" into taking off her clothes... for science! God bless H.G. Wells and thank the heavens for his The Invisible Man story falling into the public domain. This was one of those goofy old movies that was never intended to be nominated for an Oscar. It was so harmless, I can't really fault it for its... faults. And call me crazy, but I got quite a kick out of the 1940s-era titillation derived from an invisible lady running around buck naked. Boy, I hope she doesn't catch a cold!
Another Thin Man (2/11/12) DVD (1939 ****) Directed by W.S. Van Dyke, based on Dashiell Hammett's "The Farewell Murder," starring William Powell, Myrna Loy and Virginia Grey. Nick and Nora return to New York to check up on business, but instead they fall into a multiple murder plot. This, the third film in the “Thin Man” franchise is on par with the best of the series, though it did mark a return to slightly more detective work and fewer “Nick and Nora” hijinks.
Batman: Absolution (2/12/12) Graphic Novel (2002 **) Written by J.M. DeMatteis, illustrated by Brian Ashmore. Batman spends a decade tracking down a female mass murderer, but when he finds her, she swears she's repented. You take your chances when you buy a book for $5 at a flea market (as I did this one), and Batman: Absolution was a disappointment. While it was nice to read a self-contained story for a change (as opposed to several issues of comics continuity repackaged as a "graphic novel"), the story was surprisingly dull and the characterization of Batman was decidedly odd and un "Batman-like." Brian Ashmore's painted illustrations were pretty and initially eye-catching, but I ultimately... well, let's just say he's no Alex Ross.
The V.I.P.s (2/15/12) TCM (1963 **) Directed by Anthony Asquith, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Louis Jourdan, Rod Taylor and Orson Welles. An ill-timed fog strands a group of self-important, stuck-up people in a London airport. How shall I describe this film? Imagine a disaster movie like Airport (1970) or The Towering Inferno (1974), but instead of an actual “disaster,” the star-studded cast was stuck in a Greyhound terminal. I admit it was interesting to see Taylor and Burton onscreen together and a little quirky to see Orson Welles in a comedic role repeatedly kiss the man who played his accountant on the lips. Heck, I even admit it was fun to see a young Maggie Smith play a lovesick secretary. But even with all that, there's little to recommend this fundamentally-flawed melodramatic potboiler.
The Champ (2/17/12) TCM (1931 ***) Directed by King Vidor, starring Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper. A washed-up boxer named “Champ” and his son “Dink” ride the highs and lows of alcoholism and gambling addiction. Famously remade in 1979 with Jon Voight and Ricky Schroder, I'd never seen either version. Young Jackie Cooper (who passed away last year at the age of 88) was a pretty impressive little actor in what was really the film's lead role. The film itself was uneven, with genuinely emotional moments between a father and his son punctuating a limited story and variable character relationships. And don't even get me started on its ending, which I won't give away out of respect for the three or four people who have never seen it.
Night and the City (2/17/12) Netflix (1950 ***1/4) Directed by Jules Dassin, based on the novel by Gerald Kersh, starring Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers and Herbert Lom. Harry Fabian glides through the London underground like a greased rat until his wrestling promotion racket goes sour and the tables turn against him. Of all the “noir” films ever made, this has got to be in the running for “film noiry-est.” I'm not sure who deserved higher billing on Night and the City, the actors or the incredible lighting design. The story was bleak and brutal, with unlikable characters outnumbering likable ones by at least ten-to-one. I can't say I exactly enjoyed this film; to be honest, I'm not sure what kind of person would. But I sure respect the hell out of it.
Criminal, Vol. 6: The Last of the Innocent (2/17/12) Graphic Novel (2011 ****) Written by Ed Brubaker, illustrated by Sean Phillips. Archie Andrews doppelganger Riley Richards is trapped by nostalgia for his idyllic small town, and the only way to save his soul may be... MURDER. Though I've read Brubaker's writing in the past, I've never been particularly impressed enough to be a fan. But this book recently came up as an Amazon.com “Daily Deal” and looking through some of the high reviews I read it was a dark take on the Archie Comics of the 1960s. And that was pretty much all I needed to know to add it to my shopping cart. And I'm glad I did. This stand-alone arc in the Criminal comic series certainly worked as a tale of murder, deceit and betrayal. But for anyone even barely familiar with the Archie universe, it was a special subversive delight. I highly recommend it, though be warned: You may never look at Archie, Jughead and the gang the same way ever again.
An Affair to Remember (2/18/12) FXM (1957 ***1/2) Directed by Leo McCarey, starring Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr and Cathleen Nesbitt. A couple, each already promised to other people, meet aboard a cruise and fall in love, then (for reasons I really didn't understand) agree to meet atop the Empire State Building six months later. Many (myself included) primarily think of this film in association with Nora Ephron's Sleepless in Seattle (1993), in which it was prominently featured. without a doubt, An Affair to Remember was highly romanticized and more than a little contrived. But I'll be damned if it didn't work on an emotional level, and by the time it was over, well-known final twist and all, I definitely had a tear in my eye. Still, the running time was a bit long and there were some strange choices. For instance, I found it interesting that this film, nominally a drama, featured several superfluous songs in which Deborah Kerr sang in a voice that sounded an awful lot like Marni Nixon, just as she had the previous year in The King and I.
Shadow of the Thin Man (2/18/12) DVD (1941 ***1/2) Directed by W.S. Van Dyke, starring William Powell, Myrna Loy, Donna Reed and Sam Levene. Nick and Nora are back in San Francisco, pooch Asta and toddler Nick Jr. in tow, when the death of a jockey pulls them into yet another murder! East coast, West coast, New York, San Francisco. Why couldn't that sleuthing highballin' couple make up their minds? With this, the fourth film in one of the best film series of Hollywood's golden era, a bit of air had started leaking from the franchise's tires. To be honest, the "mystery" storyline in this film was the least interesting one so far. Still, there were a few highlights, including an memorable husband and wife trip to a wrestling match and an equally memorable ladies hat, one which... heck, you might even call it "screwy."
Astro City: The Dark Age Book Two: Brothers in Arms (2/19/12) Graphic Novel (2011 **) Written by Kurt Busiek, illustrated by Brent Anderson and Alex Ross. Two brothers search for the man who murdered their parents as the pantheon as an alternate superhero universe marches on. It's been 2 years since I read the first book in this 2-book graphic novel (which I liked), and I'm afraid I was very disappointed by the second volume. In the past, I've been a big fan of Busiek's writing, particularly appreciating his way of "grounding" the fantastical world of the superhero, but I found myself slogging through this thick volume, looking forward to its end. The foreword to this volume indicated that Busiek had originally intended the storyline of The Dark Age as a sequel to Marvels, though it was obviously re-written to substitute Astro City heroes and villains for those in the Marvel universe. Knowing that made a lot of his choices in this story make more sense. Ultimately, though, I found the story of the brothers uninteresting in the extreme, and their story was far too removed from the grander multi-year heroic epic going on around them. After awhile it seemed redundant and forced.
Green Arrow / Black Canary: For Better of For Worse (2/20/12) Comics (2007 ***) Written and illustrated by various, originally published between 1969 and 2003. The relationship between the “emerald archer” and his “pretty bird” has suffered its ups and downs over the year, including passion, infidelity and even death. This collection was particularly interesting in that much of its material was presented as excerpts. The net effect was a mostly linear narrative of the Green Arrow's on-again, off-again relationship with The Black Canary. It was something I'd never given a great deal of thought to. For instance, it was news to me that Dinah Lance (Black Canary) was once tortured so severely that she was unable to have children, even if she wanted to. (Evidently she was later healed by a trip to Ra's al ghul's restorative Lazarus pit.) This collection was also interesting on a completely different plane, because it presented in very compact form the evolution of comic book illustration and (more particularly) writing, from its earlier “awkward” storytelling by Elliot S! Maggin and Mike Grell to later stories by Alan Moore and Kevin Smith. As the frequently chauvinistic archer might say, “Comic books have come a long way, baby.”
The Women (2/20/12) Netflix (1939 ***) Directed by George Cukor, starring Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell. When Mary Haines discovers her husband's been stepping out with perfume counter-girl Crystal Allen, she gets all kinds of advice from her mother and girlfriends, much of it bad. No men were harmed in the making of this film! The conceit of The Women, based on the long-running Broadway play of the same name, was that no men actually appeared. As a special treat, this primarily black-and-white movie also featured a short fashion show sequence shot in color, which of course did absolutely nothing to advance the plot. As any film buff knows, 1939 was a banner year for American movies. In fact, George Cukor directed The Women immediately after being fired as director of Gone With the Wind.
The Prince and the Showgirl (2/23/12) TCM (1957 ***) Directed by Laurence Olivier, based on the play "The Sleeping Prince" by Terence Rattigan, starring Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe. On the eve of England's 1911 coronation, the "Grand Ducal Highness" of Carpathia invites a voluptuous blonde... well, showgirl... back to his place for a cold late dinner and hot sex, but he gets more than he bargained for. The production of this film provided the backdrop for the recently-released My Week With Marilyn, which I hope to see soon. It's one of those films that evidently didn't stray far from the stage play on which it was based: 75% of the film involves long scenes of characters talking in fairly isolated interiors, in this case the Carpathian Embassy in London. It was also, unfortunately, one of those films where one of the two main characters (in this case the one played by Laurence Olivier) behaved as a sanctimonious dickhead for two-thirds of the movie, then had a change of heart and the audience was suddenly supposed to love him. Yeah, right. Marilyn Monroe, on the other hand, was never more radiant. Her effervescent warmth blazed like an inferno in contrast to Olivier's cold, stiff "Prince Regent." It didn't hurt that Monroe spent nearly the entire movie wearing a tight white evening gown, and at least every shot featured her shapely, well-defined... assets.
The Thin Man Goes Home (2/24/12) TCM (1945 ***) Directed by Richard Thorpe, starring William Powell, Myrna Loy and Harry Davenport. Nick Charles, wife in tow but Junior nowhere to be seen, returns home to Sycamore Springs and his disapproving doctor daddy, where Nick lands smack-dab in the middle of a murder/espionage caper. This, the fifth Thin Man film, showed evidence that the series had begun to sag, as evidenced by the fact that the director of the first four films, W.S. Van Dyke, had gone on to greener pastures. By normal 1940s film standards, though, it's still not a bad movie, and while the mystery plot was the least engaging one yet, an hour and a half spent with Nick, Nora and Asta Charles still beats most company.
Bless the Beasts & Children (2/25/12) TCM (1971 ***) Directed by Stanley Kramer, based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout, starring Bill Mumy, Barry Robins and Miles Chapin. Teenage misfits, tired of bullying, prejudice and having urine splashed on them, break the law to free their spiritual brothers, captive Buffalos. It's a little surprising to know that Stanley Kramer, who directed On the Beach, Judgement at Nuremberg and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, chose as a project this small, counter-culture film. Thanks to the Vietnam war, there was plenty of disenfranchisement in the water in 1971, and that was clearly evident than in this film. It's not a great film by any means, with its production values only slightly higher than an ABC movie of the week and a clumsy story structure that relied heavily on backstory flashback scenes. The fact that one of its main characters was played by aging child TV star Billy Mumy just added to its weirdness factor. Still, this film occupies a weirdly entrenched spot in my head, if not my heart. I was seven or eight when I first saw it in the theater, possibly at a drive-in, and it wedged itself solidly in there. I couldn't shake it if I tried. At least part of that cerebral epoxy is due to the film's theme song. The Carpenter's "Bless the Beasts and the Children" (weirdly not quite the same as the film's title) was nominated in the Oscars' "Best Original Song" category, but lost to... "The Theme from Shaft." "Shut your mouth," indeed.
The Naked City (2/26/12) TCM (1948 ***) Directed by Jules Dassin, screenplay by Albert Maltz and Malvin Wald, starring Barry Fitzgerald, Howard Duff, Dorothy Hart and Don Taylor. When a beautiful (and presumably naked) blonde model is found drowned in her bathtub, homicide detectives Dan Muldoon and Jimmy Halloran go to work tracking down her killers. The distinction of this film is that it was filmed in real locations in New York City and utilized many non-actors. It even began with a voice-over by its producer, Mark Hellinger, who let the audience know they were in for a new and different kind of cinematic experience. For the most part the technique worked, though it tended to accentuate the weak performances by some of the "professional" actors. One technique the filmmakers used throughout the film to lesser effect was unnecessary voice-overs in many of the "second unit" shots we'd today call "B-Roll." Another aspect of this film that may be particularly amusing to 21st Century eyes was an emphasis on police procedures, demonstrating that The Naked City was clearly a direct descendant of our modern CSI TV shows.
My Week With Marilyn (2/27/12) DWA Screening (2011 ***) Directed by Simon Curtis, based on the book by Colin Clark, starring Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne and Kenneth Branagh. A 23-year-old third assistant director spends some quality time with the most famous woman in the world during the making of The Prince and the Showgirl. It's hard to know how much of this story was true; my built-in "bullshit meter" kept going off. I don't know for certain, but I caught a whiff that the source material just might have been sensationalized somewhat. Then of course the material was further adapted to screenplay form, clearly imposing a three-act narrative where there likely wasn't one. But let me be honest: I'm a pretty big Marilyn Monroe fan and Michelle Williams, while not being able to best Meryl Streep in the Oscar's Best Actress category, did a lovely job of capturing the essence of Ms. Monroe. This was never more evident than in her faithful recreation of a scene from The Prince and the Showgirl in which Monroe's character executed a cute little song and dance when she thought she was alone. Having just watched the original 1957 film recently, I was blown away by the subtle grace of Williams' performance in that scene.
Parenthood, Season 3 (2/28/12) NBC (2011-2012 ***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. 18 episodes, originally aired 9/13/11 - 2/28/12. The Braverman clan experiences the joy and endures the heartache that comes from living, loving and... parenting. In season 3, brothers Adam and Crosby go into the recording studio business together, Julia and Joel decide to adopt a baby, Amber gets a job and falls in love and Jasmine re-evaluates her relationship with Crosby. This under-appreciated TV drama has become one of our consistently favorite shows, and it rarely has disappointed us. Parenthood has provided a kind of hour-long drama counterpoint to the family comedy of one of our other favorite shows, Modern Family. I haven't been keeping track of how it's been doing in the ratings, but hopefully Parenthood will stick around for awhile. I have especially appreciated the strong writing and acting and have come to enjoy how certain characters play off each other, such as the scenes between Lauren Graham and the actress who plays her daughter, Mae Whitman. One observation: I've noticed in this third season that many of the storylines have begun drifting away from the show's central theme, the relationships between parents and their children and vice-versa. I hope the producers and writers are conscious of this and will take care not to let too many future storylines dilute what is really a wonderful and elegant unifying element.
Bye Bye Birdie (3/1/12) TCM (1963 **1/2) Directed by George Sidney, starring Dick Van Dyke, Ann-Margret and Janet Leigh. Conrad Birdie, the gold-plated, tight pants-wearing king of rock and roll visits Small Town, America to give a girl a kiss on the eve of his Army induction. Roughly an hour into the film, my wife declared Bye Bye Birdie "unwatchable" and bailed. I stuck with it. I had positive memories of this movie, though I may have mixed them together with a stage version produced at my high school in the early 1980s. The movie was spectacularly uneven, with a couple of memorable songs ("Put On a Happy Face" and "What's the Matter With Kids?") scattered through a lot of forgettable ones. And what was up with replacing Chita Rivera (who'd played the part of Rosie on Broadway) with Janet Leigh in a black wig? Talk about a cringe-worthy casting decision. Ultimately, the highlight of the movie for me was Ann-Margret playing a sweet, innocent 17-year-old who suffered from occasional Tourette's-like bursts of sexuality and the mannerisms of a middle-aged divorcee.

March

Love and Death (3/1/12) TCM (1975 ****) Written and directed by Woody Allen, starring Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. Self-proclaimed "militant coward" Boris marries his cousin (twice removed) Sonja and attempts to assassinate Napoleon. I first saw this movie in the early 1980s when I, a high school student, went to a double feature at the local university (the other film was Annie Hall). I loved it then and I love it now, and not just for the nostalgia factor. On paper, there's no way a film lampooning Russian literature and foreign films could work as a mainstream comedy, and yet it did. I can't imagine this same film being greenlit now, which is a real shame. As for the writing, Love and Death remains one of Woody Allen's sharpest screenplays, and it's certainly one of his funniest. If you're scared away by the title, don't be. Do yourself a favor and check it out. You'll be glad you did.
The Silencers (3/3/12) TCM (1966 **1/2) Directed by Phil Karlson, based on the novels by Donald Hamilton, starring Dean Martin, Stella Stevens, Daliah Lavi and Victor Buono. In this, the first of four films in a series, I.C.E. Secret agent Matt Helm comes out of retirement to save the U.S. from nuclear annihilation and to rip Stella Stevens' dress off... not necessarily in that order. As they used to say in my high school math class, it was "intuitively obvious to the casual observer" that this film was high on the list of influences behind Mike Meyers' Austin Powers series, up to and including Matt Helm's profession as photographer of lovely ladies. I found myself having a real love / hate relationship with this movie: On one hand, there was a very groovy 1960s Playboy magazine / Las Vegas spirit, which was a gas... But unfortunately, that schoolboy "naughtiness" slipped from charmingly roguish into outright misogynism more than a few times. Though I have no evidence to back it up, I got the distinct impression that the screenwriter may have been working on the script while going through a bitter divorce. I guess I'll just have to call The Silencers a guilty pleasure and hope the next film in the series (Murderers' Row) keeps all of the sexy fun but loses the lady-hatin'.
Song of The Thin Man (3/4/12) TCM (1947 **1/2) Directed by Edward Buzzell, starring William Powell, Myrna Loy and Keenan Wynn, with little Dean Stockwell as Nick Charles Jr. "Hep cats" Nick and Nora Charles team up with a jazz man to track down a band leader's killer. Sadly, the sixth (and final) film in the beloved Thin Man franchise was the least entertaining of the bunch. The "jazz" subculture setting felt more than a little forced, particularly with Keenan Wynn shoehorned into the film as a jive-talking third wheel / sidekick of sorts. Powell and Loy were always great together, but they didn't have much to work with. Also, quite frankly, I just didn't like seeing Nick and Nora portrayed as squares and old fogeys.
La Jetée (3/6/12) TCM (1962 **1/2) Written and directed by Chris Marker, narrated by Jean Négroni, starring Davos Hanich and Hélène Chatelain. Following World War III, a man with a link to the past travels back in time to a traumatic event from his childhood. I had seen the short film La Jetée once before, as part of a film class taken sometime in the mid-1980s. I remember finding it a bit slow-going, though the film's reliance on still images and narration appealed to me as a possible film production technique I might use myself someday. Marker's film was also the inspiration for Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys (1995), a film I haven't watched since its original release, though I have a vague memory of being disappointed by it also. In all honesty, my opinion of La Jetée hasn't changed over time. While I admire the audacity of its technique all the more now, its story never resonated with me. And as much as I generally love time travel stories, the resolution of this one was far more predictable and less unsatisfying than a good episode of The Twilight Zone.
The Lion in Winter (3/9/12) TCM (1968 ****) Directed by Anthony Harvey, screenplay by James Goldman (based on his play), starring Peter O'Toole, Katharine Hepburn and Anthony Hopkins. King Henry II celebrates Christmas of 1183 by letting his wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, out of jail. What a sweetheart! I watched (or attempted to watch) this film when I was in my early 20s. At the time I found it dull in the extreme, comprised primarily of scene upon scene of people moving from one castle chamber to the next... yelling at each other. Well, you can see from my 4-star review that my opinion has changed in the intervening years, as (apparently) have I. In addition to Kate Hepburn's Best Actress Oscar, this film also won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and deservedly so. As I watched The Lion in Winter, I was positively dumbfounded by the incredible quality of Goldman's dialogue. How was it humanly possible, I wondered, to write a screenplay like that? Each line was absolutely perfect. I'm still amazed by it. On an unrelated film history/trivia note that may interest some, this was O'Toole's second time playing Henry II; the first time was in Becket (1964), opposite Richard Burton.
Holiday (3/9/12) TCM (1938 ****) Directed by George Cukor, starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Doris Nolan and Lew Ayres. Johnny Case is an ambitious young man with a dream who falls for the youngest daughter in a family of neurotic millionaires. It's been years since I last watched this film, and I don't recall liking it nearly as much as I did this time around. While the resolution of the film's love triangle was a bit predictable, now that I'm older the idea of a 30-year-old man "retiring" while he's young enough to enjoy himself sure has its appeal. Holiday's team of Hepburn, Grant and Cukor was reunited just two years later for a little film called The Philadelphia Story.
An Idiot Abroad, Season 2: The Bucket List (3/10/12) SCI (2011 ***1/4) Series created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, featuring Karl Pilkington. Two evil comedic geniuses (one of whom is prone maniacal giggling) torture a hapless neurotic by sending him around the world and forcing him have "experiences" taken from a "bucket list." I'll be honest: Although it makes my adventurous wife quite sad, travel shows are not really my entertainment cup of tea. This show has found an interesting angle on that genre, but the program is still at its heart a travel show. While it was mildly interesting watching Pilkington react to various locations and situations, I increasingly wondered how much of it was genuine and how much of it was him grousing in order to make "good television." Occasionally he surprised me; he was resolutely unwilling to bungy-jump, yet he agreed to climb out of the cockpit of an airplane into a wing-mounted rig and perform loop-de-loops. There is NO WAY IN HELL I WOULD EVER DO THAT! So good for him, I guess. But still, the travel aspect of the show consistently lost my ineterest. My very favorite episode, actually, was the final one, most of which took place in the safety of a TV studio with direct interaction between the three principals. Maybe it's because it was familiar: It was, after all, pretty much the same format of HBO's animated The Ricky Gervais Show and the hilarious podcasts on which it was based.
The Thrill of It All! (3/11/12) TCM (1963 **1/2) Directed by Norman Jewison, written by Carl Reiner and Larry Gelbart, starring Doris Day, James Garner and Arlene Francis. The wife of a successful obstetrician turns her household upside-down when she gets -- GASP! -- A JOB! Considering the pedigree of the writers and director of this film, its reactionary anti-women's liberation message was all the more shocking. I can only imagine how much Doris Day's portrayal in films like this one must have irked anyone in the early 1960s working for sexual equality. But that major criticism aside, there was still something in the performances and the familiar supporting character actors and the "I Love Lucy"-like situations (one of which involved James Garner driving a convertible into a swimming pool) that was appealing. So, bottom line: My enjoyment of this film was pulled between opposing forces of sexism and otherwise likable early-1960s light comedy.
Invincible, Vol. 15: Get Smart (3/13/12) Comics (2011 ***1/2) Written by Robert Kirkman, illustrated by Ryan Ottley. Originally published in Invincible issues #79-84. Mark Grayson returns to good ol' planet earth, but the horrific aftermath of a Las Vegas battle with Dinosaurus causes him to re-evaluate the responsibilities of being a super-hero. Funny thing about comic books, but in-between the "major story arcs," and dramatic life-changing events there's often downtime, where continuity plays out and B storylines get developed. I suspect Robert Kirkman enjoys taking those opportunities to set things up so that he can pay them off big later. But somehow it was far more enjoyable in this run of Invincible than during some of the equivalent slow stretches in his other major book, The Walking Dead.
The Entertainer (3/15/12) TCM (1960 ***1/4) Directed by Tony Richardson, based on the play by John Osborne, starring Laurence Olivier, Joan Plowright and Alan Bates. Social worker Jean Rice travels back home to see her father, Archie Rice, a tax-evading performer whose life is winding down in parallel with the waning days of vaudeville. This film featured some fine directing, strong performances and superb writing. But it was also one hell of a downer. In addition, the downbeat story and situations may be a challenge for modern audiences to even relate to, though Laurence Olivier once said that of all the characters he'd ever played in his career, Archie Rice was one he most identified with. And I'll bet you thought it was the sadistic Nazi dentist in The Marathon Man.
Singin' With the Big Band (3/18/12) Phantom Theater, Carnival Miracle (2012 ***) Starring Christopher Alan Graves, featuring The Miracle Dancers and Dave Fulton & The Miracle Orchestra. Our first show aboard the Carnival Cruise ship Miracle was a bit of a revelation, and surprisingly good, particularly the dancing. The show was a bit misnamed, however: Most of the songs were from the Sinatra / Rat Pack era as opposed to the "Big Band" music of the 1940s.
Ticket to Ride (3/20/12) Phantom Theater, Carnival Miracle (2012 ***1/2) Featuring vocalists Tanner McGuire and Darren Jefferies, with The Miracle Dancers and Dave Fulton & The Miracle Orchestra. Carnival Cruises' tribute to The Beatles may not have been on par with Cirque Du Soleil's Love, but it sure kicked the holy "ship" out of a similar Beatles-themed show we saw aboard the MSC Splendida last year. For this die-hard Beatles fan, Ticket to Ride was probably the best show I've ever seen... aboard a cruise ship. Some of you may snicker at that important qualification, but this show was seriously entertaining. And just when you thought it couldn't get any better, glow-sticks were handed out to members of the audience for a bit of swaying participation during "Hey Jude." Yeah, I know it sounds cheesy as hell, but it was AWESOME!
Love At Absolute Zero (3/21/12) Fiction (2012 ***1/4) Written by Chris Meeks. Gunnar Gunderson, a young Wisconsin physicist, celebrates his tenure by seeking love using the scientific method. As one of his former students, I'm a big fan of Meeks' work, particularly his short story collections and his previous novel, The Brightest Moon of the Century. I have consistently felt he's done -- through his characters and their situations -- a terrific job of gently illuminating the nuances of the human condition. Unfortunately, his newest book didn't resonate with me quite as strongly as his other works. Perhaps that's because this book was more of a deliberate attempt to create a more accessible and simply-defined (and marketed) product. There seemed to be a conflict in its content, between a lighthearted, somewhat superficial farce and something far deeper. In the first part of the book, we're given a brainy scientist who bleaches his hair and buys a new wardrobe, then gets Lasik surgery, braces and a teeth-whitening treatment all within three days in order to find love at a speed-dating event. But later, the story takes us to Denmark, where our hero Gunnar learns the pain of heartbreak and exactly what "absolute zero" really feels like. I wish the book had contained more of the latter and less of the former, even though that would have changed the overall tone and high-concept nature of the book considerably. Threaded throughout Love at Absolute Zero was a great deal of actual science, which Meeks rendered believably and integrated quite well, though I suspect some of his readers may have tuned those passages out. Also, in the final pages, Meeks did an admirable job of relating the science with the book's theme. However, I didn't feel it built to the compelling resolution he undoubtedly intended.
Generations (3/23/12) Phantom Theater, Carnival Miracle (2012 ***1/4) Featuring vocalists Tanner McGuire & Darren Jeffries, with The Miracle Dancers and Dave Fulton & The Miracle Orchestra. Carnival Cruise Line's muscial time-traveling show was generally entertaining, with a nice selection of songs covering the 1940s through the 1980s. My only criticism, really, was that I found the choreography for a few of the songs awkward and amateurish, even when compared with other numbers in the same show.
The Walking Dead, Season 2 (3/25/12) AMC (2011-2012 ****) 13 episodes, originally aired 10/16/11 - 3/18/11. Series created by Frank Darabont, based on the comic by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard, starring Andrew Lincoln, Jon Bernthal and Sarah Wayne Callies. When young Carl gets accidentally shot while looking at a doe, Rick and his group find safety from the zombie hoard at Hershel Greene's farm, but is that safety an illusion? I'm clearly a fan of this series, as evidenced by the following fact: Of the dozen or so shows we've watched this year, The Walking Dead is consistently the one I most want to watch after I've DVR'd it... even though I couldn't watch it while my wife was in the house. Some fans have complained that the first half of the second season was a little slow, but I found it consistently engaging, with far more per-episode action than in Robert Kirkman's comic book version / parallel universe. Sadly, the zombie apocalpse being what it is, I had to say farewell to a number of characters I'd come to love (or hate) this season. I look forward to season 3 and hope AMC and the producers manage to keep the zombie train rolling down the tracks for years to come.
Talking Dead, Season 1 (3/26/12) AMC (2011-2012 ***1/2) 13 episodes, originally aired 10/16/11 - 3/18/11. Chris Hardwick is the host for a post-episode discussion of each episode of The Walking Dead. Guests included Robert Kirkman, Gregory Nicotero, Laurie Holden, Kevin Smith and many others. Yeah, it's geeky, but I really love the audacious premise of this little show, which exists purely to provide a forum for "water cooler" chat about the episode that had just aired. I only wish its equivalent had been around twenty years ago for Twin Peaks! Hardwick did a perfect job as host, and I particularly loved his fanboy-level energy, which never felt forced. He set the tone for lots of spirited discussions, fielding fan questions along the way. It was also a lot of fun to watch the creators and actors artfully dodge questions about future plot directions or even whether or not certain characters would live past the next episode.
Murderers' Row (3/26/12) TCM (1966 **1/2) Directed by Henry Levin, based on the novel by Donald Hamilton, starring Dean Martin, Ann-Margret and Karl Malden. I.C.E. Secret agent Matt Helm fakes his own death to recover a kidnapped scientist who holds the secret to a destructive magnetic beam. Oscar-winner Karl Malden was a strange choice to play an evil mastermind, and he never seemed quite comfortable in the role. The second Matt Helm outing was thankfully less misogynistic than the first, but it was also slightly less entertaining, though I don't think those two things were related. I attribute that to the weak script, which relied on the same time-delayed firing gun gimmick at least three times. Honestly, the high point of the film for me was when Dean Martin raced into a disco to rip Ann-Margret's dress off her body, just as he'd done to Stella Stevens in The Silencers. I wonder: Was that a running joke throughout the four-film series? I might have to watch the remaining two films just to find out.
The Batman Strikes!: Duty Calls (3/26/12) Comics (2007 ***) Written by Bill Matheny and J. Torres, illustrated by Christopher Jones and Terry Beatty. Originally published in The Batman Strikes! issues #11-14 and 16-18. (I wonder what happened in issue #15 that it was excluded?) Based on the Kids WB animated series The Batman, this collection of seven kid-friendly "Dark Knight Detective" stories was well-executed and reasonably entertaining, albeit in a somewhat disposable way. In producing a set of superhero stories aimed at a younger audience, there's a balance that must be struck so that the stories are simplified without feeling “dumbed down,” and the stories in this volume found that balance. This collection didn't lack for top villains, with appearances by The Joker, Bane, The Penguin, Catwoman, The Riddler, Clayface and Poison Ivy! Obviously at age 47 I was a bit older than the intended demographic for this book, but it still provided a fun, light read that at times reminded me of the "simpler times" Batman comics I read as a kid.
Comic Book Men (3/27/12) AMC (2012 ***1/2) Series created by Kevin Smith, featuring Walter Flanagan, Mike Zapcic, Bryan Johnson, Ming Chen and... Kevin Smith. 6 episodes, originally aired 2/12/12 - 3/18/12. Deep within the bowels of the Red Bank, New Jersey comic shop "Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash," Walter Flanagan and his staff peel back the near mint cover and reveal the secret, ugly world of comic book collecting. I'm not sure how Kevin Smith got the deal, but he somehow managed to insert this little subculture-illuminating reality show into the middle of the ratings juggernaut that is AMC's The Walking Dead. I must admit, it was a pretty good fit demographics-wise. As a person who devoted much of his first 25 years to comic collecting, I watched the first, decidedly shaky, episode with much trepidation. But I returned for a second helping and I'm glad I did. The show seemed to hit its stride, bolstered largely by its on-camera personalities. Throughout the run, I was fascinated by some of the collectibles that made their way into the shop: Comics, toys and original art that I have a very fan-geeky appreciation for, like (to give you two examples): an original Six Million Dollar Man action figure and Steve Buscemi original Silver Surfer art. That might not float everybody's boat, but it floated mine. While Kevin Smith only appeared in one episode (except for podcast-ish bookends), it was fun to see his "View Eskew Universe" buddy, "Jay" himself, Jason Mewes, when visited "The Stash" for a day, to the general annoyance of the staff.
The Long Goodbye (3/27/12) Netflix (1973 ***) Directed by Robert Altman, screenplay by Leigh Brackett, based on the novel by Raymond Chandler, starring Elliott Gould, Nina Van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, Mark Rydell and Henry Gibson. When Philip Marlowe's buddy is accused of murdering his wife, the chain-smoking detective's investigation lands him in hot water with a mob boss and cold water off a Malibu beach. The late Robert Altman made this film after M*A*S*H (1970) and before Nashville (1975), with a handful of films in-between. It took real vision on the part of the studio to let a director with such a distinctively naturalistic style take a crack at a modernized 1970s version of a well-known hard-boiled detective. For the most part it worked, and the effect was interesting if not always exactly entertaining: Aside for his love for his runaway cat, we never got much of a glimpse into what made Gould's Philip Marlowe tick, though that may have been the key to why the film's ending worked. Also, there was one (in my view) unnecessary "Altman-esque" scene between Hayden and Pallandt that completely killed the film's momentum and probably should have been edited out. Finally, here are two super-fun treats, should you choose to watch this film: (1) Fans of Laugh-In must have gotten a real perverse kick out of watching diminutive Henry Gibson slap tough-guy Sterling Hayden across the face. (2) Late in the film, look for a mustached and very muscular future "Governator" in an uncredited, non-speaking role as one of Marty Augustine's hoods.
Come Fly With Me (3/28/12) TCM (1963 **1/2) Directed by Henry Levin, based on the novel by Bernard Glemser, starring Dolores Hart, Pamela Tiffin, Lois Nettleton, Hugh O'Brian and Karl Malden. Donna, Carol and "Bergie" are three high-flying stewardesses, each on the lookout for a marryin' man. The creators of the recently-failed TV series Pan-Am didn't need to look any further than this movie as a model for their production design... and nearly everything about their show. The similarities were pretty striking. While not great cinema by any stretch of the imagination, this film was still reasonably entertaining and it was fun to see glimpse of Paris and Vienna from 50 years ago. On another note, In addition to Come Fly With Me, I seem to be watching a lot of early-1960s movies lately, from Doris Day's Lover Come Back and The Thrill of It All! to Dean Martin's first two Matt Helm films. And I've noticed they all have two things in common: Awesome production design and blatant sexism!
The Faculty (3/29/12) FXM (1998 ***1/4) Directed by Robert Rodriguez, starring Elijah Wood, Robert Patrick, Josh Hartnett, Clea DuVall and Jon Stewart as Prof. Edward Furlong. The Breakfast Club meets The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I'd seen this movie in the theater back when it was first released, but I must admit my main reason for re-watching it was to see The Daily Show's Jon Stewart as a science teacher whose body's been taken over by an alien parasite. Stewart didn't make many movies during his short-lived acting career, but this one -- in which he got his fingers chopped off, then got stabbed in the eye with a Bic pen filled with white powder -- was sure one of his most memorable ones. As for the rest of the movie? It was actually a pretty enjoyable empty-calories thrill ride, and though it had its tongue firmly planted in its cheek, it also took itself just seriously enough to keep it unified all the way to the alien-reveals-its-true-form climax.
The Moon and Sixpence (3/30/12) TCM (1942 ***) Written and directed by Albert Lewin, based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, starring George Sanders, Herbert Marshall, Doris Dudley, Steven Geray and Elena Verdugo. A 40-year-old London stockbroker and certifiable sociopath leaves his wife and children to become a great painter in Paris... and an even greater wife-beating blind leper in Tahiti. Maugham's original novel was based primarily on the life of Paul Gauguin, though Guaguin's final end came from syphilis, not leprosy. It was interesting that the main character Charles Strickland's passionate pursuit of his art made him surprisingly sympathetic, especially considering his despicable views of women as inferior creatures “without souls.”

April

The Big Heat (4/3/12) Netflix (1953 ***1/2) Directed by Fritz Lang, based on the Saturday Evening Post serial by William P. McGivern, starring Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame and Lee Marvin. Homicide detective and family man Dave Bannion really should have known better than to piss off crime boss Mike Lagana. What the hell was he thinking? If you're looking for an engaging, hard-boiled film noir that exploits virtually every convention in the genre, it doesn't get much better than this. While to my modern eyes and ears some of the plot twists (like one involving Bannion's wife) were predictable, the movie was still compelling from beginning to end and was packed with plenty of action and human drama.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (4/3/12) TCM (1962 ***) Directed by Tony Richardson, based on the short story by Alan Sillitoe, starring Tom Courtenay, Michael Redgrave and Avis Bunnage. Colin Smith is an angry young Englishman who robs a bakery and gets sent to a reformatory where represents his institution (and the establishment) in a cross-country race. I'll be honest: I'm not sure that from my comfortable middle-age, upper-middle-class perch in the 21st century that I can truly appreciate the British "New Wave" anti-establishment message of this film. It certainly featured strong direction and performances, but I can't honestly say I enjoyed a single minute of it. And yet, out of an appreciation for its quality, and a fading memory of what it was like to be young (and even a little rebellious) once, I'll give it three stars.
The Cincinnati Kid (4/3/12) TCM (1965 ***) Directed by Norman Jewison, based on the novel by Richard Jessup, starring Steve McQueen, Ann-Margret, Karl Malden, Tuesday Weld and Edward G. Robinson. A young man with a talent for stud poker wants to prove he's got what it takes when he takes on "The Man," Lancey Howard. Somehow, Norman Jewison managed to make a movie about a poker game compelling. I've never considered myself a fan of Steve McQueen, but he definitely had an aura about him. I can see why men wanted to be him and women wanted to be with him. And man, that Ann-Margret! She was only 24 or so at the time this movie was made, but she really made a career out of sizzling, didn't she?
Where Angels Go Trouble Follows! (4/3/12) TCM (1968 **1/2) Directed by James Neilson, starring Rosalind Russell, Stella Stevens, Binnie Barnes and Mary Wickes. A mother superior and a forward-thinking nun take a busload of girls across the country for a rally. On paper, there's not much to recommend this goofy little Hayley Mills-less sequel to The Trouble With Angels, but I still liked it more than I had any right to. It certainly got help along the way from cameos by Arthur Godfrey, Van Johnson, Robert Taylor and Milton Berle. I do have one major gripe about the movie's story, though: We never actually got to see the destination of the road trip! On a minor, trivial note, one of the teenage girls featured was a young Susan Saint James, who went on a mere three years later to star opposite Rock Hudson in McMillan & Wife.
Under the Yum Yum Tree (4/4/12) TCM (1963 **1/2) Directed by David Swift, based on the play by Lawrence Roman, starring Jack Lemmon, Carol Lynley, Dean Jones, Edie Adams and Paul Lynde. When a cohabitating unmarried couple move into his apartment complex, a lacivious landlord does his darnedest to get into the young girl's pants. Jack Lemmon didn't play many despicable characters in his career, and this film was one of those exceptions. His performance left a bad taste in my mouth, honestly. The early-60s "sexcapades" were entertaining enough to watch, and suprisingly risque by implication. It also somehow managed to largely escape the sexist trap of so many of its contemporaries, mainly due to strong female characters and an underlying assumption of equality between the sexes. Though I liked much of the film, it did get a bit screechy toward the end. One of the high points was Dean Jones. It was obvious from his likable performance in this film why he went on to great success in so many Disney films.
This is Spinal Tap (4/4/12) TCM (1984 ***1/2) Directed by Rob Reiner, starring Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer. A heavy metal band from England tours America to promote their new album, "Smell the Glove." I loved that this film was featured as one of Turner Classic Movies' "Essentials." It's not hard to look at contemporary TV shows like The Office or Modern Family to see this film's apparent influence. It's important, however, to remember that This is Spinal Tap wasn't the first "mockumentary," not by a long shot, and it owed a lot to precedessors like Albert Brooks' Real Life (1979) and more directly to Eric Idle's brilliant parody of The Beatles, The Rutles: All You Need is Cash (1978).
And Then There Were None (4/5/12) Netflix (1945 **1/2) Directed by Rene Clair, based on the novel by Agatha Christie, starring Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston, June Duprez and C. Aubrey Smith. On an isolated island, two servants plus seven guests plus one killer equals "Ten Little Indians," each murdered one by one. The DVD I watched was a mediocre print with muddy sound and without closed-captioning, and so I considered pushing eject within the first five minutes. I stuck with it, however, and was moderately entertained by the film's execution of such a contrived premise. And I'll be honest: I didn't figure out "whodunnit," and was pleasantly surprised by the killer's clever revelation. And so, I recommend it, but highly suggest you make sure you're watching a good copy.
All the President's Men (4/6/12) TCM (1976 ***1/2) Directed by Alan J. Pakula, screenplay by William Goldman, based on the book by Carl Bernstein & Bob Woodward, starring Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jason Robards and Hal Holbrook. Two young reporters for The Washington Post investigate a suspicious break-in at a little D.C. "no tell" hotel called... The Watergate. I loved, loved, loved this film, particularly William Goldman's masterful dialogue... until its final five minutes. Without giving away too much, the story fired away brilliantly on all cylinders and the dramatic conflict rose to a screaming crescendo until the mysterious underground garage-dwelling "Deep Throat" pretty much spilled his guts. The final moments of the film were comprised of less-than riveting footage of a teletype machine providing "bullet point" headlines of "the rest of the story." Perhaps the slowly-unraveling nature of the end of the Nixon administration made this kind of treatment a necessity, but it was still a terrible letdown, considering all the greatness that had preceded it.
Religulous (4/7/12) IFC (2008 *1/2) Directed by Larry Charles, starring Bill Maher. Ex-Catholic Bill Maher travels around the world to ridicule various peoples' religious beliefs. I think the concept of this film was for Bill Maher to do to religion what Michael Moore did to General Motors, the N.R.A. and U.S. health care. I like and respect Bill Maher, and I think much of what I didn't like about this semi-comedic documentary was the fault of its director Larry Charles (who also directed Borat) and the choices made in the editing room. I was particularly annoyed by a technique used repeatedly throughout the film to end segments: Maher made a pithy comment, followed immediately by a "reaction shot" taken (obviously) previously in the interview. The intended effect was to make Maher look smart and his subject look dimwitted. It doesn't sound likesuch an aggregious offense, but believe me, it really got on my nerves and greatly undercut the message of the film. And what message was that, you may ask? The final punchline of Religulous, delivered in a decidedly unfunny fashion, was that organized religion is inherently dangerous and that moderately religious individuals would be wise to join ranks with their brave aetheist brothers and sisters.
That Touch of Mink (4/8/12) TCM (1962 **1/2) Directed by Delbert Mann, starring Cary Grant, Doris Day, Gig Young and Audrey Meadows. A wealthy Manhattan businessman flies back and forth to Bermuda, spending an extraordinary amount of money to buy an unemployed woman's virginity. Here we go, another sexist early-60s Doris Day film, with Cary Grant filling in for Rock Hudson and Gig Young filling in for Tony Randall. Modern viewers will undoubtedly find this film offensive as hell, but it did offer a strange window into the repressed sexual attitudes from fifty years ago and why they needed changing. In spite of the sexism (other Doris Day movies like Move Over, Darling were worse, in my opinion), it was still fairly entertaining.
Niagara (4/9/12) TCM (1953 **1/2) Directed by Henry Hathaway, starring Marilyn Monroe, Joseph Cotten and Jean Peters. Most couples choose Niagara Falls as a honeymoon destination for its natural beauty and a location for really steamy sex, but have you ever considered it as a setting for... murder? According to TCM pitchman Ben Mankiewicz, Niagara was the film that made Marilyn Monroe a star, and she positively sizzled in hip-swinging Technicolor as the film's sexy murderess. Unfortunately, she was only in roughly half the movie, and that Monroe-less half was decidedly dull by comparison, even though the film featured a dramatic climax at the edge of the falls.
The Searchers (4/13/12) TCM Classic Film Festival -- Grauman's Chinese Theater, Hollywood (1956 ****) Directed by John Ford, based on the novel by Alan Le May, starring John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter and Natalie Wood. Former Confederate soldier and Indian-hating racist Ethan Edwards searches for his abducted niece Debbie with the help of her (non-legally) adopted brother, Martin Pawley. TCM's weekend daytime host Ben Mankiewicz introduced this great film, the first one my father and I watched together at the 2012 TCM Classic Film Festival. It was a real pleasure watching the pristine digital print of a movie I had memorably watched for the first time as part of an Iowa State "Film Genres" class taught by Mary Beth Haralovich way back in 1985. For a Western, The Searchers is an amazing film of surprising complexity, and it's all the more amazing because not only didn't it win the 1957 Best Picture Oscar, it wasn't even nominated! While "The Duke" has gotten a bad rap over the years as merely a "movie star"... well, to paraphrase Mankiewicz in his introduction, anyone of the opinion that John Wayne wasn't really an actor... Well, they ought to just shut the fuck up until they've watched The Searchers.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (4/14/12) TCM Classic Film Festival -- Grauman's Chinese Theater, Hollywood (1937 ***1/2) Directed by William Cottrell, David Hand, Wilfred Jackson, Larry Morey, Perce Pearce and Ben Sharpsteen, featuring the voice talents of Adriana Caselotti (Snow White) and Lucille La Verne (The Queen). A vain (and evil) queen is demoted to "second fairest in the land" and decides the best way to eliminate her dwarf-kissing competition is by giving her the old poison apple treatment. This film was introduced by film critic and animation historian Leonard Maltin, who was joined by Once Upon a Time's own Snow White, Ginnifer Goodwin. Ah yes, "Walt's Folly." Though my father (who flew out for the film festival) thought the animation was crude by contemporary standards, I was sincerely impressed by the technical and artistic achievements Walt Disney's animators accomplished 75 FREAKING YEARS AGO!! Having said that, Snow White herself probably deserved a bit more character development and the film is a good example of why most modern animated feature films follow a narrative structure much more like live action films, with 30 or so scenes instead of a dozen or so. And one of those scenes was the Dwarfs (or dwarves) washing up for dinner, which featured lots of great "squash and stretch" and water effects, but it didn't exactly advance the plot.
Casablanca (4/14/12) TCM Classic Film Festival -- Grauman's Chinese Theater, Hollywood (1942 ****) Directed by Michael Curtiz, starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains and Paul Henreid. Saloon owner Rick Blaine is content to walk between the political raindrops until former flame Ilsa Lund shows up... with her husband Victor Laszlo. As my father (who'd flown out for the film festival) and I sat in the theater waiting for the show to begin, we discussed whether or not Casablanca truly deserved to sit as high on the "Best Films" list as it does. (AFI's list has it as #3, after Citizen Kane and The Godfather.) The film was introduced by beloved critic Leonard Maltin, who made the pronouncement that it was his favorite film of all time. After which, my father and I sat in the dark with hundreds of fellow classic film fans and watched a movie we'd both seen many times before. And when it was all over, neither of us could spot a single false note. Every shot, every line, every nuance was pitch perfect. Casablanca really is that good. And as it turns out, it truly does deserve the admiration (and adoration) it has enjoyed over the years.
Criss Cross (4/15/12) TCM Classic Film Festival -- Grauman's Multiplex, Hollywood (1949 **1/2) Directed by Robert Siodmak, based on the novel by Don Tracy, starring Burt Lancaster, Yvonne De Carlo and Dan Duryea. Ex-con Steve Thompson falls for a dame named Anna, but that love lands him in an armored bank holdup, partnered with gangster Slim Dundee. On the morning of the third day of the TCM Classic Film Festival, my father (who'd flown out for the festival) and I had just watched Casablanca the day before. And so we had nowhere to go but down. Criss Cross isn't a great movie, or even a particularly good movie, but high-waisted Burt Lancaster is always fun to watch (though his acting chops still needed some work) and it was fun to see "Lily Munster" (De Carlo) in a decidedly sexier role. My main purpose in choosing this particular film was as "research" for a film noir-ish book project I'm working on. And to that purpose, as an example of that genre, it worked just fine.
Rosemary's Baby (4/15/12) TCM Classic Film Festival -- Grauman's Multiplex, Hollywood (1968 ***) Directed by Roman Polanski, based on the novel by Ira Levin, starring Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes and Ruth Gordon. Actor Guy Woodhouse and his young wife Rosemary move into an upper west side apartment complex that looks a lot like the Dakota building. This was my father and my fifth and final film of the TCM 2012 Classic Film Festival. It was introduced by TCM's weekend daytime host Ben Mankiewicz and famed producer Robert Evans, who had been responsible for the film getting made. I'd seen the film years ago, but watching it again (with 21st Century eyes) I noticed the film was: (a) more unsettling than actually scary and (b) 136 minutes long, at least about a half hour longer than it needed to be. Having said that, it's important to note that this 1968 film pretty much created a new horror sub-genre, as it laid the pavement for The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976) and many others of its demonic ilk.
Dear Brigitte (4/18/12) FMC (1965 **1/2) Directed by Henry Koster, based on the novel by John Haase, starring James Stewart, Glynis Johns, Billy Mumy and Brigitte Bardot. A hot-headed Bay Area poet and professor has his world upended when he discovers his young son is a math prodigy... in love with Brigitte Bardot. This was the kind of B-grade family-friendly film I remember from my childhood. Even though Stewart was clearly cashing a paycheck (as he often did), it was still fun to see Lost In Space's (not to mention The Twilight Zone's) young Billy Mumy, who I definitely identified with growing up. It was also unusual to see a main character motivated largely by a core belief that a liberal arts education trumps an engineering and science one any day of the weak. It's not often that the battle between the left and right sides of the brain gets to play out on the silver screen, even in a lightweight comedy like this one.
Man with a Million (4/18/12) TCM (1954 **1/2) Directed by Ronald Neame, based on a short story by Mark Twain, starring Gregory Peck, Jane Griffiths and Wilfrid Hyde-White. Hey guvna! Didja hear what those balmy Montpelier brothers did? They gave this American bloke a Million Pound note, just to see what would bleedin' happen! The contrived premise of this film may sound a tad familiar: The "two rich brothers make a bet" bit was used in Trading Places (1983) and the film was also remade outright as A Million to Juan (1994), starring Paul Rodriguez. The Mark Twain short story pedigree is interesting, but I haven't read it so I can't say how much story or barbed social commentary was lost in the translation. The best thing in the movie by far was Gregory Peck, though he seemed miscast: His character seemed to exist on a higher (and more modern) plane of reality than anyone else in the film's 1903 universe.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (4/19/12) Netflix (1978 **) Directed by Michael Schultz, starring Peter Frampton, The Bee Gees, George Burns, Donald Pleasence and Steve Martin as Dr. Maxwell Edison, who -- believe it or not -- majored in medicine! The film also featured performances by Aerosmith, Earth Wind & Fire, Alice Cooper and Billy Preston. Mean Mr. Mustard (Frankie Howerd) threatens the peace of the small town of "Heartland" by stealing the original Sgt. Pepper's magical instruments. You know what? Don't even try to pay attention to this film's plot... or its character motivations, for that matter. It will only make you angry. I saw this movie in the theater when it was originally released and I even had its soundtrack, on vinyl! It's funny how aging can turn pleasant teenaged memories memories into something sad and disappointing. When my wife and I popped the DVD into the deck, I brightly quipped: "I'll bet this would make a great double-feature with Xanadu." Two hours later I'd definitely changed my mind and said in apology: "I wish it had been better." There were a lot of things that went off the rails with this film, but mostly I blame its director, Michael Schultz. There were plenty of scenes where, in spite of the obvious acting limitations of Frampton and the brothers Gibb, Schultz completely wasted opportunities to create something entertaining... or at least interesting.
Barefoot Adventure (4/20/12) TCM (1960 ***) Written and directed by Bruce Brown, with original music by Bud Shank, featuring surfers Robert August, Del Cannon and others. Whether the beach location was in Southern California, Northern California, Oahu or Maui, Bruce Brown and his 16mm camera were there to capture the hot surfing action. Bruce Brown is best known for his 1966 surfer documentary The Endless Summer, which followed Mike Hynson and Robert August around the globe. But Brown had made several surf-centric films before that, including Barefoot Adventure. The version I saw on TCM included a videotaped introduction by Brown himself, who explained that while he'd found tapes of the terrific jazz soundtrack, the original tapes of the voice-over narration had been lost -- if they ever existed, that is. You see, in the early 1960s, Bud Brown exhibited his films himself by renting out Elks lodges and high school auditoriums, then projecting the films as he provided the narration over a P.A. system. Hearing that "backstory" really made me smile. Anyway, for this version, Brown recorded a new narration, doing his best to remember what he'd said decades ago, but also occasionally letting the passage of history color what he said. It was also interesting to see his early technique and experiments with storytelling. His surfing footage was interleaved with goofy comedy footage that was charming in its innocence. I'm embarrassed to say it, but those corny skits of his were awfully similar to some of the film and video I shot back in my early 20s.
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (4/21/12) Netflix (2008 **1/2) Directed by Bharat Nalluri, based on the novel by Winifred Watson, starring Frances McDormand, Amy Adams, Lee Pace and Ciarán Hinds. In London, on the eve of WWII, a desperate (and empty-bellied) governess named Guinevere Pettigrew finds herself working as a "social secretary" for an American singer, Delysia Lafosse. Though not a great film, there was something very charming about this little movie. And I'm not just saying that because you get to see the adorable Amy Adams running around in a towel. Miss Pettigrew seemed like a movie from another time, and not just because it was a period piece. It incorporated classic screwball comedy elements and it did so without a hint of detached irony. This small film featured a few familiar faces, but one face in particular drove me nuts trying to figure out where I'd seen him: It was Ciarán Hinds... who had played Julius Caesar on the HBO series Rome.
Get Carter (4/22/12) TCM (1971 ***1/2) Directed by Mike Hodges, based on the novel by Ted Lewis, starring Michael Caine, Ian Hendry and Britt Ekland. When his brother dies in a suspicious Northern England car wreck, revenge-fueled gang henchman Jack Carter doesn't buy the "official" explanation for a damned minute. This movie was introduced on TCM by Robert Osborne and Anthony Bourdain, who'd selected it. Bourdain explained that it was a brutal film, one that would make you look at Michael Caine differently. And he was right. Though portrayed somewhat sympathetically at times, Jack Carter was an unflinching sociopath who would stop at nothing to avenge his brother's death. Though it was remade in 2000 with Sylvester Stallone, it's hard to imagine that version could have possibly added anything to the original.
The Sterile Cuckoo (4/22/12) TCM (1969 **1/2) Directed by Alan J. Pakula, screenplay by Alvin Sargent, based on the novel by John Nichols, starring Liza Minnelli and Wendell Burton. College freshman Jerry Payne falls for a bipolar weirdo-hating girl named Pookie Adams. This was an odd movie, one that was absolutely a reflection of the period in which it was made. The Sterile Cuckoo was only Minnelli's second feature film as a grown-up, and was a mere three years before her Oscar-winning role in Cabaret (1972). Her talent was clearly evident in every scene she was in, though. While I found the film's story ultimately depressing and disappointing, Pakula's direction was generally strong. This was a quirky, small film, and had the story been more enjoyable -- and had I been introduced to it as a teenager -- I can easily imagine it on a list with some of my other personal favorites, like Harold and Maude (1971) and They Might Be Giants (1971). However, some of the filmmakers' choices were a bit questionable. For instance, why did Minnelli's costar Wendell Burton play his role in a subdued manner, as though he were either on tranquilizers or suffering from borderline autism? And why was it necessary to feature The Sandpipers singing various verses of "Come Saturday Morning" approximately 500 times?!! It was a catchy little ear-worm of a song, and I know it was intended as a unifying element... but COME ON!!
Fantastic Four by Jonathan Hickman, Vol. 1: Solve Everything (4/23/12) Comics (2011 ***) Written by Jonathan Hickman, illustrated by Dale Eaglesham, originally published in Fantastic Four #570-574. Reed Richards' decision to "Solve Everything" results in a membership in MMMARRRS (the Mighty Marvel Marching Alternate Reality Reed Richards Society). A friend loaned me a stack of Jonathan Hickman's Fantastic Four run. I wasn't previously familiar with his writing, and my initial impression was mixed. Writing for "The World's Greatest Comics Magazine" is obviously a great honor, and potentially a bit intimidating, I suppose. It also requires lots of great "big" ideas, which Hickman brought. But unfortunately, along with those ideas, he didn't necessarily bring a lot of engaging action. Interesting concepts and situations were introduced, but it seemed that every time the action began to heat up, the end of the issue came and it was all over. Still, the writing (and artwork) was certainly strong enough for me to keep reading. Besides, reading these contemporary books reminds me of why I became a Fantastic Four fan in the first place.
Vertigo (4/27/12) Netflix (1958 ***1/4) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring James Stewart, Kim Novak and Barbara Bel Geddes. Set in San Francisco, a retired police detective with a nasty case of acrophobia (fear of heights) becomes obsessed with a possessed platinum blonde. My father and I wanted to see this film, introduced by Kim Novak herself, at the TCM Classic Film Festival. But after walking in the rain, then waiting for two hours to watch Novak's somewhat disappointing interview by Robert Osborne, we ended up calling it a day instead. As kind of a consolation prize, a few days later I put Vertigo at the top of my Netflix queue. It's worth noting that this film ranks at number 9 on the AFI's Top 100 list, though I can't say I'd rank it quite that high myself. I certainly respect it, but I don't know how much I really liked it. Part of the problem was its slow pace, and at 128 minutes, it felt long. Not just long overall, but in many of the scenes it seemed Hitchcock told Jimmy Stewart to act at half-speed, as though he were moving underwater. It can be argued that Vertigo is a suspense film and so that pacing was appropriate, but there were several times when... well, frankly I got bored. The other main reason this film isn't on my personal list of favorites is because of the direction the story took. I understand that the film's major theme was obsession, but its third act descended into some pretty creepy territory, and the scenes between Stewart and Novak that had been designed to make me, the viewer, uncomfortable... Well, they just left a bad taste in my mouth. But in spite of my considerable reservations, there was plenty to like about Vertigo, too, particularly in the ear and eye candy department: Its score by Bernard Herrmann has been borrowed from and sampled over the years (Most recently by the Oscar-winning The Artist) for a reason. I also loved the title sequence and the film looks gorgeous, from beginning to end. Vertigo's now-famous visual effects were absolutely brilliant for the time, and they're still awesome. A particular visual delight was that all the exteriors for the film were shot at several well-known locations in and around San Francisco. That was a special treat for me or anyone who's ever lived in -- or in my case, near -- the "City by the Bay."
Fantastic Four by Jonathan Hickman, Vol. 2: Prime Elements (4/27/12) Comics (2011 ***) Written by Jonathan Hickman, illustrated by Dale Eaglesham, originally published in Fantastic Four #575-578. Hickman's Fantastic Four run continues with the discovery / creation of the four different cities predicted by "Future Franklin" at the end of the previous volume. With this, the second volume in a series, I found myself getting a bit more used to Hickman's writing. One of the hallmarks of the original Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four was a tremendous sense of imagination. And Hickman did seem to be able to tap into that. Unfortunately, my main issue with his storytelling from the first volume remains true: With this relatively short set of four, largely independent stories clearly designed to set up something bigger, a "War of the Four Cities," I was never honestly engaged. I never felt a true sense of peril, even though I happen to know a pretty climactic event is just on the horizon for the Family Fantastic.
Three Days of the Condor (4/29/12) TCM (1975 ***1/2) Directed by Sydney Pollack, based on the novel by James Grady, starring Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson and Max von Sydow. When a CIA analyst returns from a lunch run to find his fellow researchers massacred, he does the only logical thing: He kidnaps a beautiful woman at gunpoint, ties her up and (after a respectful interval) has sex with her. This was a gripping film, one that still feels fresh and familiar nearly four decades after it was made. For that, I'll credit Redford's naturalistic acting combined with Pollack's realistic approach to the material, which spread a veneer of verisimilitude over a story that often stretched believability. Finally, and I don't think this is really giving anything away, while my wife doesn't generally like quasi-ambiguous endings, she felt this one was pitch-perfect!
Fantastic Four by Jonathan Hickman, Vol. 3: Unified Field Theory (4/30/12) Comics (2011 ***1/4) Written by Jonathan Hickman, illustrated by Neil Edwards, originally published in Fantastic Four #579-582. Johnny Storm takes his nephew Franklin to a toy store run by The Impossible Man and Arcade, then Reed's father Nathaniel travels through time to enlist college-aged Reed, Ben and Victor Von Doom to help him fight... himself, then grown-up (future) versions of Val and Franklin Richards attempt to keep the universe from collapsing. Or something. I liked this episodic volume a bit more than the two that preceded it, mainly because it offered an entertaining variety pack of four (mostly) self-contained stories. Hickman continues to capture the spirit of the series I grew up with. Because I have the benefit of "hindsight," I know how Hickman's introduction of Reed's "Future Foundation" will soon pay off. I also know that big changes lay ahead... in the very next volume!

May

Alvin and the Chipmunks (5/1/12) FXM (2007 ***) Directed by Tim Hill, based on characters created by Ross Bagdasarian (AKA Dave Seville), starring Jason Lee, David Cross, Cameron Richardson and the voices of Justin Long (Alvin), Matthew Gray Gubler (Simon) and Jesse McCartney (Theodore). A struggling songwriter named David Seville meets three high-voiced rodents that will change his life forever. As a kid I LOVED the original Alvin and the Chipmunks, playing their records frequently, often to the irritation of my mother and other family members. Because they were such an important part of my childhood, I'd avoided watching this 2007 film and its... er, "squeakquells." But you know what? I finally gave it a shot with my expectations set firmly on "ridiculously low," and I kinda sorta enjoyed it. It was a special treat to hear Alvin, Simon and Theodore sentimentally (and faithfully) sing their breakout 1958 hit, "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)." It was a nice touch that the song featured prominently in the film's plot. However, I can't honestly say I was too thrilled by the updated rap version of Seville's other 1958 pre-chipmunk hit, "Witch Doctor." It was, however, cool that the number on David Seville's house in the film just happened to be... "1958."
The Moon is Blue (5/3/12) TCM (1953 ***) Directed by Otto Preminger, screenplay by F. Hugh Herbert (based on his play), starring William Holden, David Niven and Maggie McNamara. An architect picks up a young girl atop The Empire State Building and takes her back to his apartment, where she entrances another, older man while more or less defending her virginity. This film's main "history of cinema" claim to fame is that it was officially denounced by The Catholic Church's "Legion of Decency" and was literally "banned in Boston." Why was it a target of so much moral outrage? It was thanks mainly to the film's use of inflammatory words like "virgin" and "pregnant" and shocking phrases like "Are you going to seduce me?" But all that fuss aside, it's actually a pretty sweet little movie and offers a nice window to the morality of the times, even though it falls solidly into that "based on a play... and you can sure tell" category.
Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (5/3/12) Netflix (1982 ***) Directed by Carl Reiner, starring Steve Martin, Rachel Ward and Carl Reiner, with clips featuring Alan Ladd, Barbara Stanwyck, Ray Milland, Humphrey Bogart and many others. Detective Rigby Reardon is hired by a knockout dame with a talent for bullet-sucking to investigate the disappearance of her scientist father. This was one of many movies I saw during my "theater-hopping" phase at the Omaha Cinema Center back in my early-1980s high school years, and I hadn't watched it since. It was definitely perfect research fodder for a "hard-boiled" book project I've been working on. I was impressed by how well integrated the vintage clips were, especially considering Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid was made in a pre-digital age. Also, in spite of the fact that the film's plot was primarily constructed around said clips, the story -- which also managed to hit most of the conventions of the hard-boiled detective film -- was surprisingly sound.
The Avengers (5/4/12 and 5/5/12) Arclight theaters in Sherman Oaks and El Segundo (3-D) (2012 ****) Directed and co-written by Joss Whedon, starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston and Samuel L. Jackson. Earth's mightiest heroes "assemble" to take on Thor's brother, Loki, wrecking most of Midtown Manhattan in the process. I can't honestly recall the last time I loved a film so much that I turned around and watched it again during its theatrical run, let alone the next day! But my wife and I proudly contributed a wallet-busting SIXTY-SIX of our hard-earned dollars toward The Avengers' MASSIVE record-breaking weekend total of over $207 Million. I had been looking forward to this film for exactly four years to the day (i.e. May 4, 2008), ever since seeing the post-credits Nick Fury "I'd like to talk to you about the Avengers Initiative" sequence in the first Iron Man movie. And through all the Marvel Universe movies in-between, all leading up to this, the big one, I kept telling myself that it was probably going to disappoint me on some level. And yet somehow, miraculously, it didn't! God bless Joss Whedon for creating one of the best superhero films of all time, one that satisfied comic geeks and "normal" people alike. For me it's way up there with Pixar's The Incredibles (2004) and Batman Begins (2005). As for my wife, she loved the film's action so much she had to apologize to the woman sitting in front of her for kicking her chair in excitement! Here's the best indication of how much I loved the film: In my childhood, I distinctly remember going to see movies like The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and afterwards replaying my favorite scenes in my head... and sometimes with action figures. I had the exact same experience with The Avengers, for the first time since God knows when. After seeing it the first time my wife and kept saying to each other: "Didn't you love it when..." Finally, I have to say something about the post-credits shot. (MILD SEMI-SPOILER AHEAD) By now it's public knowledge that the scene was filmed as an afterthought, very late in the process, actually on the day of the movie's premiere, April 11th, 2012. Besides being a tonally perfect coda, I LOVED the way its whimsical tone contrasted so deliciously with the overly-serious post-credit scenes from all the pre-Avengers movies leading up to it. Well done!
Dark Shadows (5/13/12) Kukui Mall 4, Maui (2012 ***) Directed by Tim Burton, based on the TV soap opera created by Dan Curtis, starring Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green and Bella Heathcote. A vampire chained up nearly 200 years returns to his ancestral home and comes face to face with the witch that made him... not to mention the bewildering customs and oddities of the year 1972. Despite the fact that we watched this film with the rudest, noisiest audience, I actually enjoyed it quite a lot. I proudly count myself amongst the fans of the original soap opera. I have vague memories of being aware of it during its original 1966-1972 run, but I was just young enough that I don't have the same generational memories of "running home after school" to watch it that so many (including Johnny Depp himself) have. I made up for that years later, watching much of the series on VHS tape when it was released by MPI Home Entertainment back in the early 1990s. Having a background in TV production, I sincerely appreciated the challenges of writing and producing a daily half-hour shot-in-the-studio show that featured vampires, ghosts, graveyards, lavish mansions and time-travel. I also loved Jonathan Frid, who died less than a month before the release of the film. I appreciated that his performance as the "man out of time" Barnabas Collins was all the more compelling because he had such a terrible time remembering his lines or seeing the cue cards. Fans of the series are undoubtedly quite divided by the comedic approach taken by the new version. Speaking for myself, I was delighted when I learned several months ago that the film would be set in 1972. I have to give Tim Burton credit for managing to capture much of the fun of the original show. While the movie's plot and secondary character development was downright weak (as has been the case in too many of Burton's films), I feel Dark Shadows ultimately got more things right than wrong. It wasn't timeless cinema, but considering its source material, I'll be content with what I got. It's a shame it didn't do better at the box office, though; it might have been fun to see a time-traveling, monster-tastic sequel.
New Girl, Season 1 (5/17/12) TV-FOX (2011-2012 ***1/2) Series created by Elizabeth Meriweather, starring Zooey Deschanel, Jake M. Johnson, Max Greenfield, Hannah Simone and Lamome Morris. 24 episodes originally aired 9/20/11 - 5/8/12. Quirky and adorable Jess Day moves into an L.A. loft with male roomies Nick, Schmidt and Winston. I think I've had a crush on Zooey Deschanel since the first time I saw her, quite possibly Lawrence Kasdan's 1999 film Mumford. At any rate, it's great that she's found a TV vehicle that allows her to be her -- well, "quirky" and "adorable" are the main adjectives that come to mind -- self. For the most part, this first season worked throughout, with Jess Day recovering from a destructive relationship and learning to live (and love) again. The supporting cast was terrific as well, with Greenfield's Schmidt being the show's clear break-out character. Of the shows my wife and I watched during the 2011-2012 season, New Girl was high on our "we gotta see it" list. The only area where the show seemed to falter was when it began (during a story-arc with "grown-up" love interest Delmot Mulroney) to question Jess' innate adorable quirkiness, suggesting that a geek-chic skewed view is not always the best human quality to have in order to survive life and/or relationships. In other words, the writers seemed to be getting into a "weird area," on the verge of writing themselves into a corner and/or jumping a cute little baby shark. Fortunately, toward the end of the season, they pulled the airplane's nose up just in time and even placed Jess in a life-and-death confrontation with a wild coyote in which she survived, using adorable quirkiness as her only weapon.
Once Upon a Time, Season 1 (5/17/12) TV-ABC (2011-2012 ****) Series created by Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, starring Jennifer Morrison, Ginnifer Goodwin, Lana Parilla and Robert Carlyle. 22 episodes, originally aired 10/23/11 - 5/13/12. A tough Boston bounty hunter named Emma Swan takes a job as a sheriff in a small, "magical" New England town named "Storybrooke" in order to be near the son she gave up for adoption. The premise of this series -- that all the fairy tale characters we grew up with are "stuck" in our reality thanks to a magic spell -- is something that could have been a real train wreck. And somehow the greatest magic spell of all was cast: Week after week this show managed to deliver on the promise of that premise, frequently surprising and delighting my wife and me. On one hand it was somewhat of a "guilty pleasure." The writing wasn't exactly on the caliber of The West Wing or anything. But it got the job done. It was a particular delight to see how the ABC show tapped brilliantly into the Disney's character vault on a near-weekly basis. As for the show's characters, I must confess that I found its villains Robert Carlyle (Rumplestiltskin / Mr. Gold) and Lana Parilla (The Evil Queen / Regina Mills) about ten times more interesting than Emma Swan or any of Storybrooke's other "good" characters.
30 Rock, Season 6 (5/18/12) TV-NBC (2011-2012 ***) Series created by Tina Fey, starring Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan and Jane Krakowski. 21 episodes, originally aired 1/12/12 - 5/17/12. While working to release his wife Avery (Elizabeth Banks) from her captivity in North Korea, Jack Donaghy falls for Avery's more age-appropriate mother Diana (Mary Steenburgen). Meanwhile, against all odds, Liz Lemon maintains a boring (but steady) relationship with a boring hotdog salesman named Criss (James Marsden). Off the top of my head, I'm hard-pressed to think of any true highlights from 30 Rock's sixth season. And that's clearly a bad sign. The addition of The Daily Show's Kristen Schaal as the crazy-eyed "All About Eve"-ish page Hazel comes to mind, but most of the storylines from this season were utterly forgettable. Story-arcs aside, the writing on the show's individual episodes has always been solid in past seasons, but even even that seemed to be faltering. Most of the B-stories seemed to come out of a cookie-cutter mold in which Jenna and Tracy pursued some "crazy-ass" crackpot premise to its "wacky" crackpot conclusion. By now it's widely known that an abbreviated thirteen-episode seventh season of 30 Rock will be its last. My hope for the show is that it will go out with dignity and honor. Will we (as viewers) return for that? Sure, I think we can do a baker's dozen more episodes. Why not?
The Office, Season 8 (5/19/12) TV-NBC (2011-2012 **1/2) Series created by Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant and Greg Daniels, starring Rainn Wilson, John Krasinski, Jenna Fischer, Ed Helms and James Spader. 24 episodes, originaly aired 9/22/11 - 5/10/12. Newly appointed Dunder Mifflin branch manager Andy Bernard does his darnedest to fill Michael Scott's departed shoes under new CEO and sexuality spectrum enthusiast Robert California (James Spader). So much was made of Steve Carell's departure toward the end of the seventh season, but the show seems to have continued on reasonably well without him. There's even been talk of a Dwight-centric spin-off that I must admit I have no interest in watching. Let me be honest: At this point I find my wife and I have been watching The Office more out of habit than anything else. Like the most recent season of 30 Rock, I'm hard-pressed to think of any real highlights of this season of The Office. The show generally seems to be drifting, fragmenting into more and more unrelated ongoing storylines, none of which I particularly care about. Will we be back next season? It kinda depends on what else is on.
Who Do You Think You Are?, Season 3 (5/20/12) TV-NBC (2012 ***1/4) Series created by Alex Graham, executive produced by Lisa Kudrow and others. 12 episodes, originally aired 2/3/12 - 5/18/12. Sponsored by Ancestry.com, various celebrities travel to various historic locations (and libraries) around the globe in exploration of their family tree. Season 3's subjects included (in order): Martin Sheen, Marisa Tomei, Blair Underwood, Reba McEntire, Jerome Bettis, Helen Hunt, Rita Wilson, Edie Falco, Rob Lowe, Rashida Jones, Jason Sudeikis and Paula Deen. In a world where there are (as I understand) 17 different "Real Housewives" shows, it's nice to know that "reality" television can be as enriching as this show has been. I'm somewhat shocked that a show of this caliber has remained on TV for three seasons, and I sincerely hope there's a fourth. Though there's obviously a great deal of "cherry picking" as to the family tree branches that get followed, some of the stories are extremely compelling, especially when the celebrities (apparently) encounter twists they were not expecting, as when SNL's Jason Sudeikis learned that his grandfather had never even met his father. The high point for the third season (and possibly the series)was Rita Wilson's dramatic journey: Though she only traveled a single generation back, she learned some fairly astonishing things about her father's early life, including a family she never knew about!
The Simpsons, Season 23 (5/20/12) TV-FOX (2011-12 ***1/4) Series created by Matt Groening, featuring the voices of Dan Castellaneta, Nancy Cartwright, Julie Kavner, Yeardly Smith, Harry Shearer and Hank Azaria. 22 Episodes, originally aired 9/25/11 - 5/20/12. Homer Simpson and his "nuclear" family have been terrorizing Springfield with their animated antics for more than two decades. Though The Simpsons (the show, not the family) has had its ups and downs over the years, Season 23 was fairly solid, even though it contained the series' disappointing 500th episode, "At Long Last Leave." There were a few highlights, however, including the Christmas-themed look into a possible future with "Holidays of Future Passed." "Exit Through the Kwik-E-Mart" offered a somewhat time-delayed take on street artist Banksy's documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, which was possibly either a thank-you or in retaliation for the very dark Simpsons couch gag he contributed during the previous season. There was another surprisingly touching glimpse of Bart Simpson's future in the 4/29/12 episode "A Totally Fun Thing Bart Will Never Do Again." And finally, the season went out -- not with a whimper but with a body-parts-gag-filled bang -- thanks to a vist by Lady Gaga in "Lisa Goes Gaga."
American Dad, Season 8 (5/20/12) TV-FOX (2011-2012 **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. 18 episodes, originally aired 9/25/11 - 5/13/12. CIA desk-jockey Stan Smith, his family and resident alien / sociopath / serial disguise artist Roger drift from one wacky setup to the next. I'm hard pressed to think of any true highlights from this season. It's astonishing that the series has lasted so long, but I think that says more about the power of Fox's Sunday night "Animation Domination" block than about the show itself. Don't get me wrong, it's not that the show doesn't entertain. It's just that it seems like nothing but empty calories. For our household, this is definitely a show that's on the "DVR chopping block" in the fall.
Family Guy, Season 10 (5/21/12) TV-FOX (2011-2012 ***1/2) Series created by Seth MacFarlane, featuring the voices of Seth MacFarlane, Alex Borstein, Seth Green and Mila Kunis. 23 episodes, originally aired 9/25/11 - 5/20/12. Peter Griffin and his quirky, boundaries-of-good-taste family experience a series of "wacky adventures" on a weekly basis. For a show that was canceled twice before its sometimes-abrasive voice found an audience, it's amazing that it has reached the ten-season mark. My hat is truly off to its creator and voice wizard Seth MacFarlane, though to be fair, I rarely actually wear a hat. Highlights of this season included a second episode hurricane cross-over with The Cleveland Show and American Dad, called "Seahorse Seashell Party." My favorite episode came when Brian and Stewie went "Back to the Pilot," basically pulling a Back to the Future II on the series' first episode. Later, Ricky Gervais contributed his voice talents as an annoying dolphin / sofa-crasher in "Be Careful What You Fish For." The season wrapped with a generally dull Joe-centric episode called "Internal Affairs." This finale was memorable primarily because it featured a five-minute "battle royale" between Peter Griffin and his chicken nemesis that was so over-the-top and action-packed it would make Michael Bay proud.
Batman, Season 2 -- Part 2 (5/22/12) TV-HUB (1966 ***1/2) Series created by William Dozier and Lorenzo Semple, Jr., starring Adam West and Burt Ward. 30 episodes, originally aired 12/21/1966 - 3/30/1967. The guest villains for the second half of the season were (in this order): Maurice Evans (Puzzler), Michael Rennie (Sandman), Julie Newmar (Catwoman), David Wayne (Mad Hatter), Ceasar Romero (Joker), Burgess Meredith (Penguin), John Astin (Riddler) Roger C. Carmel (Colonel Gumm), Victor Buono (King Tut), Tallulah Bankhead (Black Widow) and Eli Wallach (Mr. Freeze), plus additional visits by Joker, Catwoman and Penguin. Highlights for this set of Bat-tastic episodes included: The pairing of Catwoman and Sandman; Joker teaming up with Penguin for a three-part episode; Robin turning evil, becoming Catwoman's henchman and attempting to make out with diminutive singer Leslie Gore (as Pussycat); another three-parter team-up with Pengy and Marsha, Queen of Diamonds; and finally, a cross-over with Van Williams' Green Hornet and Bruce Lee's Kato. As a red-blooded American man born in the 1960s, I confess to drooling a few times when Julie Newmar graced my 32-inch flat-screen monitor in her impossibly tight, curve-caressing costume. It was also a kick watching her repeatedly offer to bump off the "boy blunder" so she could take her rightful place at Batman's side. And while I'm on the subject of Catwomen, it was a nice treat to see the summer of '66 Batman film's Catwoman, Lee Merriweather, make an appearance as King Tut's kidnap victim and potential love interest for Bruce Wayne. But with all the highs, you have to expect a few lows, and there were two or three low-water marks for the season's second half as well: David Wayne's Mad Hatter's Elmer-Fudd-inspired speech impediment was a poor choice and a general embarrassment; The Addams Family's John Astin stepped into Frank Gorshin's shoes as The Riddler, and it was not only clear he was miscast as a Bat-villain, but the costume did nothing for his physique and I sincerely wish the show's producers had made more of an attempt to suppress his nipples, which I found altogether disturbing; and finally, for reasons I don't fully understand, the image of Burt Ward (as Robin) speaking with Tallulah Bankhead's voice was nearly as disturbing as John Astin's nipples. Overall, I must applaud everyone involved with the second season of Batman. Even with the unusual 2-episodes-per-week setup, SIXTY episodes in a single year (especially following a feature film the summer before) is a feat well worth respecting. There were occasional signs of the show beginning to run out of gas, but for the most part, the energy level was kept surprisingly high. Given the grueling production schedule, I wonder if amphetamines were sometimes involved. The final image for the season was particularly sweet and apt: Bruce and Dick, having just defeated Mr. Freeze, standing in their Stately Wayne rec room, racing slot cars with Alfred and Aunt Harriet, enjoying a few minutes of richly-deserved rest and recreation, briefly free of super-villainy.
Kiss Me Deadly (5/23/12) Netflix (1955 **1/2) Directed by Robert Aldrich, based on the novel by Mickey Spillane, starring Ralph Meeker, Wesley Addy, Marian Carr, Jack Elam and Cloris Leachman. When his barefoot, naked-beneath-her-trenchcoat hitchhiker companion gets killed, not-so-private dick Mike Hammer takes it personally, vowing to track down her killers, even if it costs him the life of every friend he has. I rented and watched this film as research for a "hard-boiled" book project I'm working on, mainly because I found it near the top of a list of the most "film noiry-est" movies ever made. Having watched it, I admit it satisfied that particular criteria, but that didn't make it a good film. In fact, there were times -- particularly in its first act and during its "explosive climax" -- when the film's script, over-acting and general production values were only about one step above one of Edward D. Wood Jr.'s films made during the same period.
Modern Family, Season 3 (5/23/12) TV-ABC (2011-2012 ****) Series created by Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, starring Ed O'Neill, Sofia Vergara, Eric Stonestreet and Julie Bowen. 24 episodes, originally aired 9/21/11 - 5/23/12. Patriarch Jay Pritchett and three households of his family tree suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in suburban Los Angeles. Put simply, Modern Family has consistently been our favorite sit-com of the 2011-2012 season, and it certainly deserves the accolades and awards it has received. I think the secrets to its success are as simple as they are obvious: (1) Top-notch experienced writers at the top of their game; (2) Clearly-defined characters who are each individually appealing and worth caring about; (3) A cast of actors who clearly give a shit about the performances they're delivering.
Fantastic Four by Jonathan Hickman, Vol. 4: Three (5/25/12) Comics (2011 ***1/4) Written by Jonathan Hickman, illustrated by Steve Epting and Nick Dragotta, originally published in Fantastic Four #583-588. When the Fantastic Four's forces are split between multiple catastrophies, the result is the death of one of them. (SPOILERS AHEAD) I found the well-publicized death of Johnny Storm, The Human Torch, torn apart by denizens of the Negative Zone, to be fairly unsatisfying, actually. The issue following that event was presented almost entirely sans dialogue. This is a gimmick Hickman had used at least once previously during his run. I wish I could say I thought it was effective. It may possibly have been more powerful in the hands of an artist with stronger storytelling skills. As it was, I was frequently unclear about what actions and emotions were being depicted.
FF by Jonathan Hickman, Vol. 1: Tomorrow (5/25/12) Comics (2012 ***) Written by Jonathan Hickman, illustrated by Steve Epting and Barry Kitson. Originally published in FF #1-5. Following the death of The Human Torch, The Fantastic Four expands its ranks (including one well-known webslinger) and rebrands itself as "The Future Foundation." Its first mission: Joining forces with Dr. Doom, Diablo, The Wizard and other brainy villains to come up with a plan to defend their universe against a band of alternate reality Reed Richards...es. Except for the brooding Ben Grimm (who understandably blamed himself for Johnny Storm's death), it was storytelling business as usual, not only for Reed and Sue, but also for Hickman. In other words, there were long stretches where nothing much seemed to really happen. One of my favorite moments in this collection came early on as Spider-Man was introduced to the FF's new black and white costumes, which were made of "third generation unstable molecules." But I gotta tell ya, even though they're changable, they're still not nearly as cool-looking as the "simple but fantastic" classic blues designed by Jack Kirby.
Arthur (5/25/12) HBO (2011 **1/2) Directed by Jason Winer, starring Russell Brand, Helen Mirren, Jennifer Garner and Greta Gerwig. A rich, irresistable, boozing playboy with a Batman fetish and a magnetic bed is in danger of losing his wealth unless he marries a woman he doesn't love. While this wasn't an unpleasant movie to watch, it was clear while watching it that there was no need to remake the 1981 Dudley Moore original. Much of the new film's failure can be traced to its casting: Russell Brand (who seemed so destined for a meteoric rise to stardom) demonstrated in this film that his ability to carry a commercial film should be questioned. Helen Mirren, clearly the best actor in the film, delivered a fine performance but still suffered from the inevitable comparisons with John Gielgud, who won an Academy Award for the same role in the original. And finally, whose bright idea was it to cast relative unknown Greta Gerwig in the "quirky love interest" role originally played by Liza Minelli while simultaneously casting better-known Jennifer Garner in a lesser role? Not a particularly smooth move, Ex-Lax!
The Flash: The Dastardly Death of the Rogues (5/26/12) Comics (2011 ***1/2) Written by Geoff Johns, illustrated by Francis Manapul and Scott Kolins. Originally published in The Flash #1-7 and The Flash Secret Files and Origins 2010. Barry Allen has returned from the grave... or the "Speed Force" or something, and he's immediately accused of a murder he's yet to commit by a group of 25th Century law officers that bear a strange resemblance to the rogues. After reading five volumes of Jonathan Hickman's run on Fantastic Four and FF, Geoff Johns' writing was a welcome relief. The storytelling and characterizations were clearly and authoritatively presented and there was a good balance between punch-ups and ongoing drama. I did get a sense that Johns was still trying to figure out what makes Barry Allen tick, but overall the story was a nice, easy ride.
Rumor Has It... (5/26/12) Netflix (2005 ***) Directed by Rob Reiner, written by Ted Griffin, starring Jennifer Aniston, Kevin Costner, Mark Ruffalo and Shirley MacLaine. On the eve of her sister's wedding, a woman learns that her Pasadena family was the basis for a famous 1960s book and movie about a young "graduate" named Benjamin Braddock and an older woman named... Mrs. Robinson. Not many movies can get away with a plot involving a woman who may or may not have accidentally slept with her father. The only reason it didn't get completely creepy was due primarily to the fact that the characters were played by Jennifer Aniston and Kevin Costner, two actors apparently coated with an invisible layer of "creep-factor-resistant Teflon." Aniston's likability was further demonstrated when her character cheated on her loyal and adoring fiancé (Ruffalo) without turning the audience against her. Shirley MacLaine was wonderful in a smaller but important role as the main character's grandmother, the original inspiration for Mrs. Robinson. For his part as director, Rob Reiner seemed to be doing his best to deliver a commercial, popular romantic comedy. There was, however, a point during this film when I wondered aloud to my wife whether Reiner had Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in mind while directing Ruffalo and Aniston.
Flashpoint (5/26/12) Comics (2011 ***1/4) Written by Geoff Johns, illustrated by Andy Kubert and Sandra Hope. Originally published in Flashpoint #1-5. Barry Allen finds himself in a twisted parallel dystopian universe where he has no powers and everything has changed for the worse. I think I must still have a bad taste in my mouth from DC's Blackest Night. Flashpoint has one of those "large in scope" storylines that could have easily been turned into yet another Geoff Johns / DC Comics / "gotta collect all fifty issues across sixteen titles" event, and I was so very thankful it was not. The premise was fun and felt fresh, offering a look at several DC characters in a new, alternate reality kind of light, particularly Bruce Wayne's father Thomas Wayne as an older, Clint Eastwood-inspired Batman.
Men in Black III (5/27/12) Beach Cities Arclight (2012 ****) Directed by Barry Sonnenfield, written by Etan Cohen, starring Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin and Jemaine Clement. When Boris the Animal escapes his lunar prison and erases Agent K from existence by killing his past self, Agent J must get "back in time" to the summer of 1969 to team up with young(-ish) Agent K to prevent his death. You know what? Summarizing time travel movies can sure be a challenge. My wife and I went into this film with modest expectations and we both really enjoyed it. In fact, we thought this Memorial Day-opening film deserved far more box office than it received. Unfortunately for the MiB gang, Joss Whedon's The Avengers really cut into their business. What made the film especially good was that it followed one golden rule: If you're going to tell a time-travel tale, you've got to make it work on an emotional level. Even though I saw the film's third act "sucker punch" coming about an hour before it happened, it still packed a whallop. Another, related highlight of the film was Michael Stuhlbarg, who played a small role as Griffin, a man with the ability to see into the future of multiple parallel universes simultaneously. His gentle character was surprisingly touching. Now don't get me wrong: I'm not saying Men in Black III belongs on a double bill with To Kill a Mockingbird or anything, and it wasn't quite as awesome as its Marvel franchise blockbuster competition, but it was still well worth the price of full-priced admission, even at Arclight-level ticket prices.
Puss in Boots (5/27/12) Blu-Ray (2011 ***) Directed by Chris Miller, featuring the voices of Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek and Zach Galifianakis. Everybody's favorite swashbuckling tabby teams up with Kitty Southpaws and Humpty Dumpty to kidnap the golden goose from its home in the clouds. I'm embarrassed to admit that I hadn't gotten around to watching Puss in Boots until now, long after its release. If it's any consolation, I still haven't gotten around to watching Rango, which beat Puss (and Kung Fu Panda 2) for the 2011 Oscar for Best Animated Film. And so, to my many friends and colleagues who worked on Puss in Boots, I apologize for taking so long to watch it... and for my middling 3-star review. For what it's worth, I'm pretty sure I would have appreciated the film far more had I seen it in the theater. As it was, the smaller screen diminished the action and miniaturized the scope of the spectacle. But in my defense, I'd like to point out that while Banderas was as charming as ever, the story didn't offer much in the way of a clear villain. And you know what they say: An animated film is only as good as its bad guy. And so, I'm afraid to report that in my absolutely, 100% objective opinion, my favorite animated film of 2011 (that I've seen) was... Dreamworks' Kung Fu Panda 2. If you're looking for a good... What? What's that you say? How dare you impugne my critical objectivity! I assure you, the fact that Kung Fu Panda 2 (available on Blu-Ray and DVD) just happens to have my name in its credits... Well, that's totally beside the point.
Glee, Season 3 (5/31/12) TV-FOX (2011-2012 ***1/4) Series created by Ian Brennan, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, starring Matthew Morrison, Lea Michele, Cory Monteith and Jane Lynch. 22 episodes, originally aired 9/20/11 - 5/22/12. Spanish teacher Will Schuester and acerbic cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester team up to lead McKinley High's "Gleeks" to compete in a national show choir competition. The dramatic core of Glee's third season was that about half its cast of characters were graduating seniors. What would they do after high school? Would Rachel and Kurt get into NYADA? Would Puck and Brittany even graduate? Would those characters moving on from high school also leave the show? For me, this show -- which has a far younger target demographic than I fit into -- has always been a guilty pleasure in exactly the same way that kept me watching Smallville, only with music instead of angsty teen superheroes. I've got to be honest: The quality of this season was a bit of a roller coaster, with a lot of lows. The episodes started to feel pretty "samey" and I either lost interest or stopped caring about many of the characters and the musical drama that made up their lives. However, I've got to hand it to the show's creators and writers. Somehow they really pulled it off toward the final four or five episodes and definitely ended the season on a strong and satisfying note. But with so many of the characters "moving on," they've got their work cut out for them. Will they be able to keep my interest past, say episode five of season four? We'll have to wait and see.
Melancholia (5/31/12) Netflix (2011 ***) Written and directed by Lars von Trier, starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland and Alexander Skarsgård. Chronic depressive Justine and her sister Claire face the extinction of mankind thanks to an errant planet named "Melancholia." This is a challenging film to review, and whether I'd recommend it or not would absolutely depend on the psychological makeup of the individual. In other words, it's not for everyone. The film begins with several minutes of super-slow-motion images that are haunting and visually stunning. The story structure of the film is unusual, in that it is divided into two halves entitled "Justine" and "Claire." Each half takes as its point of view character one of the two sisters. In spite of the pending destruction of the earth, there are long stretches that are fairly dull. The first half, in which Justine (Dunst) gets married and "puts on a happy face" while simultaneously experiencing a crippling depressive episode, contains some sub-plots that don't quite seem to contribute to the thematic whole. For some, Lars Von Trier's film will undoubtedly offer a complex, respect-worthy, non-Hollywood-ending experience with lots of familiar faces. For others, it will undoubtedly be a slow-moving, yawn-inducing bumfest. As for myself, I found myself caught somewhere in-between. This is one of those films you'll have to judge for yourself.

Saturday Night Live, Season 37 (6/5/12) TV-NBC (2011-2012 ***) Series created by Lorne Michaels, starring: Fred Armisen, Abby Elliott, Bill Hader, Seth Meyers, Bobby Moynihan, Nasim Pedrad, Andy Samberg, Jason Sudeikis, Kenan Thompson and Kristen Wiig. 22 episodes, originally aired 9/24/11 - 5/19/12. Season 37 started with host Alec Baldwin and ended with Mick Jagger. Some of the hosts in-between were: Melissa McCarthy, Katy Perry, Daniel Radcliffe, Zooey Deschanel, Lindsay Lohan, Jonah Hill and Sofía Vergara, as well as returning SNL alums: Ben Stiller, Jimmy Fallon, Maya Rudolph and Will Ferrell. Holy crap, 37 years! What can I say? Believe it or not, I've been watching Saturday Night Live more or less continuously since its very first episode on October 11th, 1975. Over the years the show has had its ups and downs, and a lot of people have written it off. But somehow it has persevered. The past decade the show seems to have been running at a consistently high level. Moments of brilliance seem to be few and far between, but it's been a good, solid show. The entertainment level of each episode seems to be largely dependent on the show's guest host. The highlights seemed to coincide with cameo appearances by famous stars (like Jack Hamm) or departed regulars (like Will Forte). This was Kristen Wiig's seventh and final season, and she was able to go out with style (and a tear in her eye), serenaded by Mick Jagger. I must admit she grew on me over the years, and while I still found nearly half her her characters like the Target Lady and one-upper Penelope so irritating that I fast-forwarded through them, others became endearing, including randy, tiny-handed Dooneese, mischievous Gilly ("sorry") and wine-soaked Kathy Lee.

Please Don't Eat the Daisies (6/5/12) TCM (1960 ***1/4) Directed by Charles Walters, based on the book by Jean Kerr, starring Doris Day, David Niven and Janis Paige. A housewife married to New York's seventh top drama critics moves their apartment household (including four boys and a dog) to a monstrous house in the country. After watching a few less-than-stellar early 1960s Doris Day movies recently (Lover Come Back (1961), That Touch of Mink (1962), The Thrill of it All! (1963)), I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of this film. The screenplay was far superior to those other, later films and Day proved that if she had something to work with that she could be a decent actress. I think it may have helped that the film's source material was based on Jean Kerr's real life, thereby grounding it (and Day's character) somewhat. I'd seen this film on TV many times in my childhood and remember the TV series it spawned. I'm pretty sure I even read Kerr's book at one point as well, back during a period around age twelve when I sought out and devoured books from the humor section by Erma Bombeck, Max Shulman, Jack Douglas, Alan King, Jack Parr and Art Buchwald. Boy, I sure read strange books for a Nebraska kid living in the mid-1970s, didn't I?
Gil Elvgren: All His Glamorous American Pin-Ups (6/7/12) Illustrated nonfiction (2008 ****) Text written by Dr. Charles G Martignette and Louis K Meisel. Gil Elvgren was arguably the best pin-up artist of all time. He had a secret formula for his "Elvgren girls": He started with his "ideal model," who had the face of a 15-year-old on the body of a 20-year-old. Then he photographed and drew the model faithfully, making a few minor structural enhancements: Slightly longer legs, a slightly fuller bust and lips, larger eyes. The final touch was a "nose job" in which the tip was made more bulbous and a little upturned. It was a formula that worked without fail. Working mostly on 24"x30" canvas, Elvgren graduated from art school and started pretty much at the top of his field... and stayed there for the rest of his career. This book reproduces 90+ percent of the pin-ups he did during his career, as well as some of the advertising work he did along the way. It's no wonder he's considered the best. He took great care in designing and composing his scenes and his skill as a painter was unmatched. I think the thing that made him great was that while the women he painted were always sexy (only occasionally nude), they were never slutty. They represented the epitome of the American idealized female. If you're a fan of high-quality illustration (not to mention beautiful girls), I highly recommend this book. If nothing else, it's a tremendous value: The 271-page hardcover book (published by Taschen) was only $10.19 on Amazon.com when I bought it.
Mad Men, Season 5 (6/10/12) TV-AMC (2012 ***1/2) Series created by Matthew Weiner, starring Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, Christina Hendricks and John Slattery. 13 episodes, originally aired 3/25/12 - 6/10/12. Happy, newly remarried Don Draper watches the turbulent mid-1960s world change around him as he's forced to realize how little control he actually has in his life. Some have complained that the fifth season of Mad Men was not worth waiting for, especially since 18 months had passed since the end of Season 4. However, since my wife and I had watched seasons 1-4 on disc via Netflix, we were affected by that feeling somewhat less. Also, though the drama of the season mostly played out in a subdued fashion, there was still plenty to like about it. Highlights of the season included: Megan's sexy version of "Zou Bisou Bisou" in the season opener, sung to Don during a birthday party he didn't want to have; the bare-knuckled fistfight between Lane and Pete; Don and Megan's stop for Howard Johnsons' world-famous orange sherbet; Roger's life-changing LSD Trip; little Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka) walking in on her step-grandma giving Roger Sterling a blow job; Don listening to, then switching off The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" from their album Revolver (at a cost to the Mad Men production of $250K); Joan accepting a decidedly "indecent proposal" in exchange for a well-deserved, non-silent partnership; and finally: lots and lots of death and falling imagery in virtually every episode, culminating with the "graceful exit" of one of the show's main characters. I was quite grateful to have been invited by a friend as her "+1" for a special event at the TV Academy: Playing to a standing-room-only crowd, the season's finale was screened, followed by a panel discussion featuring series creator Matt Weiner and six of his show's stars. Almost all the main cast members were there, though Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss were unable to attend due to shooting schedule conflicts. The event's aim was to promote the show's visibility prior to Emmy nominations, and I imagine it will receive more than a few. The discussion was spirited and well-moderated. I feel very privileged to have gotten a chance to attend, and I can't wait to try my take-home gift: a jar of Mad Men cocktail olives!
American Vampire, Vol. 1 (6/9/12) Comics (2010 ****) Written by Scott Snyder and Stephen King, illustrated by Rafael Albuquerque. Originally published in DC / Vertigo's American Vampire, issues #1-5. In the early days of American film, a day player named Pearl Jones goes to a party where she becomes a midnight snack for a pack of power-hungry European vampires. The structure of this book was fairly original, alternating between Pearl's "present day" 1925 and her maker Skinner Sweet's "old west," several decades prior. While Scott Snyder created the book and plotted all five issues, the Skinner Sweet "origin" stories were written by Stephen King, his first foray into into comic book scripting. While I applaud the brillance of this pairing from a "stunt casting" standpoint, I must admit I preferred Snyder's half and found his writing a bit easier to follow than King's. It's rare that I enjoy a comic trade paperback this much. The premise and execution was terrific and I look forward to watching the history of America unfold though the eyes of an immortal vampire named Pearl.
The Sixth Gun, Book 1: Cold Dead Fingers (6/11/12) Graphic Novel (2011 ****) Written by Cullen Bunn, illustrated by Brian Hurtt. Originally published in ONI's The Sixth Gun, issues $1-6. When her father's gunned down, Becky Montcrief "inherits" his cursed gun, then joins forces with the mysterious Drake Sinclair to battle the gun's original owner, General Oleander Hume. Loaned to me by a friend, this book really surprised me. Its supernatural western genre-mixture was delicious, creating an richly-textured world worthy of exploration. Cullen Bunn's characters were, without exception, interesting and well defined, and for a book collected from a comic, I particularly appreciated that this volume's story really felt like a satisfying whole. In addition, Brian Hurtt's clear character designs and strong visual storytelling seemed to be coming from a direct descendant of Will Eisner (or at least a serious student). As a matter of fact, Hurtt may just be my new illustration hero!
Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted (6/11/12) DWA Screening (2012 ****) Directed by Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath and Conrad Vernon, screenplay by Eric Darnell and Noah Baumbach, featuring the voices of Ben Stiller, Jada Pinkett Smith, Chris Rock and David Schwimmer, with Frances McDormand. In this, the third movie in the popular Madagascar franchise, Alex and the Zoosters follow the penguins to Monte Carlo, where they become international fugitives and must join a run-down circus to get back to America. Because I work at Dreamworks Animation, it may seem self-serving to give such a glowing review to one of our films, but you know what? This film deserves it. It truly is the best of the three films. To be clear, I didn't work on this particular film, though I did work on the first one. After seeing it, however, I was a tad bit envious of my colleagues who did. Some reviewers have described Madagascar 3 as "too frenetic," to which I cheerfully call bullshit. For me and my wife, it was like a wild roller coaster from beginning to end. The comic timing was brilliant, and I laughed aloud more times than I had at any film (animated or otherwise) in recent memory. In addition to the main cast, the other voice talent was superb, especially Bryan Cranston as Vitaly, the gruff Russian tiger with a past and Martin Short as weak-minded sea lion Stefano. And of course, one of the film's directors, Tom McGrath, was back voicing Skipper, leader of the penguins. It's a well-worn truism that any animated film is only as good as its villain, and Frances McDormand's Captain Chantel DuBois provided many, many moments of villainous glee. Bravo!
Catalina Caper (6/12/12) TCM (1967 *1/2) Directed by Lee Sholem, starring Tommy Kirk, Del Moore, Sue Casey, Lyle Waggoner and Little Richard. Don Pringle (Tommy Kirk) spends a carefree SCUBA party weekend on Santa Catalina Island and gets entangled in a shady... well, I guess you'd have to call it a "caper." This is not a good movie, and it absolutely deserved to be skewered on Mystery Science Theater 3000, though that's not the version I watched. Tommy Kirk, who I met recently at an autograph show in Burbank, was famously in Old Yeller and later played the lead in Disney's Shaggy Dog. I hate to say it but he looked at times like he was either sleep-deprived or on meth... or whatever the 1967 equivalent was. Unfortunately, the film wasn't closed-captioned and the sound was particularly atrocious, so much of the dialogue was hard to hear. But I don't think I missed too much of the plot. So what did the film have to offer? Besides a surreal fish-out-of-water performance by Little Richard, the entire film was actually shot on location on Catalina Island, so if you've ever spent a day there (I have), it was fun to see so many familiar locations.
Star Trek: Year Four (6/12/12) Comics (2008 **) Written by David Tischman, illustrated by various. Seven stories, originally published in IDW Publishing's Star Trek: Year Four issues #1-6 and Focus on... Star Trek. I picked up this volume at a used book store at a used book store price. Its premise (a graphic novel-ish continuation of the original series) was intriguing and I imagined it should be good for a fun, decently entertaining read. It might have been had the stories been produced by more capable hands. Tischman's skills as a storyteller and writer of dialogue left a great deal to be desired. He seemed intent to awkwardly add "He's dead, Jim" and "Dammit Jim, I'm a doctor, not a ____" into each story. At the risk of evoking Woody Allen's joke about "terrible food... and such small portions," the ratio between the text and the art felt way too low; had these fourth season "episodes" actually been filmed, they wouldn't have even lasted to the first commercial break. In addition to the weak writing, it was also painfully apparent at times that the artists selected to illustrate the stories were limited in their abilities. Overall, I got the distinct impression that these stories were produced "on the cheap" and it's quite possible that a big chunk of the budget was taken up aquiring rights from Paramount.
Lady in the Lake (6/14/12) Netflix (1947 ***1/4) Directed by Robert Montgomery, based on the novel by Raymond Chandler, starring Robert Montgomery, Audrey Totter and Lloyd Nolan. Not-so-private dick Phillip Marlowe tries his hand at writing crime fiction and reluctantly takes on a missing person's case... and MURDER! This film has earned a special place in film history thanks to its notorious gimmick: The producers put the viewer "in the picture" by shooting almost the entire film from a first-person P.O.V. Montgomery (who served as director and star) provided Marlowe's voice off-camera, occasionally appearing onscreen by way of conveniently-angled mirrors. I watched this primarily as research for a hard-boiled book I'm working on, but I think it's a must-see for anyone (student of film or not) who loves film noir. As a Steve Allen fan, it was especially fun to see his wife Jayne Meadows in a minor role. The film also has one added "sheer" delight for red-blooded males: In a scene in the middle of the film, sultry Audrey Totter wears an dark top that's just transparent enough that it allows tantalizing glimpses of her shiny white brassiere underneath. Pretty sexy for a 1947 film, right? So you have to wonder: Even if the filmmakers missed it while shooting, they surely must have noticed Totter's "wardrobe malfunction" in dailies. So why didn't they reshoot the scene? Is it possible that they did it deliberately? Hmmm.
Indigo Girls (6/16/12) Wiltern Theater, Los Angeles (2012 **1/2) I've been a fan of Indigo Girls (Amy Ray and Emily Saliers) since sometime around the release of their first couple of albums, back in the late 1980s or early 1990s. I even saw them play once before, in Des Moines, I believe, during an early-to-mid 1990s tour. This time around they were backed by fellow Atlanta-based band The Shadowboxers (featuring Adam Hoffman, Matt Lipkins and Scott Schwartz), who also served as their opening act. Though I'm not exactly a member of their LGBT core fan base, I would describe myself as a mid-level Indigo Girls fan with somewhere around eight or ten of their albums in my music library. Sadly, my wife and I were disappointed by this particular show on two different fronts: First off -- and I hate to be "that guy" -- their song selection for the Wiltern show seemed to feature more esoteric material than I was expecting. That is to say, they played a lot of songs I hadn't heard before. What's strange about that is that the band had been posting photos of their playlists on Facebook and their shows before and after their Los Angeles gig at the Wiltern featured more familiar material. But you know what? I love their music and the set just showed me they've produced a lot of great music over the years. I just wish it had sounded better, which brings me to our second cause for disappointment: My wife commented on the sound quality's inferiority several times throughout the show. Not only was the bass mix overpowering, but at one point there was a buzzing (possibly from a "hot mic"), but even after they asked the audience "Do you hear that?" there was little effort to fix it, and the buzz remained for the rest of the show. Though The Shadowboxers were fine, because of the poorly-mixed audio, the highlight of the show was when the backing band left the stage and Amy Ray and Emily Saliers played an all-to-short accoustic set. Would I see Indigo Girls again? Sure, but not without doing a little more homework first. And I'm sorry to say I probably wouldn't order tickets with quite the same enthusiasm as I did this time around.
The New Teen Titans: Games (6/17/12) Graphic Novel (2011 ***) Written by Marv Wolfman, illustrated by George Pérez. Nightwing, Beast Boy and the rest of the Teen Titans (well, minus Speedy and Kid Flash) face a game-playing foe intent on ripping the team apart by targeting their non-powered loved ones. This book has an unusual and fascinating story: The graphic novel was conceived and begun by Wolfman and Pérez in the late 1980s, following their monumental 1985 DC Universe continuity-shakeup event, Crisis on Infinite Earths. At the time, they met and came up with a rough story, then Pérez began penciling pages, with the idea that Wolfman would later fill in the dialogue and narration. Comic fans may recognize this as essentially the famous "Marvel method," born out of necessity by writer Stan Lee and various artists in the early 1960s. Apparently (according to the book's introduction), Pérez made it through around seventy pages but then ran out of steam. Right around the same time, Marv Wolfman -- for reasons that weren't spelled out in the text -- had a bad bout of "writer's block" that apparently lasted for years. And so the original pages got stored in a closet for the indefinite future. Flash (no pun intended) forward two decades: Pérez asked Wolfman if he was interested in picking up their old project where they'd left off. Wolfman agreed and they set to work. Only thing was, comics had changed a lot in the intervening years: Their original story was somewhat less relevant in a post-9/11 world. And besides, in the absence of an actual script, neither Wolfman nor Pérez could remember the story's fine details or how it was intended to end. These obstacles presented a definite challenge, but somehow they were able to take nearly all the artwork that had been produced and use it, while abandoning a minor subplot or two. They came up with a viable "modern" ending and Pérez set about drawing 50+ new pages, making a deliberate attempt to work in his late-1980s style. As I said, it's an unusual story and I'm pretty certain there are no other graphic novels begun in one century, abandoned, then finished two decades later in the next. So what was the final result? Honestly, ignoring the fascinating backstory, as graphic novels go, The New Teen Titans: Games is okay but not exactly earth-shaking. I've been a fan of The Teen Titans since I was in single digits (it was one of their issues that got me collecting comics in the first place) and as a high school student, I very much enjoyed The New Teen Titans when the Wolfman/ Pérez series started in 1980. So, what was the net impact on me of this book? More than anything else, it sparked a desire to dig out my original comics from storage and read them all over again.
The Walking Dead, Vol. 16: A Larger World (6/17/12) Comics (2012 ***) Written by Robert Kirkman, illustrated by Charlie Adlard. Originally published in The Walking Dead #91-96. Rick Grimes and his merry post-apocalyptic band have grown accustomed to (ho-hum) zombie-killing, but when their food supplies run low, a stranger named Jesus opens their eyes to a "larger world" that includes another encampment of survivors much like themselves. As I've commented on in the past, these periodically-published volumes in Kirkman's series, each of which contain six issues, seem to follow a pattern in which: (A) P.O.V. "hero" Grimes and all the characters in his sphere of influence go about their daily zombie-rific lives until they grow complacent, (B) something dramatic happens when they (and the readers) least expect it, and then (C) they slowly recover until the pattern starts all over again. I've complained more than once about Walking Dead volumes where nothing much happens, and I'm afraid A Larger World is by and large another one of those. Put another way, there's some action, but mostly it felt like a lot of story elements were being set up for a future payoff. However, having said that, I did notice a possible hint in this book for a brighter tomorrow ahead for Rick Grimes and the humanity he represents. I found myself hoping that someday a zombie-free tomorrow will arrive, bringing with it a sense of closure for Robert Kirkman's long-running zombie saga.
X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills (6/17/12) Graphic Novel (1983/2011 ***1/2) Written by Chris Claremont, illustrated by Brent Anderson. Charles Xavier's "uncanny" X-Men team up with Magneto to fight a religious anti-mutant zealot named Reverend William Stryker bent on the destruction of their kind. Back in the early 1980s, beginning with The Death of Captain Marvel, Marvel Comics began printing a series of "graphic novels," which was a fairly new concept at the time. God Loves, Man Kills was the fifth book in a series that (according to Wikipedia) lasted through The Inhumans (#39) in 1988. This book was intended by Chris Claremont to be the "definitive" X-Men story, and it's certainly a strong one. His "anti-mutant intolerance" theme, though pretty heavy-handed at times, is nevertheless still as relevant today as it was then, and elements of this storyline were used directly in the X-Men films, particularly the second one, X2. Brent Anderson wasn't Marvel's first choice as illustrator. That honor went to comics legend Neal Adams, who had illustrated a run of issues of The X-Men back in the late 1960s and who just happened to be my favorite comic book artist growing up. The 2011 edition of X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills contains interviews with Claremont, Anderson and Adams, as well as six penciled pages of Adams' original vision. Unfortunately, Neal Adams quit the project over a contract disagreement, which, based on the penciled pages, was a great loss for comics fans. As much as I respect Brent Anderson, I can only imagine how amazing the book might have been had Adams stayed on. But here's one glimpse of sunshine: In googling "Neal Adams X-Men," I ran across a story announcing a new X-Men miniseries coming out in August 2012 called The First X-Men... illustrated by Adams. I can't wait!
Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (6/22/12) Netflix (2011 ***1/2) Written and directed by Alex Stapleton, featuring interviews with Roger Corman, Jack Nicholson, Peter Bogdanovich, Ron Howard, Peter Fonda and many, many more. The life of the man who directed nearly 300 films and famously "never lost a dime" is explored, with the help of a number of famous faces whose careers began under his employ and/or tutelage. Thanks largely to the wide availability of high-def video equipment, we seem to be experiencing a "golden age" of documentary filmmaking about less-than-mainstream subjects, and Corman's World is one of the best I've watched. Roger Corman isn't necessarily a household name, but for those who know who he is, he represents an important chapter in the history of American filmmaking, one that could easily be swept under the rug. Perhaps "forgotten" isn't the right word. More like "blocked from our collective memory." The list of people who owe their start to Corman is impressive, and the fact that the producers were able to get so many of them to contribute to this documentary was a testament to Corman's contribution. This film offered a little insight into the man himself, assisted by interviews with his wife and partner Julie Corman, though it seems Corman's personality has always lent itself to being a little inscrutable. In addition to working as a profile piece and a tour through some of the back alleys of alternative American film history, the documentary also asserted (and supported) a very interesting point: The reason lower budget sensationalistic exploitation films have largely been relegated to the direct-to-video slum is because of the rise of the Hollywood blockbuster. The drive-in audience that was once satisfied by the Corman-produced Death Race 2000 (1975) is now lining up for Joss Whedon's The Avengers and other big-budget effects-laden extravaganzas.
American Vampire, Vol. 2 (6/22/12) Comics (2011 ***) Written by Scott Snyder, illustrated by Rafael Albuquerque. Originally published in DC/Vertigo's American Vampire #6-11. In 1936 Las Vegas, a police chief named Cash McCogan investigates a grisly murder/exsanguination with the assistance of two federal agents and the trail leads him straight to Skinner Sweet. I love the premise of this series: The history of modern America told through the eyes of vampires. However, this volume -- which contained two separate storylines: "Devil in the Sand" and "The Way Out" -- began by introducing us to a new P.O.V. character while relegating the stars of the first volume (Skinner Sweet and Pearl Jones) to supporting player status. Though Pearl returned to the forefront in the second story, as a reader who'd become invested in these "main" characters, this P.O.V. shift felt a bit like a betrayal. It was entertaining, however, to see the return of Pearl's former roommie Hattie Hargrove from the first book, who was back with a vengeance (literally). I look forward to seeing more of her in the future. Hopefully, the next volume (evidently set during WWII), won't be another "bait and switch."
The Sixth Gun, Book 2: Crossroads (6/22/12) Comics (2011 ***) Written by Cullen Bunn, illustrated by Brian Hurtt and Bill Crabtree. Originally published in ONI Press' The Sixth Gun #7-11. Following their defeat of General Hume, Drake, Becky and Gord spend some time in New Orleans regrouping. The thing I really loved about the first book in this series was how self-contained its story was. Unfortunately, this second book went in the complete opposite direction. While there was some action sprinkled throughout, most of the pages seemed to be spent setting up storylines and characterizations that would clearly be paid off much, much later. This included Becky Monterief's "too good to be true"... er, what's the scientific term... fuck-buddy, Kirby Hale. It also didn't help that I'd deduced one of the plot's biggest "surprises" (involving the Golem-esque Billjohn) within the first few pages. On the art side, while I continue to admire Brian Hurtt's artful storytelling, I absolutely despised the awkwardly-proportioned main "level boss" creature and have to wonder what the decision process was behind its design.
The Sixth Gun, Book 3: Bound (6/22/12) Comics (2012 ***1/2) Written by Cullen Bunn, illustrated by Brian Hurtt, Tyler Crook and Bill Crabtree. Originally published in Oni Press' The Sixth Gun #12-17. Drake Sinclair, Becky Monterief and the members of The Sword of Abraham take on a giant mummy named Asher. This third book in the series was stronger than the second, but it only occasionally reached the heights of the first. Bound began with its highest point, an action-packed set piece taking place aboard a moving train. Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there, story-wise. Rather than moving the "story train" forward (pun intended), Bunn devoted entire issues to character backstory, included the origin story of the aforementioned giant mummy, which was only mildly interesting, followed by a deeper dive into what made ex-slave Gord (my least favorite character) tick.
D.O.A. (6/22/12) TCM (1950 **1/2) Directed by Rudolph Maté, starring Edmond O'Brien, Pamela Britton and Luther Adler. Frank Bigelow, accountant / notary extraordinaire goes to San Francisco to "get his groove back," but he winds up with more than he bargained for. No, not herpes -- luminous toxin poisoning! The conceit -- or gimmick, if you prefer -- of this film was that its main character must solve his own murder before the poison in his belly killed him. I watched this as part of my "hard-boiled education," related to a book project I'm working on. Even though it followed many of the conventions of its genre, I can't say I enjoyed it as much as some others I've watched recently. Much of the film's weaknesses lay in D.O.A.'s protagonist: As a rule, tax accountants don't make particularly interesting heroes, at least not cinematically. And "horn dog" Frank Bigelow's blatant disregard for his girlfriend's feelings didn't make him particularly sympathetic to the audience. And who the hell's bright idea was that crazy slide whistle sound effect whenever he looked at another woman's ass? But the film's greatest flaw was built into its premise: Quite frankly, Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard aside, it's awfully hard to root for a main character when you know he'll be dead before "the end."
The Thirteenth Floor (6/23/12) FXM (1999 **1/2) Directed by Josef Rusnak, based on the novel Simulacron 3 by Daniel F. Galouye, starring Craig Bierko, Gretchen Mol, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Vincent D'Onofrio. When his boss and friend Hannon Fuller is killed and all available evidence points to him, virtual reality tourist Douglas Hall must "jack in" to find the killer. My main reason for watching this film was that its description bore some similarities to my current book project. Unfortunately, even though it's tone and intent was quite different from my own book, The Thirteenth Floor had a couple of awfully familiar scenes and plot elements. But like Ecclesiastes and/or Groucho Marx? said, "There's nothing new under the sun." As for the movie itself, the first twenty or thirty minutes were surprisingly solid, but then the story began to unwind, turning into something far less than what it could have. I predicted one of the plot's major "reveals" early on, but the way it played out in the third act was very disappointing, as the film's established hard-boiled detective storyline turned into what was essentially a slasher flick. In addition, the screenplay violated one of my personal golden rules of cinematic plotting. I won't reveal which rule it is, but instead will point you to Superman III and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom for other examples. Overall, this largely disappointing film has made me want to order the original novel to see how it compares.

Batman, Season 3 (6/24/12) TV-HUB (1967-1968 ***) Series created by William Dozier and Lorenzo Semple, Jr., starring Adam West, Burt Ward and Yvonne Craig. 26 episodes, originally aired 9/14/1967 - 3/14/1968. Commissioner Gordon's librarian daughter Barbara puts on a red wig and form-fitting purple outfit and Batgirl joins the dynamic duo in their fight against Gotham City's colorful criminals. The guest villains for the third season were (in order of first appearance): Burgess Meredith (Penguin), Frank Gorshin (Riddler), Joan Collins (The Siren), Ethel Merman (Lola Lasagne), Victor Buono (King Tut), Milton Berle (Louie the Lilac), Vincent Price (Egghead), Anne Baxter (Olga), Cesar Romero (Joker), Rudy Vallee (Lord Ffogg), Glynis Johns (Lady Penelope Peasoup), Eartha Kitt (Catwoman), Barbara Rush (Nora Clavicle), Cliff Robertson (Shame), Dina Merrill (Calamity Jan), Hermione Baddeley (Frontier Fanny), Ida Lupino (Dr. Cassandra), Howard Duff (Cabala) and Zsa Zsa Gabor (Minerva). For Batman's third season, the producers made two significant changes: (1) They added Batgirl and (2) they went to airing episodes weekly instead of twice a week, which is why Season 2 had a staggering SIXTY episodes. Unfortunately, these changes disrupted the solid storytelling pattern they'd established, and it made for some awkward act breaks. As much as I've always loved (and occasionally lusted after) Yvonne Craig as Batgirl, her addition seemed to throw the show's writers off, as they devoted far too much "story time" to questions related to secret identities and who knew what about whom. This was compounded by the fact that Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred (Alan Napier) learned Batgirl's secret in the season's first episode and thereafter often became the middle-man. It defied logic why Commisioner Gordon's otherwise bright little girl never connected the dots leading to Batman and Robin's connection to "stately Wayne Manor." But for all the "negatives," Batgirl's addition brought story-wise, and in spite of Yvonne Craig's somewhat limited acting range (which often consisted of standing with arms akimbo or getting tied up), she did look pretty bat-tastic in that outfit. Batgirl even got her own theme song, complete with awkward, groovy-rific 1960s lyrics: "... / Where do you come from, where do you go? / What is your scene, baby, we just gotta know. / ... / Are you a chick who fell in from outer space? / Or are you real with a tender warm embrace? / ..." The villains for Season 3, which sadly did not include Julie Newmar, were a mixed felonious bag: Eartha Kitt as the third Catwoman -- following Newmar and Lee Meriwether, who'd played her in the film -- was an interesting "stunt casting" choice. There were many returning villains (Joker, Penguin, Riddler, Tut, Egghead), but also a slew of new ones. Their effectiveness often boiled down to individual actor's being able to find the right tone: Milton Berle and Ethyl Merman simply didn't seem to "get it," while Zsa Zsa Gabor basically played Zsa Zsa Gabor. The general rule of thumb seemed to be that "playing it straight" went a lot further than deliberate camp. Curiously, the majority of the new villains were female, and I wonder how deliberate a choice that was. Joan Collins' turn as Lorelei Circe with her annoying high-pitched "two octaves above high C siren tone" had me wondering what she might have been like as Catwoman. Unfortunately, in addition to the writing problems I mentioned earlier, there was some evidence that the series was winding down, and the season's low-water mark was undoubtedly the "Nora Clavicle and the Ladies' Crime Club" episode, a shamefully chauvinistic attack on the women's liberation movement.

Dead Reckoning (6/24/12) TCM (1947 ***1/2) Directed by John Cromwell, starring Humphrey Bogart, Lizabeth Scott, Morris Carnovsky and Charles Cane. Geronimo! Captain 'Rip' Murdock investigates the "accidental death" of his paratrooping pal and gets tangled up with a deep-voiced songbird named Dusty. But ain't that just the way this crazy world spins? Bogart made a career out of playing tough guys who didn't take "no" for an answer and always fell for dames who were more trouble than they were worth, and this film -- made at the height of his popularity -- delivered all that and more. I honestly can't believe I'd never seen this film before. I watched it as part of my current "hard-boiled research," and I'm so glad I did. It may not be quite on the same level as Casablanca or The Big Sleep, but if you're a classic film buff looking for a good time, it's well-worth looking for.
Galaxy Quest (6/25/12) DVD (1999 ****) Directed by Dean Parisot, starring Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shalhoub and Sam Rockwell. Jason Nesmith and the actors who played his fictional crew on the classic sci-fi series Galaxy Quest accept the "roles of a lifetime" to save an extraterrestrial race from extinction. This film asked the musical questions: "How would Bill Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and the cast of Star Trek fare if they were plucked from a Trek convention, shot into space and forced to walk a mile in their characters' shoes?" Ordinarily this premise would have been the stuff of forgettable fan fiction, but somehow Dean Parisot and screenwriters David Howard and Robert Gordon managed to keep the concept's "fun factor" while delivering something that was entirely satisfying on an emotional level. Though Tim Allen's Jason Nesmith was clearly the film's center, the characterizations of the ensemble cast were varied and superb. In particular, Tony Shalhoub's "Tech Sergeant Fred Kwan" kept cracking me up with his unexpectedly laid-back reactions to bizarre events. Hell, all the casting was pitch-perfect, and it was a blast seeing Rainn Wilson and Justin Long in early, minor roles. In numerous conversations over the past decade, I've encountered many people who are simply nuts for this movie. After watching it again after many years, I was pleased to see its brilliance still held up, and as you've probably guessed, it's one of my personal favorites of all time. Now here's my "big idea": In addition to everything else, this was one of Dreamworks SKG's first live-action films. Even though the story was very self-contained, how awesome would it be if Dreamworks Animation produced an animated Galaxy Quest sequel! Wouldn't that be awesome? Now, if only I knew someone who worked there...
True Blood, Season 4 (6/26/12) Netflix (2011 ***) 12 episodes, originally aired on HBO 6/26/11 - 9/11/11. Series created by Alan Ball, based on the book series by Charlaine Harris, starring Anna Paquin, Stephen Moyer and Alexander Skarsgård. It must be the "season of the witch" when a coven led by a possessed necromancer threatens Sookie Stackhouse and the vampires of Bon Temps, Louisiana. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Alan Ball, one that goes back to his previous HBO series, Six Feet Under: His shows tend to have a lot of plotlines I simply do not give a damn about. There was some of that this season, but not as much as there had been in the past. Don't get me wrong, there were still three or four throw-away storylines that didn't necessarily go anywhere, like one in which Sookie's brother Jason got himself gang-raped by a bunch of mentally deficient were-panthers. Even Sookie's BFF Tara, reining queen of "unconnected plot lines I don't give a shit about," got pulled into the main storyline fairly early. She didn't stay there, but at least she didn't pull focus. Without a doubt, the highlight of the season was Eric's hubris getting himself mind-wiped by Marnie the "not so good" witch (played wonderfully by Fiona Shaw). Hitting Eric's mental reset button allowed the viewers (and Sookie) to see a softer, goofier side of Eric. This in turn led to lots of Eric/Sookie hay-rolling and a delightful dream sequence that made explicit the implicit love triangle with Sookie, Eric and Bill as its corners. On the whole, True Blood's fourth season was entertaining, even if on several occasions I found myself asking my wife (who read the entire "Sookie Stackhouse" series after we watched Season 1): "Did this happen in the books?"
Return to the Batcave: The Misadventures of Adam and Burt (6/27/12) Netflix (2003 **1/2) Directed by Paul A. Kaufman, starring Adam West, Burt Ward, Jack Brewer and Jason Marsden, with special appearances by Lee Meriwether, Frank Gorshin and Julie Newmar. When the Batmobile is mysteriously stolen from a Hollywood charity event, actors Adam West and Burt Ward follow clues that lead them nearly forty years in the past. Having recently finished watching the three seasons of the original Batman TV show, I thought renting this little "gem" would provide a nice little button. This made-for-television film, originally broadcast on CBS, included re-enactments from the show's history, reminding me of a similar 2000 project: Daydream Believers: The Monkees' Story. Return to the Batcave, however, alternated the "flashback" material with pretty cheesy footage of Burt and Adam. But it was all intended in good fun. Though I can't in good conscience recommend this "film" to everyone, if you're a fan of the original dynamic duo and are willing to put up with some pretty corny material... hey, knock yourself out.
Pin Up Girl (6/28/12) FXM (1944 **1/2) Directed by H. Bruce Humberstone, starring Betty Grable, John Harvey, Martha Raye and Joe E. Brown. Pathological liar and pin-up gal Lorry Jones lies her way into some pretty hot water in Washington D.C., but she doesn't let it stop her from doing her part for the war effort. If you're one of those people who believe that Superman looks like a completely different person when he puts on his Clark Kent glasses, you just might buy the premise for this "comedy of errors." You might even forgive little storytelling faults, like a support character (Jones' girlfriend) who disappears halfway through the film, never to be seen again. Then again, the WWII G.I. audience for a film called Pin Up Girl (in Technicolor) probably didn't buy their movie tickets on account of its plot. In the spirit of "truth in advertising," the film did feature plenty of peeks at Betty Grable's... er, "gams," but it also (quite understandably) served up heaps of propaganda along the way, including an extended "gams on parade" drill sergeant number. Buy War Bonds! Available in this theater!
Turn Back the Clock (6/28/12) TCM (1933 **) Directed by Edgar Selwyn, starring Lee Tracy, Mae Clarke, Otto Kruger and Peggy Shannon. Shop owner Joe Gimlet is given a chance to "get back in time" to relive the past twenty years of his life. Picture Gimlet as 1933's version of Marty McFly, only instead of a fusion-powered DeLorean, Gimlet's time travel vehicle involved getting drunk off his ass and stumbling into the path of a speeding truck. As a time-travel aficionado of sorts, I recorded this film on a lark, based solely on its description. It's definitely not a great film. In particular, I didn't care for Lee Tracy in the lead: He reminded me of a cross between Al Jolson and Bill Murray on a bad day. Turn Back the Clock was, however, mildly entertaining as an antecedent to Back to the Future (1985). In the 1933 film, "recent" historical events World War I (referred to for some reason as "The Great War") and the 1929 stock market crash were prominently featured. The film even included a time travel joke based on Gimlet's confusion between Teddy Roosevelt and Teddy's fifth cousin by marriage Franklin Delano. (Yeah, you guessed it. I had to look it up.) That must have been a real knee-slapper at the time!
Ride the Wild Surf (6/28/12) TCM (1964 **1/2) Directed by Don Taylor, starring Fabian, Shelley Fabares, Peter Brown, Barbara Eden and Tab Hunter. Jody Wallis (Fabian) and two of his California surfing buddies fly to Oahu to ride the giant waves at Waimea Bay. After recently watching Tommy Kirk in Catalina Caper (1967), I was relieved by Ride the Wild Surf's relatively high production values. It was obviously intended as a star vehicle for Fabian along the lines of Elvis Presley's Blue Hawaii (1961). Unfortunately, playing "Elvis" meant Fabian's character was essentially a dickhead with a chip on his shoulder for most of the picture. Yeah, he had a real "stick" up his ass. (That's a little surfer jargon joke.) It was hard to believe that Shelley Fabares still wanted to be his girl after the crappy way he treated her. In a modern film, it would probably mean her character was motivated by suppressed memories of sexual abuse as a child. On a considerably lighter note, it was great fun seeing Barbara Eden (who I met last year at an autograph show in Burbank!) in a minor, pre-Jeannie role. Her comic timing and expressive face made her the best thing in the film, and it was obvious why Eden went on to become such a popular and beloved TV star.
The Crown Crime Companion: The Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time (6/30/12) Nonfiction (1995 **1/2) Annotated by Otto Penzler, Compiled by Mickey Friedman. The Mystery Writers of America present the definitive list of (as the title implies) the best mystery novels evah. I read this book as research for my current "mysterious" book project, hoping it would, in a fairly concise form, expand my understanding of the mystery genre as a whole and its subgenres in particular. To a degree it did that, though not with as much depth as I'd hoped. The book did indeed begin with the titularly-promised summaries of the books on the list, which for some reason actually numbered 101. But that content only extended through page 79 out of 190 total pages. The book's next section was a set of lists of subgenre "bests," each accompanied by an essay related to the category. In most cases the essays were written by authors whose novel(s) had appeared in the list. It was interesting to note that some authors chose to write about the entire list or peculiarities of the subgenre, while others chose to focus on themselves. The remainder of the book -- A category-by-category list of winners and runners-up for various Edgar Awards -- was information that is far more readily available on the internet now than it was when this book was published in 1995.
The Art & Feel of Making It Real: Gesture Drawing for the Animation and Entertainment Industry (6/30/12) Illustrated Nonfiction (2008 **) Written and illustrated by Mark McDonnell. Artist and teacher Mark McDonnell provides insight into the gesture drawing process, using hundreds of his own drawings as examples. I borrowed this book from my studio's library because I've been considering taking McDonnell's gesture drawing class at the Animation Guild. After reading his book, I'm honestly on the fence. First of all, his book contained more errors than I have EVER encountered in a professionally published book. There was on average one or two typos on each page containing text. The book listed someone named Remi Sklar as its editor, and I sincerely hope Sklar wasn't paid, especially considering how expensive hardcover art books of this type are to produce. But beyond that complaint (and I really did find the typos distracting), I also don't think I learned very much from the book. Though it was nicely illustrated, there were a number of lost opportunities, where the drawings could have been integrated with the text to much greater effect. Also, while McDonnel showed several examples of drawing in various media, in the interest of showing a true range of stylistic approaches, the book could really have benefited from gesture drawings by other professional artists. It made me wonder a little if the book was executed largely as a vanity project to show off its creator's drawings. Ultimately, I felt the author used a lot of words and pictures without saying very much at all. The final pages of the book promise a sequel, but if McDonnell had only put more thought and effort into this book, a sequel would not have been unnecessary.
Hereafter (6/30/12) Netflix (2010 ***) Directed by Clint Eastwood, screenplay by Peter Morgan, starring Matt Damon, Cécile De France and Frankie & George McLaren. An American man, a French woman and a British child are brought together by the forces of chance and a shared connection to the afterlife. This film began with a bang, with a realistic recreation of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which took the life of one of the film's three principles... well, temporarily, anyhow. Though I enjoyed Eastwood's film as an character study of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, there comes a point when "prolonged understatement" becomes synonymous with "nothing much happens." At one point the film seemed to want to present a message about the value of researching near-death experiences and opening a conversation about the phenomena, but then it veered away for safer, more earthbound, less interesting waters. On the whole, I wished the film had maintained more of the adrenaline it had in its first few minutes and had been more willing to take its fascinating premise a bit further.

July

Writing, Publishing & Marketing Your 1st Book (or 7th) (7/1/12) Nonfiction (2011 **) Written by Bobbie Christensen. As its title promises, this slim book walks potential authors through the process of producing a finished book, from concept to sales... and beyond. I purchased Bobbie Christensen's book at a community education class. Actually, that's not quite true. As she'd sold out a day or two before, I gave her a check and my address... and my trust, and in turn I received her book a few days later. I have to hand it to Christensen. She and her husband have evidently created a nice little cottage industry for themselves and I admire what they've accomplished. As someone who's self-published a number of books myself (ironically, I'm literally working on my seventh book!) I'm always looking for ways to step up my game to the next level. I believe this book, despite it's short length, provides a good foundation in a fairly concise form. I don't necessarily agree with everything Christensen writes, however, but let's face it, she's made a lot more money with her books than I have! However, I sincerely wish this book had been more carefully edited and proofread. There was a certain irony in that more than a few of the typos occurred in a section in which Christensen wrote about the importance of hiring either an editor or at least an English major to edit your manuscript. What was even more mind-boggling was that following the book's conclusion there were several pages of text that were a repeat of a previous section! I'd never seen that before.
Words and Music (7/1/12) TCM (1948 **1/2) Directed by Norman Taurog, starring Mickey Rooney, Tom Drake, Betty Garrett and Janet Leigh featuring appearances by June Allyson, Cyd Charisse, Perry Como, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly and Mel Tormé . MGM presents a star-studded Technicolor musical extravaganza biopic about the partnership between composer Richard Rodgers and bipolar lyricist Lorenz (Larry) Hart. Before there was Rodgers and Hammerstein (Oklahoma, South Pacific, The Sound of Music), there was Rodgers and Hart (with songs "Blue Moon," "My Funny Valentine," "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered"). With classic Hollywood "biopics" like this one, it's obvious that the biographical facts had been largely fictionalized. The only problem is that it was hard while watching Words and Music to have any idea where the facts left off and where the fiction began. The film featured a surprising number of famous MGM faces, but its musical numbers all seemed a little second rate, especially when compared to great films like Singin' in the Rain. Still, the film did offer at least one true highlight: a "reunion" of sorts between Rooney and his long-running co-star, Judy Garland. I wish I'd liked this movie more, but the song selection had a lot to do with that. Though I consider myself to be reasonably well-versed with American musical standards, I have to confess to knowing only about half the songs featured in this film. Considering Richard Rodgers' output before and after the death of his partner, Words and Music (viewed from a 21st century vantage point) made it clear Rodgers' best years were well ahead.
How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way (7/2/12) Netflix (1988 ***) Directed by Jim Gates, written by Stan Oliver. Based on the 1978 instructional book of the same name, legendary comic book creator Stan Lee and artist extraordinaire John Buscema demonstrate the tools, language and skills required to "Draw Comics the Marvel Way." I saw this DVD offered for rent on Netflix and seeing as I've been doing a lot of drawing lately I thought it would be fun to watch it. I'd read the book years ago and remembered it as offering solid instruction, aimed squarely between the eyes of young teenage boys hoping to grow up and become comic book artists. Even though I am (ahem) slightly older than the target demographic, I really got a real kick out of this instructional video. It was obviously produced during a golden age when the VHS tape was the height of technology, a time when I was still in college. Though comic book art (and artists) have come a long way since this video was shot, much of the basic information is still valid. I also loved the way it was presented: With Stan Lee hamming it up center stage while the late, great John Buscema (who passed away in 2002) read his cue cards in a totally deadpan manner, the two made a perfect pair.
Pajama Party (7/3/12) TCM (1964 **1/2) Directed by Don Weis, starring Tommy Kirk, Annette Funicello, Elsa Lanchester, Buster Keaton, Harvey Lembeck, Jesse White and Susan Hart. A Martian teenager with the unlikely (but awesome) name "Go Go" travels to Earth to pave the way for an alien invasion... but somehow he falls for a groovy chick and winds up dancing the mashed potato at a pajama party instead. God bless Tommy Kirk, who was considerably better here than he he was in a similarly beach-themed film made just a few years later, Catalina Caper (1967). There seems to be some disagreement on the internet as to whether or not Pajama Party fits into the official "Beach Party" series. While Annette played a character by a different name ("Connie" here instead of "Dee Dee," two other characters from the main series ("Eric Von Zipper" and "Candy") appear. Still, this movie was better than I expected, with plenty of gratuitous shots of shaking bottoms and early career appearances by Teri Garr (as Teri Hope) and early MTV sensation Toni Basil. Finally, with the Martian-themed premise, is it any wonder I kept thinking of the 1978 Saturday Night Live sketch in which Carrie Fisher played a "Beach Blanket Bimbo" named Princess Leia and sang "I'm a Teenager (from Outer Space)?"
Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (7/3/12) TCM (1965 **) Directed by Norman Taurog, starring Vincent Price, Frankie Avalon, Dwayne Hickman, Susan Hart and Jack Mullaney as Igor. Hapless S.I.C. secret agent Craig Gamble (Avalon) teams up with wealthy playboy Todd Armstrong (Hickman) to foil an evil scientist's plot to get rich via gold-plated love dolls. This film was clearly one of many that inspired Mike Meyers' Austin Powers series, and his Dr. Evil shared much in common with Vincent Price's titular (ha ha!) character, including his skills with well-proportioned android construction. While I enjoyed the film's parade of gold-plated bikinis and a couple of cute cameos, the film had some serious problems in the story department: Its two male leads, Gamble and Armstrong, were too similar, and though we were initially introduced to Frankie Avalon's character, the movie suffered from a lot of "who's story is it?"-itis.
Stand-In (7/3/12) TCM (1937 ****) Directed by Tay Garnett, based on the novel by Clarence Budington Kelland, starring Leslie Howard, Joan Blondell, Humphrey Bogart, Marla Shelton and Jack Carson. Uptight accountant savant Atterbury Dodd takes control of a movie factory that is losing money like a sieve and in the process he falls for a vivacious former child star. I am so happy I was intrigued by this movie's summary and recorded it! I always take great delight whenever I discover a "lost classic," and this one really fit that bill. I truly loved it and wonder why it isn't better known? Maybe it's because its title was so crappy and uninspired. Everything about Stand-In worked: The story was interesting and well-structured, the performances were energetic, the characters (even the minor ones) were well-drawn and the dialogue was was sharp and rang true. It definitely made me view Leslie Howard with a greater respect than I had before, and I'll have to make an effort to watch more of his films in the future. I understand that after Stand-In, he went on to make a little movie about the fall of the old south just a couple of years later. Now what was that one called?...
Using Wordpress (7/7/12) Nonfiction (2011 ***1/2) Written by Tris Hussey. Thinking about setting up a Wordpress-based blog or website? Tris Hussey's book tells you all the "hows" and even provides lots of details about the "whys." Having read a number of mediocre nonfiction books lately, it was a great pleasure to read this superior one. Not only was the content solid, but Hussey presented the technical information in a clear, direct, well-organized fashion; his light tone and occasional asides helped make the otherwise dry material readable while never overtaking the text and becoming a distraction. In addition, I felt the material was presented at just the right depth, going into specific detail where needed but giving conceptual overviews when appropriate. While I admit I haven't read any other books about this particular topic (nor do I intend to), I'd be surprised to find one better written and informative than Tris Hussey's Using Wordpress. Ask for it by name.
Discovery of Art: Maxfield Parrish (7/7/12) Netflix (2007 *) Produced by Kultur Films, Inc. The life and career of beloved artist/illustrator Maxfield Parrish is presented in slide-show form... badly. First things first: Under no circumstances should anyone reading this review ever consider wasting their time and/or money by renting or (shudders!) buying this video. Have I made myself perfectly clear? Good. I was kinda jazzed to see this 45-minute video offered on Netflix and I added it to my queue. You see, my wife is a big fan of Maxfield Parrish and I've always enjoyed his illustrations as well, though truth be told I'm more of an N.C. Wyeth kinda guy. This video's production quality was terrible and amateurish in a variety of ways, but its most novel (and annoying) one was that the copy read by the narrator over the virtual slide show actually contained repetitions. It was as though -- on multiple occasions -- the same paragraph was copied and pasted into the same document, then read anyhow! It boggles my mind that no one involved in the production noticed! As a graduate student I once wrote, shot and edited (on 3/4" tape, no less) a forty-minute presentation about video artist Nam June Paik, and my student production was infinitely more professional (and watchable) than this terrible video. Say, maybe I should contact Kultur Films, Inc. and see if they want to buy it!
Paul McCartney: Wingspan: An Intimate Portrait (7/7/12) Netflix (2001 ***1/4) Directed by Alistair Donald, featuring interviews with and footage of Paul McCartney, Linda McCartney, Denny Laine, Denny Seiwell, Geoff Britton and others. Sir Paul's daughter Heather interviews her dad about meeting her mum, the formation of the band Wings and the musical decade that followed the breakup of The Beatles. If you asked me who my favorite Beatle was, I don't know that I could give you a straight answer. But if you asked me which one I identified with the most, it would definitely be Paul. There's just an earnestness I've always related to. Over my life, I've watched many documentaries about the Fab Four's rise to greatness and its eventual collapse. But Wingspan did a wonderful job of picking up -- at least for one of them -- where that well-worn story left off. If that's all it did, that would be enough, but in addition it also exists as a loving tribute to Linda McCartney, who'd passed away from cancer in 1998, just a few years before this film was made.
The Sid Saga, Parts 1-3 (7/8/12) TCM (1985-1989 **1/2) Written and directed by Sid Laverents. In this 3-part series of short films, Sid Laverents (1908-2009) used still photos and home movies to tell the story of his life, from his start as a one-man band to his later career as an inventor, aerospace engineer and amateur filmmaker. In a Twitter/Youtube world in which individual success is measured by one's web footprint, it's charming to see that amateur autobiographical filmmaking isn't necessarily new. I must admit that this set of films started slow, and I was tempted to move onto something else. But eventually Sid's "everyman" perspective -- and the fact that he covered both the highs (awards, recognition) and lows (divorce, failure) of his life -- won me over, much in the same way I've enjoyed autobiographical comics by Harvey Pekar, Joe Matt and others. The net effect was ultimately endearing and also a bit sobering as well, since hearing the story of another man's life inevitably makes you consider your own. As a man who'll be turning 50 the year after next, I've often pondered the arc of my own story, and the final film's closing 90-second slideshow of Sid Laverents' changing face over his 70-plus years certainly gave me a taste of my own mortality.
Little Darlings (7/8/12) TCM (1980 **1/2) Directed by Ronald F. Maxwell, based on the story by Kim Peck, starring Tatum O'Neal, Kristy McNichol, Matt Dillon and Armand Assante, with Krista Errickson and Cynthia Nixon in supporting roles. Two teenage girls at summer camp compete to see who can lose their virginity first. When I was in my early teens, I had a huge crush on Kristy McNichol, who I watched every week on the ABC drama Family (1976-1980), where she played tomboyish, skateboarding, adorable "Buddy." I remember seeing the trailers and commercials for Little Darlings when it was originally released, but I was a little too young to see it and had to wait for a few years to watch it on cable. Watching it again after all these years I couldn't help but notice that it's not exactly a great movie, though it was fun to see a very young Cynthia Nixon (Sex in the City) as a flower child named "Sunshine." It's worth noting that McNichol was by far the best thing in this "coming of age" film. In my opinion, she acted rings around Tatum O'Neal, who'd won an Oscar for Paper Moon (1973).
Ultimate Fantastic Four, Vol. 1: The Fantastic (7/8/12) Comics (2004 ***1/2) Written by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar, illustrated by Adam Kubert. Originally published as Marvel Comics' Ultimate Fantastic Four #1-6. A young science nerd named Reed Richards has a crazy idea for inventing a teleportation device... but there's an accident. The general idea of Marvel's "Ultimate" universe was to start fresh, giving new backstories to familiar series. In the process, freed from the restrictions of years of continuity, they were allowed to radically change characters and, in the case of this book, their origin story. While I liked the idea of Reed Richards as a socially maladjusted geek with an overbearing father, that change also meant throwing out some longstanding qualities (like leadership and an ability to cobble together high-tech gadgets in fifteen minutes) that made him the character I loved as a kid. I was also a bit bothered by the fact that while Ben Grimm was Reed's childhood friend and protector, he was introduced to Sue and Johnny Storm about five minutes before the accident that changed their destinies forever. Those complaints aside, however, I liked the writing (though the art a bit less so), and I'm looking forward to seeing where the series goes.
Life with Father (7/11/12) TCM (1947 **1/2) Directed by Michael Curtiz, based on the stories by Clarence Day, Jr. and the play by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, starring William Powell, Irene Dunne, Elizabeth Taylor, Jimmy Lydon and Martin Milner. Set in late-1800s New York City, Clarence "Clare" Day is an easily-angered, chauvinistic, Episcopalian patriarch with a resolute refusal to be baptized. And yet, because he's played by William Powell, he's still somewhat likable. Go figure. This is one of those classic, beloved films that falls soundly into the "I wish I liked it more" bucket. Part of the problem was the source material: A film based on a series of short stories originally written by Clarence Day's eldest son and published in The New Yorker doesn't necessarily result in a strong or unified story. In fact, the two main storylines were pretty flimsy. The first centered around Clarence Junior's courtship with a young Elizabeth Taylor, but it never felt particularly believable. The second storyline was Clarence Senior's reluctance to give into his wife's perpetual nagging about him getting baptized so he'd be able to join his family in heaven. While I won't argue the importance of a man's immortal soul, it was still a pretty weak spine for a movie.
The Invention of Lying (7/11/12) Netflix (2009 ***) Written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson, starring Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Louis C.K. and Rob Lowe. In an alternate reality where the human gene for telling falsehoods never existed, a mutation turns a nonfiction screenwriter into a millionaire and a prophet. I'm a big fan of Ricky Gervais, and I appreciated what he attempted to do with this film. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't a total failure and there were parts I quite enjoyed. I think the root problem was that Gervais wanted to create (as he said in one of the DVD extras) a "high concept romantic comedy." He got much of the "high concept" part very right, as in an incredibly moving scene with the main character Mark Bellison's dying mother, but unfortunately that "promise in the premise" was built upon a foundation of sand. For Gervais' message about the veracity of "the man in the sky" to work, everything else had to be rock-solid. But the film's story structure was flawed and Jennifer Garner's character -- the key to making the whole "romantic comedy" thing believable -- was consistently two-dimensional as a direct result of the established "rules" in truths-ville. It's too bad; had Gervais and Robinson succeeded with what they'd set out to do, they could've had another Groundhog Day on their hands.
Ultimate Fantastic Four, Vol. 2: Doom (7/11/12) Comics (2004 ***) Written by Warren Ellis, illustrated by Stuart Immonen. Originally published in Marvel Comics' Ultimate Fantastic Four #7-12. A still-unnamed, "fantastic" foursome discovers what happened to the fifth person transformed by their teleportation experiment gone awry, Victor Van Damme. For this second 6-issue story arc in the Ultimate-flavored reboot, Warren Ellis (Transmetropolitan) took over the writing reins from Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar, and I'm sad to say I noticed a downshift in quality. While I appreciated the necessity to futher lay the groundwork for the updated, ever-so-slightly more grown-up FF series, I felt a bit as though things were still being stretched out unnecessarily. Also, though Dr. Doom's backstory was given ample screen time (so to speak), I still didn't get a real sense of his motivations. Why did he really sabotage Reed's experiment? And why was he such a prick, in the first place?
Generation X (7/12/12) FXM (1996 **) Directed by Jack Sholder, written by Eric Blakeney, starring Matt Frewer, Finola Hughes, Jeremy Ratchford, Agustin Rodriguez and Heather McComb. Troubled mutant teens Jubilation Lee and Angelo Espinosa enroll in Xavier Academy and battle a nutty Max Headroom-lookalike badguy who , like Freddy Kruger, can attack you in your dreams. I have vague memories of watching this made-for-TV film when it was originally broadcast on Fox, but I'd forgotten how truly awful it was. Made four years before Bryan Singer nailed The X-Men on the big screen in 2000, it was evidently intended as a pilot for a TV show. Too bad it wasn't better directed, written, cast and produced. The film's villain, Matt Frewer, hammed up a manic performance worthy of Jim Carrey, but he didn't really have much to work with. Aside from him, the only other memorable performance was delivered -- quite convincingly -- by Finola Hughes' cleavage.
Ultimate Fantastic Four, Vol. 3: N-Zone (7/12/12) Comics (2005 ***) Written by Warren Ellis, illustrated by Adam Kubert. Originally published in Marvel Comics' Ultimate Fantastic Four #13-18. In this, the third 6-issue story arc in the Ultimate FF reboot, our intrepid quartet take a decommissioned space shuttle for a joyride... into another dimension affectionately called "the n-zone." Beginning with their doomed space flight in issue #1, sci-fi-slanted storylines was what really separated the original Fantastic Four characters from the rest of the early Marvel Universe, and it was great to see the new series embracing that. I even enjoyed their eventual "first contact" with the Ultimate incarnation of Annihilus. But -- and this is a complaint I've often voiced in other reviews, so please indulge me -- there just wasn't enough action. With page after page spent drifting (somewhat aimlessly) through space, the story seemed to advance in slow-motion. At one point Johnny Storm even commented on how uninteresting the n-zone was, wishing it had more of an "Industrial Light and Magic" look. I wonder if he would have been more impressed if it had been drawn by Jack Kirby?
The Name of the Game (7/14/12) Graphic Novel (2001 **1/2) Written and illustrated by comics great Will Eisner. Three families of Jewish immigrants angle for societal advancement the only way they can... by marriage. I'm a big fan of Will Eisner, though I must admit I've found some of his body of work hard to relate to. This book was definitely in that category. Produced by Eisner very late in his career (Eisner died in 2005), his illustrations were solid as ever, but the writing was a little uneven: In particular, the dialogue was frequently weighed down by exposition, resulting in a net effect that was altogether unnatural. In addition, while I appreciated the scope of the story being told, likable, relatable characters were few and far between and there was a surprising amount of spousal and child abuse depicted. A few panels of men hitting their wives went a very long way.
Love Finds Andy Hardy (7/15/12) TCM (1938 ***1/2) Directed by George B. Seitz, based on the stories by Vivien R. Bretherton, starring Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland Lewis Stone, Lana Turner and Ann Rutherford. Archie Andrews... er, I mean... Andy Hardy finds himself with two dates for the same Christmas dance. And one of them's Lana-freakin'-Turner! According to Wikipedia, this was the fourth in the Hardy Family / Andy Hardy series of 16 films. Astonishingly, it's the first one I've ever watched in my life! Watching it now, nearly three-quarters of a century after it was originally released, it's not hard to see why the series was as popular as it was. Mickey Rooney -- though his acting occasionally veered into rubber-faced clown territory -- was imminently likable and watchable, and the "down home morality" must have been the equivalent of comfort food to a pre-WWII America. This film also featured a very young, pre-"Off to see the Wizard" Judy Garland, and her singing and acting talent shone like a beacon. Without giving too much away, I was a little annoyed by the film's resolution of Andy's love quadrilateral, but considering Garland's Betsy Booth was supposed to be twelve or thirteen, I guess it made sense. And besides, I think the filmmaker's may have been setting Garland (and Betsy) up for a return later in the series.
Prometheus (3-D) (7/16/12) DWA Screening (2012 **1/2) Directed by Ridley Scott, starring Noomi Rapace, Logan Marshall-Green, Michael Fassbender and Charlize Theron. When a 35,000-year-old cave painting points the way to mankind's origin, a team of astro-scientists (and their pet android) go looking for our maker. This film asks the philosophical question: "What if we went looking for God and it turned out He was a real asshole?" (As an aside, a friend pointed out that this was also basically the plot for Star Trek V.) I knew going into this free screening that the movie was likely to disappoint, and it did. With my expectations firmly in check, I was able to sort of enjoy the film on some level as big-budget sci-fi spectacle, and Fassbender's creepy performance as artificial life-form "David" was consistently interesting. Still, the film contained a lot of plot elements and suspect character motivations that caused my bullshit meter to go off time and again, especially in the last half hour. Also, for a movie set in outer space, the story was surprisingly limited in terms of environs: Without giving anything away, the characters basically kept going back and forth between their spaceship and the ancient structure they discovered, pretty much for the entire film.
Harry & Tonto (7/16/12) TCM (1974 ***1/2) Directed by Paul Mazursky, written by Paul Mazursky and Josh Greenfeld, starring Art Carney, Melanie Mayron, Josh Mostel, Ellen Burstyn and Larry Hagman. When a retired widower's Manhattan apartment building is demolished to make room for a parking lot, he grabs his cat Tonto and heads West to see his children... and find America. There was a time when a road trip character study about a man and his pussycat was enough to satisfy a movie-going audience. Art Carney won a Best Actor Oscar (beating out hefty competition, including Jack Nicholson in Chinatown) for his portrayal of Harry Coombs. Though its message is a subtle one, it's a sweet little film, one whose imagery of Harry's adventures "from sea to shining sea" will no doubt stick with me for some time.
Divorce American Style (7/18/12) TCM (1967 **1/2) Directed by Bud Yorkin, screenplay by Robert Kaufman and Norman Lear, starring Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds, with a familiar supporting cast including Jason Robards, Jean Simmons, Van Johnson, Lee Grant, Tom Bosley and Tim "Animal House's Otter" Matheson. Richard and Barbara Harmon bicker their marriage all the way to divorce court (and beyond), but did either of them even want to split up in the first place? I apologize for taking so much of this review's real estate with the supporting cast, but it was pretty impressive. It was also odd to see stage hypnotist Pat Collins (who I once saw in Reno in my teens) playing herself. As for the movie, I respected Divorce American Style's sharp (and cynical) observations about the realities of divorce in America far more than I actually enjoyed it as entertainment. But I must give credit where it's due: Kaufman and Lear's Oscar-nominated screenplay had considerably more teeth to it than similarly-categorized family-skewering movies of the same era starring Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Doris Day or Jimmy Stewart. You know the ones I'm talking about.
Dr. Goldfoot & the Girl Bombs (7/20/12) TCM (1966 *) Directed by Mario Bava, starring Vincent Price, Fabian, Franco Franchi, Ciccio Ingrassia and Laura Antonelli. S.I.C. secret agent and professional masher Bill Dexter teams up with two bumbling Italian clowns to foil Dr. Goldfoot's diabolical plan to take over the world using gold-plated sex dolls that explode before they ever make it past first base. Ah, good ol' American International Pictures. This little "gem" of a sequel started with a title sequence based on clips from Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine. Now you'd think it would be a pretty hard to make a movie worse than its predecessor, but apparently someone at AIP felt up to the challenge. One key to achieving its mediocrity was to cut costs by shooting the production in Italy. Girl Bombs began with a plot that almost made sense but then disintegrated just past its halfway point into an extended chase sequence that had me fast-forwarding toward the end credits. And as for the acting... well, let's just say that Fabian was no Frankie Avalon. While the 1960s-era bikini-clad scenery wasn't bad, it also wasn't nearly enough to make up for all the other bad ingredients in this undercooked turkey.
The Bucket List (7/20/12) Netflix (2007 ***1/4) Directed by Rob Reiner, written by Justin Zackham, starring Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman, Sean Hayes and Beverly Todd. Terminally ill patients Edward (Nicholson) and Carter (Freeman) meet in the hospital, make a list, check it twice and embark on the adventure of a lifetime. The concept of the "bucket list" (a list of to-dos before one kicks the proverbial bucket) seems to be in the zeitgeist lately. There are multiple series of books describing places, movies and music to experience before one shuffles off this mortal coil. I knew going in that this film was going to be emotionally manipulative in the extreme, and boy oh boy was it. I had somehow overlooked the fact that this film was directed by Rob Reiner until the end credits, and then I said to myself, "Well, they certainly got the right guy for the job." But you know what? If playing your audience's heart-strings like a freakin' violin is done well -- as it was in The Bucket List -- I don't really mind. In the end I cried a little and I thought about my mortality and place in the world a little. Mission accomplished, filmmakers. Nicely done.
The Dark Knight Rises (7/21/12) Beach Cities Arclight (2012 ***1/2) Directed by Christopher Nolan, starring Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine. Batman comes out of retirement to take on Bane, a terrorist intent on picking up the mass destruction of Gotham City where Ra's Al Ghul left off in Batman Begins. My wife and I saw this film on opening weekend, just two days after the tragic shooting in Aurora, Colorado. I felt a certain sense of pride for not allowing a maniac whose name I won't even repeat here from stopping us from going to the movies. But tragic footnote aside, I liked Chris Nolan's third and final Batman film, though it felt about half an hour longer than it needed to be. Comparing it to the other superhero mega-blockbuster of the summer of 2012, I definitely didn't feel a desire to see it again right away like I did with The Avengers. In addition to its slower-than-expected pace, for a movie nominally about Batman, the main character (both with and without the mask) spent a surprising amount of the film off-screen. However, the performances Nolan got from his ensemble were impressive and far more nuanced than you'd expect from a comic book movie, especially the acting by Bale, Oldman and Michael Caine. Now, if you'll allow me teensy nit to pick: I really wish they'd chosen someone other than Matthew Modine for his role. Every time Modine was onscreen I was pulled completely out of the film, and I have no idea why. I wonder if any of the filmmakers felt the same way?
That Book... of Perfectly Useless Information (7/21/12) Nonfiction (2006 ***) Written by Mitchell Symons. The first in his "trivia trilogy," Mitchell Symons provides chapter after chapter and list after list of fascinating facts you have to know! When I was younger, I used to go nuts for trivia books, but I hadn't read one in a long time. I bought this book on a lark at a Goodwill and spent the next several hours reading it from cover to cover. Sure I had lots of more productive things I could have been doing with that time, but I couldn't help myself. It really was the literary equivalent of eating popcorn. To give you a taste, here are just a few of the the lists contained in the book: Famous people born on the same day other famous people died; The age at which various celebs lost their virginity (Madonna 15, Lisa Kudrow 31); People who guest starred on the Batman TV show; Celebrity anagrams ("Bruce Springsteen" = "Bursting Presence"); Unintentionally funny headlines ("City may impose mandatory time for Prostitution"); Humorous church signs ("How will you spend eternity -- smoking or nonsmoking?").
Brave (7/23/12) DWA Screening (2012 ***1/4) Directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, based on the story by Brenda Chapman, featuring the voices of Kelly MacDonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly and Julie Walters. Scottish highlands princess Merida wishes she had a different relationship with her mother, Queen Elinor... and BOY does she get her wish! This was Pixar's first film with a female protagonist and helmed (at least for awhile) by a woman. Mother / daughter relationships are notoriously tricky beasts, and it was nice to see the story "men" at Pixar take it on. Visually, the film offered some of the most naturalistic exterior environments I'd ever seen in an animated film, and one scene involving Merida, a bear, a brook and a lot of fish, was breathtaking. Also impressive was Merida's dynamic red hair, which was definitely an achievement, even though it was distracting at times. But as much as the film had going for it technically, I felt something missing in its story. Ultimately, Brave failed true greatness and is probably destined to be seen as one of Pixar's lesser films. My guess is that the production had story troubles -- as evidenced by the fact that Chapman was replaced as director midway through -- and that Mark Andrews did the best he could to beat the film's story into shape in time for its release.
Down to Earth (7/24/12) TCM (1947 **1/2) Directed by Alexander Hall, based on characters created for the play Heaven Can Wait by Harry Segall, starring Rita Hayworth, Larry Parks, Roland Culver, James Gleason and Edward Everett Horton as "Messenger 7013." Greek muse Terpsichore (goddess of choral songs and dance) comes down to Earth to correct the inaccuracies of a Broadway show based on her. This Technicolor film was a sequel of sorts to the better known Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), which was also directed by Alexander Hall. In the new film, Roland Culver filled in for Claude Rains as Mr. Jordan. As a "heavenly fantasy," Down to Earth more or less worked, but as a musical, this film was pretty mediocre, and none of its songs or dance numbers were particularly memorable. The message/moral of the film was a bit muddied too, and it was hard to know whether to root for actor/director/writer Danny Miller or Kitty Pendleton (Terpsichore). After all, Kitty just wanted to make sure she wasn't being portrayed as a man-hungry slut. Seemed like a reasonable enough motive. Well, without giving too much away, the ultimate resolution was decidedly chauvinistic, in keeping with the 1947 world in which it was made. So, with all those problems, why bother watching Down to Earth in the first place? What this film did have going for it was Rita Hayworth herself, and boy was there a lot of her! And in glorious, red-headed, voluptuous, hip-swinging Technicolor!
The Comic Critic Presents Seldom Seen Films (7/24/12) Illustrated Nonfiction (2010 ***) Written and illustrated by Mark Monlux. Cartoonist and movie fanatic Mark Monlux delivers on the promise he makes on the cover: "Cartoon Reviews of Movies You Might Have Missed." I ran across Monlux's website and book as the result of doing a Google search. You see, I've long been entertaining the notion of repackaging my voluminous backlog of reviews in a comic strip form, in order to (theoretically) make them more interesting and separate them from the pack of ubiquitous capsule reviews that can be found for free on the internet. Amazon had this book listed as "out of stock," so I ordered the book directly from Monlux's web page. Less than an hour later I got an email from him letting me know he'd received the order and asking me what some of my favorite movies were. I replied (this was on a Friday afternoon) and lo-and-behold, Monday morning I had a copy of his book, complete with a customized frontispiece with an original cartoon drawing from Galaxy Quest and his signature! How awesome is that? As for the book's content: While I loved the illustrations, I frequently found them lacking as reviews, and I wished Monlux had allowed himself the luxury of using a few more words. At the end of each review he assigned a 1-10 numerical rating, but there wasn't always a synchronicity between the reviews and the rating. But then I suppose the same could be said of many of my reviews as well.
George Harrison: Living in the Material World (7/25/12) Netflix (2011 ****) Directed by Martin Scorsese, featuring interviews with and/or footage of: George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Yoko Ono, George Martin and many others. George Harrison's life and career before, during and after The Beatles is examined by one of history's greatest filmmakers. At 208 minutes, Living in the Material World was quite long as documentaries go, and my wife and I watched it on two separate DVD discs. That extra length was nice, however, to give plenty of breathing room to its fascinating subject. A little more than half the film focused on George Harrison's early days with The Beatles, leading to their break-up in the early 1970s. Harrison was portrayed as a complex man, one who was both the most spiritual of The Fab Four but also capable of great anger and prone to weaknesses of the flesh. I was reminded recently that the hallmark of a good documentary (or a biopic, for that matter) is one where you learn something about its subject that you didn't know before, even if it was already very familiar, and this film certainly succeeded on that count. As someone who has watched many documentaries about The Beatles, I very much appreciated that the historical material was made up of footage and photos I mostly hadn't seen before, even at times when it must have been tempting to use better known clips. Scorsese also did a wonderful job of showing Harrison's spiritual journey, that much of his interest in Eastern philosophy and transcendental meditation was about preparation for a "good death." By the accounts of the many who loved him, George Harrison had succeeded in that goal by the time cancer took him on November 29, 2001, at the age of 58.
Wings of Desire (7/26/12) TCM (1987 ***1/2) Directed by Wim Wenders, screenplay by Wim Wenders and Peter Handke, starring Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, Otto Sander and Peter Falk. In post-war, pre-reunified Berlin, an angel named Damiel falls in love with a circus acrobat named Marion and decides to shed his immortality in exchange for mortal sensuality. Shown on TCM as Debra Winger's all-time favorite, this is a hard film for me to judge, because my feelings on it are so split. On the one hand it is a truly beautiful film about something no less important than the richness of human experience. On the other hand, its pace was frustratingly slow for me, like a slowly beating drum. Though it was only 128 minutes long, it felt much, much longer. One scene in which Damiel watched Marion's final acrobatic performance seemed to last an eternity. The slow pace was accentuated also by long scenes of various angels "listening in" telepathically to the thoughts of various people, and the majority of the film's dialogue came in this form, the cinematic equivalent of comic book "thought bubbles." But in spite of my problem with the film's pacing, Wings of Desire still had plenty to offer: The post-WWII footage (some of it quite graphic) was used sparingly but provided context and reinforced the seriousness of the subject matter. I also loved Peter Falk's inclusion of the film as an American actor named "Peter Falk"... but with an unexpected twist. The film's subjective use of color -- which in lesser films could have been a gimmick -- was solidly motivated by the simple premise that angels (of which there are many more than you'd think) see the world in black and white. Seeing the same characters and environments shot with and without color underscored the film's major theme about humanity's shared experiencing of the world through our senses. Finally, it may be interesting to know that it was remade in 1998 as City of Angels, with Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan, a film I saw but didn't particularly care for.
Happy Accidents (7/26/12) Netflix (2000 **1/2) Written and directed by Brad Anderson, starring Marisa Tomei, Vincent D'Onofrio, Nadia Dajani and Holland Taylor, with a cameo appearance by Michael Anthony Hall as... Michael Anthony Hall. A woman who collects codependent relationships decides to "go with it" when her new boyfriend reveals he's a time-traveler from the year 2470. Though I normally love time-travel movies, this one was weighted down by so much unhealthy relationship baggage, it sucked much of the pleasure out of it for me. I got the sense that the writer/director was working out a lot of "adult children of alcoholics" stuff in the guise of a romantic comedy. Was Ruby's new beau Sam Deed crazy or an honest-to-God "back-traveler?" After awhile I cared less than you might think. I was also very aware of Anderson's writing all the way through the film. The dialogue was never quite natural enough to create a "grounded" world (a requirement for a film like this) and there were far too many "clever" touches that were never really that clever.
Ultimate Fantastic Four, Vol. 4: Inhuman (7/28/12) Comics (2005 **) Written by Mark Millar and Mike Carey, illustrated by Jae Lee. Originally published in Ultimate Fantastic Four #19-20 and Annual #1. The FF meet a decidedly unpleasant "Ultimate" version of The Mad Thinker, then meet an even less interesting "Ultimate" version of Crystal and The Inhumans. The coolness of the "Ultimate" universe concept is the opportunity to start fresh and re-introduce all the classic Lee & Kirby FF villains and supporting characters -- but with (hopefully) a modern and/or fresh twist. The problem in this collection was that the original versions were (in my opinion) way better. This book literally put me to sleep (okay, maybe I was tired in the first place) and it nearly made me give up on the series. I don't think it's a coincidence that Mike Carey's run was short-lived and Mark Millar took back the reins on the book's writing. It was only my foreknowledge that Marvel Zombies were on their way to save the day in the next volume that kept me going.
Ultimate Fantastic Four, Vol. 5: Crossover (7/28/12) Comics (2006 ***1/4) Written by Mark Millar, illustrated by Greg Land. Originally published in Ultimate Fantastic Four #21-26. Reed Richards travels to and from an alternate universe populated with "Marvel Zombies," then Sue and Johnny's deceased mum comes back from the dead to thumb a ride in the Fantasti-Car to Atlantis. I had already read the "Marvel Zombies" material in the collection Marvel Zombies: Dead Days, which included Ultimate FF #21-23. But it was fun enough that I didn't mind re-reading it. With zombies permeating the zeitgeist to the extent that I will probably add a "zombie" tag to my reviews blog, I couldn't help but feel that Mark Millar didn't quite take full advantage of the potential the "walking dead" had to offer, but it was still a brain-eating pleasure. I was considerably less jazzed about the "Ultimate" origin of Namor, The Sub-Mariner (which as a kid I pronounced "Sub-muh-REE-nur"). For some reason, Namor's new origin story reminded me of DC's Captain Marvel baddie, Black Adam. Though I appreciate the necessity of establishing a love triangle of sorts, I still had a hard time buying Namor's under-motivated infatuation with Susan Storm. Having said that, I absolutely loved Greg Land's illustrations of -- and this isn't much of a spoiler -- Namor & Sue's kiss at the end of the storyline.
Ultimate Fantastic Four, Vol. 6: Frightful (7/29/12) Comics (2006 ***1/2) Written by Mark Millar, illustrated by Greg Land, with Mitch Breitweiser. Originally published in Ultimate Fantastic Four #27-32. In this multi-story collection: (1) The FF travel back in time to "fix" the failed teleporter experiment, resulting in a super-powered world where Thor is president; (2) Johnny discovers his trip to the N-Zone left him impregnated; and (3) The zombified FF escape from their holding cell! There was a lot going on in this volume, so at least I couldn't complain about there being enough action! I was glad to see that Ben Grimm FINALLY demonstrated how devastatingly depressed he was about his transformation into an orange rock creature. In the "classic" Stan Lee / Jack Kirby FF books, This was a pretty important element in The Thing's characterization, and the key to his motivations. I particularly loved how Millar deftly handled a scene in which Ben reveals his suicidal thoughts, telling Reed that since he'd apparently given up trying to cure him, maybe he should try to figure out a way to kill him and relieve him of his misery. Great stuff! I'd already read the latter half of this volume's material in Marvel Zombies: Dead Days, which included issues #30-32, but it was fun seeing the "captive zombified FF" storyline play out and reach a point of relative closure.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (7/29/12) FXM (2008 **) Directed by Scott Derrickson, starring Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Jaden Smith, Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm and (for some reason) John Cleese. An alien named Klaatu (as in "Klaatu Barada Nikto") is the planet Earth's savior. His first task is an obvious enough one: exterminate all humans. I'd heard this was a fairly mediocre -- and arguably unnecessary -- remake of the 1951 Robert Wise / Michael Rennie / Patricia Neal original. But sometimes it's mindless fun to watch movies (particularly sci fi movies) with lowered expectations. Keanu Reeves (whose first name I still can't pronounce correctly without slowing down to half speed) played an alien-in-human-form far less convincingly than you might expect. Jennifer Connelly did a decent job, but her character's motivation for helping Klaatu escape didn't exactly pass the "plausibility test" and Connelly otherwise didn't really have much to work with. I almost wrote that her experience on Ang Lee's Hulk (2003) had been good preparation for this role, which was in turn good prep for Thor (2011). But then I realized her role in Thor had actually been played by Natalie Portman. Ultimately, I didn't hate The Day the Earth Stood Still, and I've certainly watched far worse, but there's still not much to recommend it. It's just an unmemorable remake that never needed to happen. Heck, even the apocalyptic effects were pretty yawn-inducing.
The Happening (7/29/12) FXM (2008 *1/2) Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, starring Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo and Betty Buckley as Mrs. Jones. Philadelphia science teacher Elliot Moore attempts to cope with an unexplained series of mass suicides, with only his mood ring to guide him. It doesn't happen often, but occasionally a movie comes along that makes you wonder... "Was this supposed to be this bad on purpose?" This is that film. It was nominated for four 2009 Razzies, but somehow it was beaten out for three of them by Mike Meyers' The Love Guru. Odds are you've heard of this train wreck of a film (The Happening, not The Love Guru) even if you haven't seen it. And at the risk of being a SPOILER... yes, you've heard right... the trees did it. I feel bad for M. Night Shyamalan. Really I do. I just wish I knew if this film was a genuine gold-plated clusterfuck or deliberate heartfeld attempt on his part to create a loving tribute to Edward Wood, Jr.
Ted (7/30/12) DWA Screening (2012 ***1/2) Directed by Seth MacFarlane, starring Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Joel McHale, Giovanni Ribisi, and the voice of Seth MacFarlane. John Bennett's best friend is a foul-talkin', dope-smokin' Teddy bear, which is, believe it or not, something of an obstacle to becoming a grown-up. I loved the "what if" premise of this film: What if a lonely child's Christmas wish that his Teddy bear could come to life were granted? And what would be the repurcussions of that? LIke about a zillion other people, I'm a pretty big fan of Seth MacFarlane, primarily due to his Family Guy TV show on Fox. Though he shared screenwriting credit on Ted, it was nice to see his sensibilities and humor translated so well onto the silver screen. It was also nice to see that he has some solid directing chops. While Ted wasn't exactly The Avengers, it still featured plenty of action, including car chases and an apartment-wrecking fight between Mark Wahlberg and Ted. As one of the more powerful men in media, I'm guessing MacFarlane will get a chance to make another movie or two. Finally, Mila Kunis (who has voiced Family Guy's Meg since the beginning) was a real sport; the scene of her picking up hooker poop from her floor while Wahlberg cowered disgusted in the background? HILARIOUS.
High Noon (7/31/12) Netflix (1952 ****) Directed by Fred Zinnemann, based (kind of) on the story "The Tin Star" by John W. Cunningham, starring Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Lloyd Bridges and Katy Jurado. As a wedding present, a departing sheriff's town deserts him, leaving him to face four vindictive gunmen on his own. This film was made during Hollywood's "Red Scare," and its screenplay was written by Carl Foreman, an "uncooperative witness" before the House Committee on Un-American Activies, who was subsequently blacklisted. His story -- in which a man tries to do the right thing but everybody he counted on turns his or her back on him for reasons of self-preservation -- was clearly an allegory for McCarthyism. "Do not forsake me, oh my darling," indeed. There are many reasons why this film (shot in stark, cloudless black and white at a time when most Westerns were made in color) is ranked in the top third of AFI's "100 Years 100 Movies" list. Everything about it works, from Gary Cooper and newcomer Grace Kelly's classic performances to the carefully-composed shots of ever-present clocks, representing the arrival of the noon train and a vengeful villain with a reputation for roughing up the ladies. On a completely unrelated note, how cool was it that High Noon's "boss villain" -- who went unseen until the third act -- was named Frank Miller, same as the comic book writer/illustrator behind the now-classic 1986 Batman graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns?

August

Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope (8/1/12) DWA Screening (2011 ****) Directed by Morgan Spurlock, featuring interviews with and/or footage of: Stan Lee, Kevin Smith, Joss Whedon, Frank Miller, Eli Roth, Seth Rogen and Seth Green. Morgan Spurlock, the director of Supersize Me (2004), stays behind the camera as he follows the stories of a handful of attendees at the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC). Comic-Con has been going on since 1970, and in recent years it's really exploded in size and scope, becoming a cultural phenomenon. That the con itself has clearly moved away from its humble beginnings is one of the themes running through Spurlock's film. As contemporary documentaries go, this was a particularly well-crafted one. Considering the obvious difficulties in making it (shooting multiple concurrent storylines in a packed convention center), the camerawork and editing was superb. The narratives were also exceptionally clear and I was surprisingly moved by a few of them. I'm a little sad to confess that I could definitely relate to one of the subjects, a young bartender with unrealistic aspirations of comic illustration greatness that clearly overshot his meager talents. I also appreciated that unlike a lot of press coverage, which often focuses on the "freak show" or prurient aspects of this convergence of geekdom, this film was much kinder and gentler, truly embracing the "geeks" on their own level. As for myself, I've never personally attended Comic-Con, though many of my friends and colleagues have. I regret not going in the 1980s or 1990s, back when it was still primarily comics-oriented, before it became the anxiety-invoking behemoth it is now. Watching this documentary didn't necessarily make me want to attend, but it did make me think more seriously about going to one of the smaller conventions.
Dick Tracy (8/2/12) TCM (1990 ***) Directed by Warren Beatty, starring Warren Beatty, Madonna, Al Pacino, Glenne Headly and Charlie Korsmo as "Kid." Chester Gould's most famous 1931 creation leaps off the funny pages and onto the big screen, as crime-busting detective Dick Tracy takes on walnut-loving gangster Big Boy Caprice. Say what you want about DC Comics' The Flash, but was there ever a character with a rogues gallery that matched Dick Tracy? In addition to the main cast, this film also featured an impressive array of supporting performances -- many unrecognizable behind prosthetic makeup -- including: Mandy Patinkin, Paul Sorvino, Catherine O'Hara, Kathy Bates, Dick Van Dyke, and Dustin Hoffman. There was a lot to like about this film: The music was good, if familiar; Danny Elfman had turned in a similar score for Tim Burton's Batman the year before. I also liked Dick Tracy's now-famous use of primary colors, though I look forward to the day when home video devices can accurately depict saturated reds. I'm not sure why it should have come as a surprise, considering he won a Best Director Oscar for Reds (1981), but Beatty's direction was quite good. I especially liked some of the deep focus compositions where objects like telephones loomed in the foreground, but the action went waaaaay back in space. Finally, considering how sexy a young Ms. Ciccone was as Breathless Mahoney, it's little surprise that she and Mr. Beatty became an item (at least for a brief time), as seen in Madonna: Truth Or Dare (1991).

Stupid Movie Lines (8/4/12) Nonfiction (1999 ***) Written by Ross and Kathryn Petras. The authors of The 776 Stupidest Things Ever Said turn their quest for stupidity to the silver screen. According to the "also by the authors" list at the front of Stupid Movie Lines, it would appear that the Petras siblings have made somewhat of a cottage industry of producing "stupid" books. More power to them, I say! But while I admire this effort, the problem with stupidity in dialogue form is that it's pretty situational. In other words, much of the impact was lost without context. However, I enjoyed their book and especially appreciated lines taken from films I've seen. It seems that in selecting quotations for this book they subjected themselves to some pretty awful movies, like Fire Maidens from Outer Space and The Hillbilly Hooker, to name but two. I can't help but wonder if they were watching those films as research... or for their own entertainment.

The Amazing Spider-Man (8/6/12) DWA Screening (2012 ***1/2) Directed by Marc Webb, based on the characters created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, starring Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone and Rys Ifans, with supporting performances by Denis Leary, Martin Sheen and Sally Field. A brainy middle-class Manhattan teenager named Peter Parker gets super-powers and learns a thing or two about responsibility. Prior to entering the growing club of big-budget superhero franchise directors, Marc Webb's main claim to fame was (500) Days of Summer (2009). In the press, he was considered a strange and occasionally ridiculed directorial choice, but the sensibilities he brought to the film produced some of its best moments. It can certainly be argued that this was a reboot that didn't need to happen, since it comes a mere decade since the first Sam Raimi / Tobey Maguire film in 2002. But largely thanks to having become accustomed to frequent re-tellings and re-launches in the comic book world (Ultimate Fantastic Four, anyone?), I think a new version is okay by me. The world has changed since 2002, and the third Raimi film didn't exactly leave the best jumping-off point. Besides, origin stories are cool, and I really did enjoy this fresh take, especially the "awkward romance" scenes between Garfield and Stone.
The Invisible Man (8/9/12) TCM (1933 ***) Directed by James Whale, based on the novel by H.G. Wells, starring Claude Rains, Henry Travers and Gloria Stuart. A rural inn's new resident turns out to be a deranged, invisible scientist! And ain't they the worst kind? Two years prior to this film, James Whale had directed Frankenstein (1931) and he would go on to direct Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Incidentally, Whale was later portrayed by Magneto / Gandalf actor Ian McKellen in the 1998 film Gods and Monsters, just in case you want to check that out. As classic Universal monster movies go, The Invisible Man is fairly good, and in addition to the unnerving implications of a naked invisible lunatic terrorizing a vulnerable public, the film offered more than a few funny moments. One in particular left its imprint on my brain in my childhood growing up in Omaha, on KMTV's good ol' Creature Feature: There's a scene where the titular hombre invisible steals a pair of policeman's britches and those trousers go running down the road singing: "Here we go gathering nuts in May, nuts in May..." That bizarre image has resided in my brain for going on forty years!
Rachel Getting Married (8/9/12) Netflix (2008 ***1/2) Directed by Jonathan Demme, written by Jenny Lumet, starring Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin and Debra Winger. Recovering addict Kym is released from rehab for a few days to go home for her sister's wedding... and some "good old fashioned" dysfunctional family values. I knew going in that this movie would probably wind up in the "very good but I don't necessarily need to ever watch it again" bucket, and I wasn't wrong. I respected the film's verisimilitude with regards to family relationships and the fact that it didn't offer any easy answers. I also appreciated the dramatic highs and lows, with Kym's deep dark secret (known to everybody except the viewer) contrasting with the joys of the wedding festivities. Also, Anne Hathaway delivered a superb performance, and I imagine that Rachel Getting Married helped expand the range of roles offered to her subsequently. Demme's directing was confident and fluid, though I did feel that some of the party scenes went on too long. On a minor note, I was sad to see in the film's credits that I'd missed film legend Roger Corman (who'd given Demme his first break) in a bit part as one of the wedding guests.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (8/10/12) Netflix (1975 ****) Directed by Milos Forman, based on the novel by Ken Kesey, starring Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher, with supporting performances by Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Scatman Crothers and Brad Dourif. Sanitarium inmate R.P. McMurphy matches wits with the sadistic Nurse Ratched, armed only with his boyish charm and a deck of nudie playing cards. It's sadly rare when I find myself watching a film and thinking, "Holy shit, this is a truly great movie!" Nicholson's performance was pitch-perfect and Milos Foreman crafted a seemingly effortless naturalistic tone poem on the effects of institutionalization on the human condition. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest deservedly won five Oscars, including Best Picture, netting an Oscar for none other than Michael Douglas as one of its producers. I don't always watch DVD "making of" featurettes, but I was so impressed by the film's quality that I simply had to. The film had a fascinating backstory: Michael Douglas' father, Kirk Douglas, originally bought the rights to Kesey's book in the early 1960s. The elder Douglas even had a play written by Dale Wasserman, in which he subsequently starred during its short run on Broadway. And so the film was somewhat of a "family affair." I also found it more than a little amusing to learn that co-screenwriter Bo Goldman had based Nurse Ratched's speech patterns on his own mother-in-law, who he described as "having a PhD in passive aggression." Great film!
The Walking Dead (8/10/12) TCM (1936 **1/2) Directed by Michael Curtiz, starring Boris Karloff, Edmund Gwenn and Ricardo Cortez. When a wrongly convicted / electrocuted pianist named John Ellman is brought back to life by an afterlife-obsessed scientist, he's never quite the same. Admittedly, much of my interest in recording and watching this movie was because it shares its name with a verrry popular contemporary comic book series and TV show. This is a strange, zombie apocalypse-free film. Though it would probably be categorized by most as such, I'm not even sure that it's strictly speaking a horror film. The film's "monster" was really quite sympathetic, particularly as played as a "big ol' lovable undead pussycat" by Boris Karloff. And though the story took a bit to long to get going, the production values were quite good, with good reason: Its director Michael Curtiz went on to direct one of the greatest films of all time, Casablanca (1942), not to mention other minor efforts like The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Mildred Pierce (1945) and White Christmas (1954).
Ultimate Fantastic Four, Vol 7: God War (8/11/12) Comics (2006-07 ***1/4) Written by Mike Carey, illustrated by Pasqual Ferry. Originally published in Ultimate Fantastic Four #33-38. Sue and Reed's shopping expedition is interrupted by Seed Nineteen, a team of visitors from another dimension -- a dimension where Thanos reigns supreme! It's a new 7-issue Ultimate FF story-arc and writer Mike Carey is back. Though I wasn't thrilled with his previous writing on this series (especially the mediocre fourth volume), this one surprised me. He still showed a proclivity for highly affected dialogue (particularly with the Seed Nineteen characters), which was sometimes tiresome. However, this long-ish volume was well paced and interesting. I've also taken a bit more interest in the Thanos character (even his Ultimate universe version), on account of his "Easter egg" appearance at the end of this summer's blockbuster hit... The Avengers.
Ultimate Fantastic Four, Vol 8: Devils (8/12/12) Comics (2007 ***) Written by Mike Carey, illustrated by Pasqual Ferry, Stuart Immonen and Frazer Irving. Originally published in Ultimate Fantastic Four #39-41 and Annual #2. There's a whole lotta kidnapping going on! In the first of two adventures, the Mole Man kidnaps a quartet of the Think Tank's teens to repopulate his underground domain. In the second, The FF travels back in time to 1483 Milan to rescue their loved ones who've been snatched by an evil sorcerer alchemist appropriately named... Diablo! Reed's ongoing attempts to construct the "cosmic cube," introduced in the previous volume, keep getting interrupted by superhero business. I'm still not quite sure it was the best idea to introduce cavalier time travel into the FF series. That's one of those narrative Pandora's boxes that's difficult to close. But hey, it's the FF, and science fiction comes with the package. As for the villains this time around, they were kind of a yawn-fest. "Moley," even though he was the FF's first bad guy, has never been particularly interesting to me, and the main thing I remember about the original Diablo was that he had kind of a cool costume.
Keeper of the Flame (8/12/12) TCM (1942 **1/2) Directed by George Cukor, based on the novel by I.A.R. Wylie, starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. A highly respected world-weary reporter returns home from war-torn Europe in time to write a book about a beloved American hero who drove his car off a collapsed bridge. But as Steve O'Malley investigates, each layer peeled away reveals a deeper, uglier truth. Occasionally you watch a film that starts out great but somewhere along the line it goes off the rails and into a weird, uncomfortable territory. This is one of those films. In this case the problem was really ideological, as its mystery narrative gave way to a heavy-handed lecture on the perils of fascism. Okay, okay. I get that the movie was made in 1942, but still... On a completely unrelated note, here's a bit of minor casting trivia: Jeb, the boy with a bad case of the guilts, was played by a young Darryl Hickman, who just happened to be Dwayne ("Dobie Gillis") Hickman's older brother.
I Saw What You Did (8/13/12) TCM (1965 ***) Directed by William Castle, based on the novel by Ursula Curtiss, starring Joan Crawford, John Ireland, Sara Lane and Andi Garret. Set in the days before star-69, teenage girls Kit Austin and Libby Mannering spend the evening calling strangers and telling them: "I saw what you did... and I know who you are." Too bad for them one of their victims turns out to be a killer! I know this was made as a low-budget B-movie aimed at the teenaged drive-in crowd, but the production values were quite good and it actually was far more effective suspense-wise than I expected. Having said that, one questionable directing choice really stood out: the music. Castle -- who'd previously directed such gems as House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler -- used the craziest upbeat music for the film's opening, then sprinkled throughout, usually inappropriately. It set a tone far more akin to a Disney Hayley Mills film or The Patty Duke Show. While I can imagine the idea was that it would create a counterpoint to the suspense, it was completely jarring. I also have to give credit to Joan Crawford, whose career experienced an uptick after What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962). Considering the relative depths to which her star had fallen, she still obviously gave it her all, chewing the scenery like she was still on the set of Mildred Pierce.
Ultimate Fantastic Four, Vol 9: Silver Surfer (8/13/12) Comics (2007 ***) Written by Mike Carey, illustrated by Pasqual Ferry. Originally published in Ultimate Fantastic Four #42-46. With all these interruptions, will Reed Richards ever finish his "cosmic cube?" In his attempt to power it via a randomly-selected pan-dimensional star (which is bad science if you ask me), his "star" turns out to be a muscular, chrome-plated -- you might even call him "silvery" -- surfer named Norrin Radd. This introduction of one of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's most popular creations into the Ultimate universe started out strong, but then the story took a strange turn into an "Alice and Wonderland" dreamscape and it lost much of its momentum. I was also more than a little puzzled by the absence of a certain planet-gobbling colossus with an awesome magenta helmet.
North by Northwest (8/15/12) Netflix (1959 ****) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, written by Ernest Lehman, starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Martin Landau and Leo G. Carroll. Madison Avenue ad man Roger O. Thornhill gets mistaken for a fictional government agent, framed for murder and swept up in a combination spy chase / cross-country tour. I read recently that the title North by Northwest was actually completely meaningless and that one of the film's rejected titles was, believe it or not, The Man on Lincoln's Nose. Of all the Hitchcock films, this one is probably the most Hitchcock-iest. Every shot, every beat, every scene was engineered and storyboarded down to the last frame. No wonder it made such an impact when it was first released and has become a beloved classic. We watched it on Blu-Ray and I highly recommend you do the same or -- better yet -- find an opportunity to see it on the big screen. The vivid Technicolor color design was stunning and the effects (particularly a climactic chase across the faces of four American presidents) still stood up more than fifty years later. As a special treat, this film also offers the granddaddy of all "walking away from explosions" shots! Bernard Herrmann's superb musical score ran through the whole thing pulling it together elegantly. As for the actors, Eva Marie Saint played a Hitchcockian blonde with sexiness and restraint and Martin Landau played a (subtley gay) henchmen with menace and aplomb. And finally, though he never quite received the respect as an actor that some of his contemporaries did, in North by Northwest Cary Grant managed to take his "Cary Grant" persona and twist it to brilliant effect. He was even given plenty of opportunities to make use of his brilliant high comedy timing.
Sullivan's Travels (8/18/12) TCM (1941 ***1/2) Written and directed by Preston Sturges, starring Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake and William Demarest. A big-shot Hollywood director dresses up as a hobo and hits the road to learn about life in order to make a movie called O Brother, Where Art Thou? This comedy is on AFI's Top 100 Movies list, and I'd watched it years ago. My recollection is that I was under-impressed. This time around I feel like I "got it" a bit more, though I still felt the frantic slapstick chase scene through the countryside that occured early on was pretty darn disharmonious with the tone of the rest of the film. Ultimately, while I acknowledge the film's "greatness," I don't think I'll ever count it as one of my personal favorites, like Casablanca or The Godfather. Somehow the film's final message -- that the best antidote to a world full of strife sorrow is a little Hollywood-style screwball comedy (or at least a Walt Disney Pluto cartoon) -- wasn't entirely lost on me, but it also felt a tad self-serving.
Ultimate Fantastic Four, Vol 10: Ghosts (8/18/12) Comics (2008 **1/2) Written by Mike Carey, illustrated by Mark Brooks and Tyler Kirkham. Originally published in Ultimate Fantastic Four #47-53. The FF rescue Sue Storm from capture in Siberia at the hands of The (new) Red Ghost, but when they return, they find Thanos and his amazing friends have descended upon New York in search of the cosmic cube. Once again I found myself less than thrilled by the "Ultimate" reincarnation of one of the FF's best villains, in this case The Red Ghost. And while the Thanos storyline that concluded this volume took some interesting turns, its resolution wasn't particularly strong.
Cinematic Titanic: The Doll Squad (8/19/12) Saban Theater, Beverly Hills (1973/2012 ***1/2) Original film directed by Ted V. Mikels, starring Michael Ansara and Francine York. Mystery Science Theater 3000 alums Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein, Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl bring the serious funny to this live performance riff of an early-1970s boobalicious action film. The evening's entertainment began with a few life comedy bits, including Conniff doing a solo standup set and J. Elvis Weinstein (formerly Josh Weinstein) performing the MST3K theme song in the manner of Elvis Costello. And then the main event began. I won't bother with a review of The Doll Squad itself, other than to say that (A) it contained all the necessary ingredients for a sound and thorough riffing and (B) as exploitative as its pre-Charlie's Angels premise was, it never got so sexy or violent that it undermined the tone of the comedy. As an MST3K fan from waaay back, it was pretty trippy to sit in an auditorium filled with like-minded folks (along with the occasional whiff of Mary Jane) while some very familiar voices talked over the top of a not-so-great film. Even without robot puppets, the whole effect brought a nostalgic smile to my face, because it felt so damned much like watching one of the original episodes.
Moonrise Kingdom (8/20/12) DWA Screening (2012 ***1/2) Directed by Wes Anderson, screenplay by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola, starring Jared Gilman and Kara Kayward as Sam and Suzy, with an all-star cast including: Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton and Harvey Keitel. Set in the early 1960s, Suzy and Sam are two young New England misfits who conspire to run away together. The quintessentially quirky Wes Anderson has only directed seven features, and it's troubling to me somehow that three years had passed since The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). For me, one of his films (2001's The Royal Tenenbaums) is one of my all-time favorites and only one (2004's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) was a misfire. Anderson's highly mannered writing and directing (and casting) style can be a thing of beauty, but it can also create a wall between his characters and his audience. Moonrise Kingdom got around this problem by centering its story on two characters with built-in audience sympathy: Who could possibly turn their backs (or emotional resistance) on two adolescent lovebirds who just want to be together in spite of the wishes of the world? And what a world it was, complete with an awesomely original geographical setting and populated with flawed but generally well-intentioned characters. (I guarantee you've never seen Edward Norton this likable.) Finally, on top of everything else, Wes Anderson also managed to tap into an eye-pleasing aesthetic straight out of an early 1960s Fall Season edition of the Sears catalog. It was a visual treat that I personally found surprisingly familar... and extremely comforting.
The Savages (8/21/12) Netflix (2007 **1/2) Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins, starring Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Philip Bosco. Wendy and Jon Savage have to put their estranged father Lenny into a nursing home, which forces them to deal with a lot of their own neurotic personal bullshit. I knew almost nothing about this film going in, not even its premise. I had vague memories of it getting good reviews when it first came out and I've always enjoyed Philip Seymour Hoffman. But watching it was a bit of an ordeal, and its 114 minute running time felt much longer. Quite frankly, in spite of what was supposed to be an "uplifting" ending, I found The Savages depressing as hell. It probably didn't help that the the many similarities between the film and events in my own personal life kept making me squirm. So, the bottom line: If you liked the downbeat dysfunctional dynamics of Rachel Getting Married (2008), you'll LOVE The Savages.
Invincible, Vol. 16: Family Ties (8/21/12) Comics (2012 **1/2) Written by Robert Kirkman, illustrated by Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley. Originally published in Image Comics' Invincible #85-90. Allen the alien decides the only way to save the universe from the Viltrumite "scourge" is to wipe them out on their new home planet: Earth. This was possibly the weakest Invincible book I've read. Here are just three reasons why: Long scenes of thought balloons in space, unmotivated ultraviolence and weirdly shifting character motivations. I've been a fan of this series from the beginning, but I can't help but wonder if Kirkman has been distracted by the rising popularity of The Walking Dead. The "extended telepathic conversation in space" was a prime example: There was no action. It wasn't dramatic. It wasn't even really all that interesting, even though they were nominally debating the fate of everyone on the planet Earth. As a friend of mine once said in reference to a film I've long since forgotten, it was "a curiously uninvolving story about the end of the world." How did Kirkman allow himself to get away with that? The central theme of Invincible seems to have morphed into "do the ends justify the means?" I only hope Kirkman is able to take that to some place more interesting.
Above Suspicion (8/22/12) TCM (1943 **1/2) Directed by Richard Thorpe, based on the novel by Helen MacInnes, starring Joan Crawford, Fred MacMurray and Basil Rathbone. The inventer of Flubber and "Mommie Dearest" spend their honeymoon in Nazi Germany. Okay, once more, slightly more seriously: An American Oxford professor and his new American wife spend their honeymoon in Nazi Germany. There, satisfied? I know I haven't seen every WWII-era film ever made, but it's still a kick to watch a decent movie from that period I've never seen before. Above Suspicion wasn't exactly Citizen Kane or The Maltese Falcon, but it was fun, and there was even a fun chemistry between MacMurray and Crawford. Heck, I could even imagine it as the first film in a series based on a husband-and-wife team of American secret agents. Kind of like The Thin Man's Nick and Nora, only with more Nazi spies and less binge drinking.
Ultimate Avengers II (8/27/12) Netflix (2006 **) Directed by Will Meugniot, Richard Sebast and Bob Richardson, featuring the voice talents of Justin Gross, Michael Massee and Olivia d'Abo. When a Nazi Chitauri alien tries to poach the secret African kingdom Wakanda's stash of Vibranium, The Black Panther turns to Captain America for assistance... and good ol' cap shows up with a few of his friends. Obviously I rented this at least in part because of this summer's biggest blockbuster. Unfortunately Ultimate Avengers II -- which I never consciously compared to its live action cousin -- was disappointing from start to finish. While I normally would have gotten behind pretty much any Nazi alien worldwide invasion premise, the Wakanda / Black Panther storyline ate up too much screen time and held little interest for me. This is a little embarassing, but before renting this direct-to-video animated sequel, I really should have read my 3-star review of Ultimate Avengers: The Movie (2006), in which I wrote: "Though I enjoyed it mildly, I probably won't make a point of watching the sequel." Hmmm... Yep, should've taken my own advice, but somehow I had a memory of liking the original more. Well, that's show biz!
Penelope (8/28/12) Netflix (2006 ***) Directed by Mark Palansky, written by Leslie Caveny, starring Christina Ricci, James McAvoy, Catherine O'Hara and Peter Dinklage. Penelope Wilhern lives both (A) hidden away deep within a big mansion and (B) under a curse that will only be broken if she can find someone "of her own kind" to love her for who she is... pig nose and all. This was a very sweet movie that was ultimately about an important and universal subject: self-esteem. Having said that, in spite of a sympathetic main character and a likable cast, it wasn't entirely emotionally successful, somehow. This is possibly because its fairy tale tone -- which reminded me more than anything of Bryan Fuller's 2007-2009 TV show Pushing Daisies -- got in the way of me caring about what happened to poor little pig-nosed Penelope.

 

September

The Runaways (9/1/12) Netflix (2010 **) Written and directed by Floria Sigismondi, based on the book by Cherie Currie, starring Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning and Michael Shannon, with a cameo appearance by Tatum O'Neal. Mid-1970s rock manager and eccentric Kim Fowley assembles an all-girl band that includes Joan Jett and a 15-year-old "cherry bomb" named Cherie Currie. This film's best aspect was the trio of strong performances by Shannon, Stewart and Fanning (who was virtually unidentifiable as her former child star self). Their performances were especially surprising considering the film's weakest link by far was its script, in which any opportunity for subtlety or nuance was immediately throttled to death. It was too bad, really. How hard is it to make a boring biopic when you're working with raw elements like sex, drugs, rock & roll with a little lesbian lip-locking thrown in? Pretty damned hard if you ask me. As the film progressed, I also became increasingly suspicious of the apparent "cherry picking" (sorry) of the biographical material, especially considering the source material's... well, source and the fact that Joan Jett was one of the film's executive producers. In the end, I don't know that I learned very much about the biopic's subjects and what I did learn wasn't particularly trustworthy.
The Tramp and the Dictator (9/3/12) TCM (2002 ***) Directed by Kevin Brownlow and Michael Kloft, narrated by Kenneth Branagh, with interviews with Sydney Chaplin, Ray Bradbury and others. The parallel lives of Charlie Chaplin and Adolf Hitler -- who were born the same week in 1889, are examined, and it turns out the famous pair had more in common than their mustaches. This 2002 documentary's "hook" was a set of recently-discovered color home movies shot by Chaplin's brother during the making of the then-controversial The Great Dictator (1940). The subject matter was fascinating: the contrast between (A) a man who was, at the height of his fame, the most famous movie star in the world and (B) an equally charismatic "artist" responsible for the deaths of over 11 million people. However, I'm not sure this documentary truly plumbed the depths of the material at its disposal. While the interviews provided inside access to those close to both Chaplin and Hitler, the film ended with a sense that the whole story still hadn't been told.
You'll Never Get Rich (9/4/12) TCM (1941 ***1/2) Directed by Sidney Lanfield, music by Cole Porter, starring Fred Astaire, Rita Hayworth and Robert Benchley. In this start-to-finish comedy of errors, song and dance man Robert Curtis winds up in the Army... and in love with a bee-ay-oooo-tee-full dancer named Sheila Winthrop. Clever little know-it-all that I am, I love telling people the "secret origin" of the phrase "you'll never get rich": It came from the "informal" lyrics to the song "You're in the Army Now" which went: "You're in the army now / You're not behind a plow / You'll never get rich / You son of a bitch / You're in the army now!" It (YNGR) was also used as the original title of The Phil Silvers Show, featuring the shyster-iffic Sergeant Bilko. As "Fred without Ginger" musicals go, this was pretty delightful, though the music tended to the forgettable in spite of coming from Cole Porter. This film also featured RKO's apparent answer to Universal Studio's own "Buck Privates" Abbott and Costello, Guinn Williams and Cliff Nazarro as (respectively) "Kewpie Blain" and the double-talking "Swivel Tongue."
Tootsie (9/9/12) Netflix (1982 ****) Directed by Sydney Pollack, screenplay by Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal, starring Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Teri Garr and Bill Murray. Yes, Dorothy, it is difficult being a woman in the 80s. Out of work actor Michael Dorsey gets a job on a soap opera when he auditions as Dorothy Michaels. Sometimes you wonder how "truly great" movies come to be. Watching the "making of" featurette on the recently released 30th anniversary DVD, it was clear that a lot of people (especially Hoffman) worked their asses off over three long years to get this movie made right. And boy did they get it right! Every scene, every line of dialogue is pitch-perfect. This is especially amazing considering how many things could have gone so terribly wrong. Dustin Hoffman in drag? Come on! It could have been a complete disaster! But thankfully the filmmakers believed in what they were doing and managed to craft a film that not only worked brilliantly as a comedy (though apparently most of the actors had no idea how funny it was) but was also about something was no less important than equality of women and what it takes to be a better man. Though I hadn't watched it in probably 20 years, it still holds up, fresh and funny as ever. Tootsie well deserves its inclusion in AFI's Top 100 Films list.
Grand Canyon (9/14/12) FXM (1991 ***) Directed by Lawrence Kasdan, written by Lawrence and Meg Kasdan, starring Kevin Kline, Mary McDonnel, Danny Glover, Steve Martin, Alfre Woodard and Mary-Louise Parker. The lives of six Los Angelenos and their families intertwine while the police helicopter hovers Godlike overhead, watching all. Though downbeat at times, this film was ultimately uplifting, as its core message is that we are all in it together, even as our society becomes more and more fragmented. I've been a fan of Lawrence Kasdan ever since The Big Chill (1983), and I remember going to see Grand Canyon in the theater when it was originally released. However, I can certainly identify with it a hell of a lot more now that I've lived in L.A. for eight years. It's interesting to note that this film was released in 1991, the year before the 1992 L.A. riots. I also can't help but wonder how this film would play as a double-feature with Paul Haggis' 2004 Oscar-winning ensemble film Crash, which Imdb.com describes as: "Los Angeles citizens with vastly separate lives collide in interweaving stories of race, loss and redemption." That summary could just as easily been used to describe Grand Canyon.
Never Let Me Go (9/15/12) Netflix (2010 ***) Directed by Mark Romanek, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, starring Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield. Set in a dystopian alternate universe, schoolmates Kathy, Ruth and Tommy laugh, play and fall in love with each other... all in spite of knowing their organs will be harvested when they reach their early twenties. This film was quite beautiful to watch, and the performances by the cast were quite good, in spite of a consistently downbeat rhythm. Not surprisingly, this film about the fragility of human life was both depressing as hell but also ultimately uplifting, though I don't know that I ever need to see it again. It was fun, however, to watch Andrew Garfield in a pre-Social Network / Amazing Spider-Man role, even though his "not-exactly-the-sharpest-tack-in-the-drawer" character Tommy didn't give him much to work with.
For Me and My Gal (9/16/12) TCM (1942 **1/2) Directed by Busby Berkeley, starring Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, George Murphy and Martha Eggerth. Set before and during "The Great War," song and dance man Harry Palmer (Kelly) convinces Jo Hayden to team up and wow the vaudeville circuit, but then WWI (not to mention Palmer's ego) gets in the way of their big break. This film was the great Gene Kelly's feature debut. You'd think a movie combining the talents of Berkeley, Garland and Kelly would be money in the bank, but unfortunately this "musical comedy" was weighed down by way more melodrama than was necessary. Kelly's character was so flawed (eventually injuring himself to avoid being drafted) that it made him unlikable and hard to watch. Quick show of hands: Who wants to see Gene Kelly play a cowardly asshole? Not me. On a completely separate note, this film contained a minor technical oddity: In a scene set in a private railroad car, Martha Eggerth's cleavage was apparently too sensational for 1940s era audiences, and as she sang "Do I Love You?" her... well, boobs were blurred out, using (I'm guessing) an optical printing effect with Vaseline on a glass plate. Crazy!
Alice's Restaurant (9/17/12) TCM (1969 **1/2) Directed by Arthur Penn, based on the song by Arlo Guthrie, starring Arlo Guthrie, Patricia Quinn, James Broderick and Michael McClanathan. The son of a folk legend is inspired to write a song about a memorable Thanksgiving spent with Alice and Ray, a hippie-friendly couple with a church and a restaurant in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. This is one of those "hearing impaired" reviews where I feel compelled to mention that the version of the film I watched on TCM was not closed-captioned, and the sound was so muddy I feel I was only able to make out half the dialogue. This seriously impacted my enjoyment of the film. My favorite parts were the lighthearted ones directly based on Arlo's 34-minute "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" song, written in 1967. I also enjoyed the scenes of him visiting his dying father Woody Guthrie (played by Joseph Boley). Unfortunately, much of the film was taken up with the abusive relationship between Ray and Alice and the destructive arc of a heroin addict named Shelly, whose "deal" I never could figure out.
If Lucy Fell (9/22/12) Netflix (1996 **) Directed by Eric Schaeffer, starring Sarah Jessica Parker, Eric Schaeffer, Ben Stiller and Elle Macpherson. Two idiosyncratic NYC roommates share each others' secrets... and a suicide pact. I just know there's a story behind the making of this quirky, nominally romantic comedy. Schaeffer, the film's director, cast himself as one of its leads and he also wrote the screenplay with Tony Spiridakis. There was definitely a quirky sensibility at work, and the dialogue between Schaffer and Parker was sometimes inspired, but the film never quite worked for me in a larger sense. Much of the missing energy came from the questionable casting of Schaeffer himself, and the romantic scenes between him and Elle Macpherson just made me uncomfortable, which was probably kinda sorta the intended effect. Regardless of that, this film undoubtedly contributed to Sarah Jessica Parker getting cast in HBO's Sex and the City, which began two years later, running from 1998 to 2004.
Stand By Me (9/25/12) TCM (1986? ****) Directed by Rob Reiner, based on the short story "The Body" by Stephen King, starring Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O'Connell, Kiefer Sutherland and John Cusack, with Richard Dreyfuss narrating and providing bookends. Four young boys set out in search of a dead body... and themselves. I went to see this film in the theater when it was originally released. I would've been a junior in college then. I hadn't watched it in many years until just now, and I'd forgotten how truly great a movie it was. It's so good, in fact, that I'm going to have to count it as one of my favorite films. There's something about a good coming of age movie that really speaks to me. One of the things that made it work as well as it did is that the entire movie had the tone of (and scope of) a well-written short story, mixing nostalgia for the past and a sense of memoir in which characters are revealed through their actions. Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans' screenplay was pitch perfect, masterfully capturing the flavor of the kids' dialogue while still clearly delineating them as characters. And in Rob Reiner's capable hands, their script was beautifully executed. According to TCM's resident know-it-all Robert Osborne, this film put Ben E. King's titular song on the charts for more weeks than it was when originally released, thanks in part to a music video featuring River Phoenix and Will Wheaton.
12 Angry Men (9/29/12) Netflix (1957 ****) Directed by Sidney Lumet, screenplay by Reginald Rose (based on his teleplay), starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Warden, Ed Begley, Jack Klugman and others. A troubled young man is on trial for killing his father and the only thing standing between him and the electric chair is Juror #8. There's no wonder this film is on the AFI's list of top 100 films. For a movie adapted from a TV show and set almost entirely in a single confined setting (a jury room), it really packed a wallop. And of course it's still as relevant now as it was then. This must have been an actor's dream, portraying awesome, though in some cases thoroughly unlikable, characters like these twelve... yes, angry... men. Henry Fonda's strong performance as the film's main character, Juror #8, demonstrated why he's considered one of film history's great actors. Finally, on a personal note: For some reason, one of my favorite moments in the film is when Klugman asks Fonda and the other jurors: "You ever see a knife fight?"
Studio One in Hollywood: Twelve Angry Men (TV) (9/29/12) Netflix (1954 ***1/2) Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, written by Reginald Rose, starring Robert Cummings, Franchot Tone, Edward Arnold and eight others. A troubled young man is on trial for killing his father and the only thing standing between him and the electric chair is Juror #8. Talk about a glimpse into TV history. Immediately after my wife and I watched the 1957 film based on this TV program, I turned to the Blu-Ray bonus features and discovered they contained the original version in its entirety. It was originally broadcast live on September 20, 1954 as the first episode of Studio One's seventh season, and it was destined to become a landmark in TV history, winning three Emmy awards and, according to the Blu-Ray's "making of" featurette, an award for "program of the year," though an internet search failed to verify that. Of course, the teleplay was adapted a few years later into the classic AFI Top 100 film by the same name. Now while it's not nice to pick on a classic, I think it's fair to point out that Robert ("Love That Bob") Cummings -- who played the story's main character -- was not exactly in the same acting stratosphere as Henry Fonda. Then again, few actors were, are or ever will be. I write this even though Cummings was awarded a Best Actor Emmy for his role. It's also worth pointing out that for modern viewers who seek out this historic TV event, a minor treat awaits: Though many of the jurors will appear vaguely familiar, arguably its most recognizable one will be the foreman, played by the late Norman Fell, Three's Company's Mr. Roper.
Batman Live (9/30/12) Staples Center, L.A. (2012 ***1/4) Directed by Anthony Van Laast and James Powell, written by Allan Heinberg. Millionaire Bruce Wayne takes a recently-orphaned aerialist named Dick Grayson under his wing, and together they dress up to fight the forces of evil in Gotham City. According to the BatmanLive.com website, this big-budget arena show premiered in the UK on July 19, 2011 and requires TWENTY semi trailers to move its sets from location to location. Lifelong bat fan that I am, my wife brought us tickets for this show as an early birthday present. A few days before the show, I talked to a friend at work who'd just taken her boyfriend to the show, also for his birthday. She warned me that it was highly cheesy with a flimsy storyline. Well, forewarned is forearmed, and I braced myself for the worst. But you know what? I loved it! I thought the creators had made a very smart move by focusing on the Robin origin story and I completely accepted the unabashed way in which they featured all of Batman's rogues gallery. A break-out at Arkham Asylum allowed them to feature The Penguin, Catwoman, The Riddler, Two-Face, The Scarecrow, Harley Quinn and (of course) The Joker. Some of the pyrotechnic effects were stunning, such as when (mild spoiler ahead) Harley Quinn shoots her clownish boyfriend's hot air balloon with a bazooka. For my wife, a clear highlight of the show was the Batmobile, which was featured prominently. The show's creators clearly paid close attention to small details. For example, as we left the show, I noticed that the confetti that had been shot from The Joker's enormous confetti cannons was shaped like little bats!
Invitation to the Dance (9/30/12) TCM (1956 ***) Written (though uncredited) and directed by Gene Kelly, starring Gene Kelly, Igor Youskevitch and Claire Sombert, with an appearance by Andre Previn. This film was an anthology divided into 3 parts, eachfeaturing various musical and dancing styles: "Circus," "Ring Around the Rosy," and "Sinbad the Sailor." The last sequence was a fairly elaborate, half-hour long live-action / animation combination set in a sheik's harem. The animation was executed by William Hanna, Joseph Barbera and Fred Quimby. It's historically interesting to note that this sequence predated similar work done in Disney's Mary Poppins (1964) by eight years! On a side note, when I started watching this film, I actually thought it was the one in which Kelly famously danced with Jerry Mouse, but that was actually Anchors Aweigh (1945).

 

October

Jack and the Beanstalk (10/1/12) TCM (1952 **1/2) Directed by Jean Yarbrough, starring Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Shaye Cogan, James Alexander and Buddy Baer in dual roles as Police Sergeant Riley and The Giant. A babysitter tells his bratty charge a classic and colorful children's story. Like The Wizard of Oz before it, this film used a sepia-toned framing story wrapped around a colorful adventure. But let's be clear about something: This film was no Wizard of Oz. I'm a huge fan of Abbott and Costello, but even among their films this was one of their lesser offerings.
The Fortune Cookie (10/1/12) TCM (1966 ***) Directed by Billy Wilder, written by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, starring Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Ron Rich and Judi West. A CBS cameraman gets tackled twice: First by a pro football player during a televised game and then by his shyster brother-in-law who talks him into a fraudulent lawsuit. Long before they played "Grumpy Old Men," this film marked the first pairing of Lemmon and Matthau, for which Matthau won a best supporting Oscar. The "story behind the story" is that Matthau suffered a heart attack during filming and lost a lot of weight while the film was shut down in his absence. Now Billy Wilder was an undisputed master and I enjoyed the film on a technical level, but it was extremely hard to be sympathetic to the central character There was also a resolution between two of the characters at the end of the film that I just didn't buy. On a minor note, however, this film did include a nice little shout-out to the Batman TV show, which debuted in 1966, the same year this film was released.
The Three Faces of Eve (10/1/12) TCM (1957 ***) Directed by Nunnally Johnson, based on the book by Corbett H. Thigpen, M.D. and Hervey M. Cleckley, M.D., starring Joanne Woodward, David Wayne and Lee J. Cobb. In the opening introduction, the authoritative voice of narrator Alistair Cooke assures us that the story we're about to see is true. And it is a pretty compelling story, especially if you're a new arrival to the planet Earth and completely unfamiliar with multiple personality disorder. And perhaps this was the case of the film's original audience in the 1950s. As with many of the "based on a true story" films, especially those made in the 1950s, it's hard to know how much truth remained, as the melodrama ran fairly high throughout. However, Joanne Woodward delivered a compelling performance playing the three leading roles: Eve White, Eve Black and Jane.
Blast From the Past (10/2/12) FXM (1999 ***1/2) Directed by Hugh Wilson, screenplay by Bill Kelly and Hugh Wilson, starring Brendan Fraser, Alicia Silverstone, Christopher Walken and Sissy Spacek, with an appearance by a young Nathan Fillion as the film's token asshole. On the eve of the Cuban missile crisis, A Cal Tech egghead takes his pregnant wife into a bomb shelter where they live -- and raise their son -- for thirty-five years. There are some films that you just love, although they're kinda silly and dumb, but you still love them all the same, even though you couldn't necessarily defend them if you were asked to do so. Which is exactly the situation I find myself in. For me, this film falls solidly into that category, even though its romantic pair is named "Adam" and "Eve," for God's sake! It's such a fun film with an unbelievably likable main character who embodies so many of the qualities I admire. It's a film that totally works within the structure of a romantic comedy but also contains lots of great supporting characters and (most importantly to me) scenes of wish-fulfillment, like one where they're in a hip L.A. dance club and Eve learns that Adam not only speaks fluent French but is also an incredible dancer (and a fighter), thanks to years of lessons from his parents.
Why Does Batman Carry Shark Repellant?: And Other Amazing Comic Book Trivia! (10/6/12) Nonfiction (2012 ***1/2) Written by Brian Cronin. Cronin is the creator of the "Comics Should Be Good" blog and had previously written Was Superman a Spy?: And Other Comic Book Legends Revealed (2009), a book I read back in 2010 and also gave ***1/2. I devoured this entire book cover to cover in 3 hours on a Saturday afternoon. While I clearly live smack dab in the center of Cronin's demographic bullseye, this book was objectively a well-written delight and one that should appeal even to those far less steeped in comic book trivia than I. To be honest, I already knew about half the trivia contained in this book, but that didnt bother me in the sightest. I don't know what's been in the zeitgeist lately, but between this book and AMC's Comic Book Men, I'm in comic geek heaven lately!
X Peter Gabriel: Back to Front (10/6/12) Hollywood Bowl (2012 ***) John Cusak, marching around stage, lying down, video pyrotechnics, including a kinect hack for one song w/ realtime tesselation.
A Night at the Movies: Hollywood Goes to Washington (10/7/12) TCM (2012 ***) Written and directed by Laurent Bouzereau, featuring interviews with filmmakers, stars and bigwigs like Oliver Stone, Rob Reiner, James Cromwell and James Carville. First of all, I want to make one thing perfectly clear: This TCM original documentary should in no way be confused with 1977's The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington, which starred Joey Heatherton and George Hamilton and is a completely different film altogether! (Whew, I'm glad I set that point straight.) Anyhow... Coming just a month before the 2012 Presidential election, this reasonably well-produced film contained some of what my wife likes to call "interesting choices." For instance, who in their right mind would consider Back to the Future to be a political film? That's kind of a stretch, isn't it? The clip shown was one in which Doc Brown laughed at the idea of Ronald Reagan as president: "Who's Vice President? Jerry Lewis?" It was awesome to see BTTF's co-writer Bob Gale, however, even if he was included in the documentary on somewhat questionable grounds. Further, I found it extremely interesting that while writer extraordinaire Aaron Sorkin (yeah, I'm a fan) was not among those interviewed, Rob Reiner purposely emphasized his own involvement in writing his 1995 film The American President with Sorkin, even though Sorkin is the only one IMDB.com has credited as writer. Also, there was absolutely no mention made of Sorkin's brilliant TV show The West Wing, which in many ways picked up where Reiner's film left off. As for the rest of the documentary's content, it covered the usual suspects like All the President's Men and of course Mr. Smith Goes to Washington... which should in no way be confused with The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington, which really a very different film. Trust me on this.
A Night at the Opera (10/8/12) TCM (1935 ***1/2) Directed by Sam Wood, starring Groucho, Chico and Harpo Marx, with Kitty Carlisle, Allan Jones and (of course) Margaret Dumont. Fast talking agent Otis B. Driftwood signs "the world's greatest opera singer," then boards a transatlantic steamship where his diminutive cabin... Aw, bananas! Who cares about the plot, am I right? It's the freakin' Marx Brothers, for cryin' out loud! From the first few brilliant lines of impeccably paced, fresh-as-the-day-it-was-written dialogue to the last, this film demonstrates in no uncertain terms the brilliance of the Marx Brothers' patented mix of comedy and anarchy. And Chico and Harpo even got a nice juicy scene to showcase their musical talents as well. This film is clearly a must-see classic... with only one small caveat: It breaks my heart, but my only reason for not giving A Night at the Opera a full four stars is that way too much screen time was devoted to its stupid contractually-required "boy gets girl" B-story, which I'm sure bored audiences in 1935 just much as it did me in 2012.
Argo (10/15/12) Glendale Pacific Theaters 18 (2012 ***1/2) Directed by Ben Affleck, based on the article by Joshuah Bearman, starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman and Alan Arkin. In 1980, a C.I.A. operative extracts six Americans from Iran using the magic of Hollywood in the form of a fictional sci-fi epic named Argo. In this, his third film as a director after Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Ben Affleck... sorry, Academy Award-winning writer Ben Affleck demonstrated once again that he has what it takes to direct. Guided by an excellent screenplay by Chris Terrio, Argo took a little-known (and only recently declassified) chapter in history and built an incredibly suspenseful, dramatic and at times very funny ("Argo ___ yourself") film. Ironically, while I loved the film and agree its a strong contender for Best Picture, the one thing that bugged me throughout was Affleck's own performance. Affleck seemed to be delivering the same monotonic note over and over in scene after scene, with very little variation. It's as though Affleck did an excellent job directing everything and everyone... except himself.
Baby's in Black: Astrid Kirchherr, Stuart Sutcliff, and the Beatles in Hamburg (10/15/12) Graphic Novel (2012 ***1/4) Written and illustrated by Arne Bellstorf. As the extended title implies, The Beatles' early days in Hamburg, including original member Stuart Suttcliff's tragic young death, are told through the eyes of the young woman who shot many of their iconic photographs. As someone who hopes one day to produce graphic novels of my own, this book was virtually a blueprint for what I'm aiming for, at least visually, and to some degree tonally. The simplified character designs were appropriate to the text and I loved Bellstorf's deft visual depictions of the Beatles, especially John and Paul. Prior to reading this book, I was familiar with the general story, much of which was told in the 1994 film Backbeat, in which Kirchherr was played by Twin Peaks' Laura Palmer, Sheryl Lee. While I appreciated Baby's in Black's text for what it was, having been based on an autobiography by Astrid Kirchherr herself, there was a subdued, dispassionate quality from beginning to end that created a sense of emotional distance. This was underscored by the book's reduction of the font size within the word balloons, a technique traditionally used in comics and graphic novels to indicate low voices or whispering. In addition, there was a kind of awkward, unnatural nature to the dialogue, with exposition frequently presented unabashedly. But because Baby's in Black was originally written and published in German, I have no way of evaluating how much may have been lost or changed in the translation.
The Strawberry Blonde (10/17/12) TCM (1941 **1/2) Directed by Raoul Walsh, based on the play by James Hagan, starring James Cagney, Olivia de Havilland, Rita Hayworth, Alan Hale and Jack Carson. A hot-tempered dentist considers extracting revenge on a patient who once stole the girl of his dreams. The title was taken from a line from "The Band Played On," a song that featured prominently in the film. While I always enjoy watching Jimmy Cagney, his frequently unsympathetic "Biff Grimes" wasn't exactly among his most memorable roles. And while I love Rita Hayworth, her titular strawberry blonde "Virginia Brush" was entirely unlikable. The most enjoyable and interesting performance was actually by Olivia de Havilland, whose "Amy Lind" offered a little complexity and appeal in a film otherwise populated by unpleasant two-dimensional characters.
Deja Vu (10/20/12) FXM (2006 ***1/2) Directed by Tony Scott, written by Bill Marsilii and Tony Rossio (Shrek), starring Denzel Washington, Paula Patton, Jim Caviezel, Val Kilmer and Adam Goldberg. ATF agent Doug Carlin investigates a tragic explosion in New Orleans and becomes a subject in a top-secret government time travel experiment. There are some films you record and watch because you don't want to have to think too much, and for me this was one of those. I watched this film in pieces over the course of a weekend when I was working on a book project. But it surprised me, far surpassing my expectations in every way. I've long held the belief that the keys to doing a good time-travel story are twofold: (1) Finding a solid emotional hook and selling it and (2) Going full-out with the time-travel "fun and games." Deja Vu managed to hit both of those goals while at the same time delivering a lot of action and all the suspense of an unexploded bomb aboard a ferry full of people. In addition to a surprisingly grounded (given this was escapist sci-fi) performance by Denzel Washington, the film was also masterfully directed and edited as well. Watching Deja Vu gave me a greater appreciation of the tragic loss of Tony Scott, who committed suicide earlier this year.
Bob Dylan & His Band Plus Mark Knopfler (10/26/12) Hollywood Bowl (2012 ***) In my younger years living in the Midwest, I passed up several opportunities to see Bob Dylan play at the Iowa State Fair. This is something I'd come to regret and seeing Dylan play live had become an item on my "musical bucket list." I'd bought Dylan's new CD Tempest in anticipation that his concert would feature many of its songs. I was wrong; he didn't play a single song from it. I don't regret the purchase though, because it's really a terrific album, and I highly recommend it. So what did he play? In a sense he played my dream set. Never in a million years did I buy our tickets thinking I'd hear Bob Dylan sing his great (and lengthy) 1960s classic songs "Desolation Row," "Ballad of a Thin Man" ("You know something's happening here...") and "Highway 61 Revisited," two of them back-to-back! It was folk rock heaven! However, they were sung in a manner that made them virtually unrecognizable and even with my hearing aids on full I could only make out the occasional lyric. But I was kind of prepared for that, having heard in the past that Dylan's live performances have been a little hard to make out. A handful of songs I didn't recognize at all, but two other notable songs were "Tangled Up in Blue" and "Make You Feel My Love," the second being from his great 1997 Grammy-winning album, Time Out of Mind. At the end of the show Dylan & his band returned to the stage and sang a single encore song, but it was a killer. It took me a few seconds to recognize it, but it brought a smile to my lips and a tear to my eye: There I was at the freakin' Hollywood Bowl listening to freakin' Bob Dylan sing freakin' "Blowin' in the Wind!" My biggest complaint by far about the show was the video coverage on the large monitors, which I'd counted on, having bought our tickets way up in section R1. Throughout the evening, including during Knopfler's exceptional opening set, the monitors showed an shot that was, from where we sat, an image of exactly the same scale as our view of the stage. Oh, how I wish I'd brought our binoculars! I confirmed online that this was a deliberate choice made, not by the Bowl, but by the artist himself. Yep, you gotta love that nutty Bob Dylan's little eccentricities. And so, I can honestly say that I "saw" Bob Dylan play, but I never actually saw him at all. Finally, for the second time in two live performance reviews I have got to complain about the crowd. Unfortunately, The Hollywood Bowl has continued its policy of selling tickets to inconsiderate assholes, who talked (sometimes at an astonishing loud volume) throughout the concert. However, while I found their behavior inexcusable, on a certain level I can appreciate that Dylan may have given them a few things to talk about.

 

November

Dungeon: The Early Years -- Vol. 1: The Night Shirt (11/4/12) Comics (2005 ***1/2) Written by Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim (English translation by Joe Johnson), illustrated by Christophe Blain. Young and naive swashbuckling bird Hyacinthe rescues fair maidens and fights corruption as the mysterious "Night Shirt." I don't normally think of myself as someone who reads tales of anthropomorphized fantasy, but there's something infectious in this series, which was loaned to me by a friend. This was my first introduction to Joann Sfar's storytelling, though it was unclear to me how exactly he shared writing responsibilities with Trondheim. This volume, which evidently is just a small piece fitting into a far greater whole, was originally published as two separate books.
The Rise of the Guardians (11/10/12) DWA friends & family screening, L.A. Live (2012 ****) Directed by Peter Ramsey, screenplay by David Lindsay-Abaire, based on the book series by William Joyce, featuring the voices of Chris Pine, Alec Baldwin, Hugh Jackman, Isla Fisher and Jude Law. Jack Frost joins Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Sandman and the Tooth Fairy to protect the children of Earth from the Boogeyman. As I've mentioned a few times before, I've been at Dreamworks Animation since 2000, and I'm currently working on my tenth film. But this wasn't one I worked on, so while I am a studio employee and lots of my friends and co-workers worked on it, I still retain a modicum of objectivity. I was blown away by this film from start to finish, and when it was all over I was VERY proud to say I work at Dreamworks and a tad envious of my friends who did work on the film. Apparently Alec Baldwin said in an interview months ago that this film was like The Avengers for kids. And that's not a bad comparison. There was way more action than I expected, and the fight sequences were amazingly well choreographed. The characterizations were terrific, with each of the Guardians (and Pitch, the Boogeyman) clearly motivated and delineated. The effects and design was wonderful too, with only one exception: I have always been bothered by North's (Santa's) overly broad shoulders in this film, and I'm not exactly sure why. The film's story had a quality that few films have, where it felt just like a slide: Each scene flowed so elegantly into the next and the humor and action and heart was so nicely interwoven with the narrative that before you knew it you're in the third act. And as for emotional punch... Well, let's just say I was choked up enough a few times that my wife turned to me and whispered: "Are you all right?" As this was an early screening, there aren't many reviews for the film yet. I sure hope it finds the audience and critical praise it deserves.
An Evening With The Monkees (11/10/12) The Greek Theater (2012 ***1/4) Last July, my wife and I went to the Greek to fulfill my lifelong dream of seeing The Monkees perform live. At least there were three of them performing: Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork and Davy Jones. It was a wonderful and super-tight show and I gave it 4 glowing stars in my review, one for each of the original Monkees. Mike Nesmith hadn't performed with the others since 1997, and apparently that hadn't ended particularly well. It was at a memorial service after Davy Jones' unexpected death from a heart attack on February 29th of this year, that the three surviving members of the band, including Nez, agreed to reunite and tour once again. Now I've been a lifelong fan of and occasionally an apologist for Mike Nesmith. A 2005 biography about him (Total Control: The Monkees Michael Nesmith Story, written by Randi L. Massigill) didn't paint him in particularly glowing terms. But reading that didn't change that fact that as a kid he was my favorite Monkee (my wife's as well) and his pioneering music video work with his "vide album" Elephant Parts back in the earrly 1980s was a major influence on me. Plus, I've always liked him as a singer and songwriter, both for his work while with the Monkees and afterward. And so when I learned they were playing at The Greek Theater, the same place Mickey, Peter and Davy had played a year before I "rushed out in a buying frenzy" and secured our tickets. Sadly, Ticketmaster's website choked on my updated credit card's expiration date and I wound up with less-than-stellar tickets as a result. (stupid Ticketmaster!) I hadn't even considered that the concert date was in November and that L.A. might experience the unseasonable cold snap that it did, but my wife and I bundled up in warm clothes from our Alaska trip and braved the elements. So how was it? By an objective measurement, it was pretty mediocre, actually. The tightness of last year's trio, which was honed to perfection after dozens of shows, was replaced with a sloppiness that was surprising and disappointing. Last year Mickey's voice was on the weak side and Davy kept running out of breath (perhaps a harbinger of his final fate). This year, neither Mickey, Mike or Peter sang well or consistently, and strangely enough, each sang some songs passably yet others miserably. I'd read in a couple of news stories and on Facebook that Mike Nesmith was making a deliberate effort to channel "Monkee Mike," meaning the goofy young man he played on the original TV show. And that worked fairly well on stage. There were a few Monkees-variety hijinks, including Mike Nesmith vocalizing the part of the Moog Synthesizer on their song "Daily Nightly." In spite of him not being 100% solid vocally, it was very nice to hear so many songs that featured Mike Nesmith's lead vocals. The band also included Monkee family members Coco Dolenz (Mickey's sister) and Mike's son Christian Nesmith. All in all I was satisfied: After all, I got to see one of my idols perform live. It wasn't anywhere as good a show as last year's, but I'm still very glad I went.
X Stardust (11/20/12) Princess Theater, Ruby Princess (2012 ***) Starring the Ruby Princess singers and dancers, hosted by cruise director Ron Goodman.
Vampire Loves (11/21/12) Comics (2006 ***1/2) Written and illustrated by Joann Sfar, translation by Audre Jardel. Ferdinand the sensitive vampire deals with the neurotic trials and tribulations of the supernatural dating scene. At a time when angsty teen vampires seem to be everywhere, Joann Sfar offers a brutally honest and funny look at what it takes to find love. It took me back to my own dating efforts back in my 20s and 30s, when it seemed impossible to find a woman interested in me that didn't also suffer from some kind of deeply-rooted psychological defect. My only real complaint about this volume was that Sfar's narrative approach (described on the inside back cover as his "unique rambling brand of storytelling") meant that sometimes interesting characters and situations were introduced (like the redheaded vampire sisters Aspirine and Ritaline), then cast aside for long stretches, possibly indefinitely. Still, I'm very thankful to my friend Leticia Silva for introducing me to Sfar and his comic book universe.
X Magician & Illusionist David Cats -- The Master of Grand Illusions (11/21/12) Princess Theater, Ruby Princess (2012 ***)
X Once Upon a Dream (11/22/12) Princess Theater, Ruby Princess (2012 **1/2) Starring the Ruby Princess singers and dancers, hosted by cruise director Ron Goodman.
X Broadway Ballroom (11/24/12) Princess Theater, Ruby Princess (2012 ***1/2) Starring the Ruby Princess singers and dancers, hosted by cruise director Ron Goodman.
The Wrong Man (11/28/12) TCM (1956 ***1/4) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Henry Fonda, Vera Miles, Anthony Quayle and Harold J. Stone. An innocent New York City musician is mistakenly identified as a holdup man and becomes a victim of the American justice system. In the opening of the film, Alfred Hitchcock assures us in a voiceover that though The Wrong Man is thematically similar to some of his other films, it is actually based on the true story of a man named Manny Balestrero. Made at a time long before the airwaves were cluttered with weekly detective shows, Hitchcock took his viewers on a guided tour of an experience few had experienced: The process of being arrested, booked, jailed and tried for a crime. It was a hyper-realistic police procedural where verisimilitude and texture trumped story. Its direct antecedent was Jules Dassin's The Naked City (1948), also shot on real New York locations. For the most part the effect worked, and Henry Fonda was perfectly cast as the film's "everyman." Naturally, its "you are there" aspect was engrossing, though I found the storyline related to the psychological unraveling of Balestrero's wife, however true to life, somewhat annoying.
The Sixth Sense (11/28/12) Netflix (1999 ****) Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, starring Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment and Toni Collette. Child psychologist Dr. Malcolm Crow attempts to help Cole, a sensitive young boy with a secret. Poor M. Night Shyamalan. He sure has had a rough career, hasn't he? And yet he's continued to plug away, making film after film, each hoping to touch the greatness of this, his first film. And The Sixth Sense was (and is) a great film. I still remember seeing it in the theater and being blown away so much I had to return a day or two later to watch it a second time. And it still holds up beautifully, due not only to the script and the directing, but also the casting of Willis and young Haley Joel Osment.
Creepshow (11/28/12) IFC (1982 **) Directed by George A. Romero, screenplay by Stephen King, starring Hal Holbrook, Adrienne Barbeau, Leslie Nielson, Ted Danson, E.G. Marshall and... Stephen King? In this anthology, a series of "creepy" stories are told, all in the style of 1950s horror comics. I hadn't seen this movie in many years, and I'd completely forgotten how cheesy it was. King wrote the film's screenplay in a dumbed-down simulation of the E.C. horror comics he loved as a kid. Unfortunately, without exception, all his characters were thin and unsympathetic. While this was a deliberate move on his part, for me, it didn't work, and I found myself watching it out of a sense of personal nostalgia than anything. Crazy thing is, I loved this movie when I was in high school. Watching it again after all these years, I felt a definite sense of "Wow, I can't believe I used to like this movie. My, how I've grown as a human being."
The Maltese Bippy (11/28/12) TCM (1969 **) Directed by Norman Panama, starring Dan Rowan, Dick Martin, Carol Lynley, Julie Newmar, Mildred Natwick and Robert Reed. Two out-of-work filmmakers work to unravel the "hairy" secret of a mysterious murder in their neighborhood. There was a time when the irreverent Laugh-In's Rowan and Martin were thrust from their studio in "beautiful downtown Burbank" into stardom. They were even popular enough to warrant a feature film, though not necessarily a good one. The Maltese Bippy (a play on their catchphrase "You bet your sweet bibby!") was undoubtedly shot during their summer hiatus. I've always found Rowan and Martin likable enough, it's just too bad the movie's story was so mediocre. The story suffered from two problems, really: The film began with R&M getting busted for shooting a low-budget stag film, then transitioned immediately into a completely unrelated and hard-to-relate-to "world" in which Dick Martin was the landlord of a Victorian mansion filled with kooks. The second problem was the story meandered, with thin character motivations, finally ending in an "irreverent" dramatic climax that was wholly unsatisfying. Still it's always nice to see Julie Newmar in anything.

 

December

Dungeon: The Early Years -- Vol. 2: Innocence Lost (12/3/12) Comics (2009 ***1/4) Written by Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim (English translation by Joe Johnson), illustrated by Christophe Blain. In this second volume's first story, still-innocent Hyacinthe (AKA "The Night Shirt") kills a man and gets the clap and crabs from the beautiful assassin Alexandra (the object of his obsession), then embarks on a noble adventure. In story number two, set many years later, an older, embittered Hyacinthe swears revenge on Alexandra for killing his beloved wife, then reluctantly agrees to help circumvent a calamity that threatens his city. The two stories in this volume were originally published as two separate books, and I found the first story considerably more engaging than the second, probably because the younger Hyacinthe (crabs and all) was far more sympathetic and relatable. While I'm enjoying Sfar's writing, it's becoming clear that there's a larger universe he's created and I've just been sampling fragments of it. His author's bio credits him with writing over 100 books, but unfortunately, only a handful appear to have been translated into English.
The Rabbi's Cat (Le chat du rabbin) (3D) (12/11/12) DWA Screening (2011 ***1/4) Directed by Antoine Delesvaux and Joann Sfar, screenplay by Sandrina Jardel and Joann Sfar, based on the comic book series created by Joann Sfar. Set in Algiers in the 1930s, a cat eats a troublesome parrot and gains the ability to speak, immediately becoming a philosophical pain-in-the-neck to his owner, a well-meaning rabbi. This film begins by closely following the storyline contained in the comic / graphic novel on which it was based, until a box of religious books arrives from Russia, containing what appears to be a Russian corpse. The narrative then takes a dramatic left turn as the Rabbi, his cat, an idealistic painter and others embark on a quest to find the mythical city of Jerusalem, which they believe is located somewhere in Africa. I saw this film in 3-D, which was occasionally effective but more often was a distraction and not especially effective. The first half of the film was far more interesting to me than the second half, though it was fun to see a cameo appearance by a certain well-known Belgian journalist with a "snowy" white dog. There wasn't really a single coherent story that ran through the whole film. While the titular cat got the final word, only a small slice of the story was really his, and the central character and point of view shifted throughout. When the film came to an end, I still didn't "get" the rabbi's character, and he seemed just as lost and well-meaning as he was in the beginning. Ultimately, while I appreciated the effort and congratulate Sfar on getting this film made in the first place, his rambling narrative style was more forgivable in graphic novel form.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (12/15/12) Glendale Pacific 18 (2012 ***) Directed by Peter Jackson, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien, starring Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage and Andy Serkis, with appearances by Ian Holm and Elijah Wood. Reluctant halfling Bilbo Baggins is hired as a burglar by an eccentric wizard and a band of dwarfs, then thrust into an adventure to liberate an ancient city from a gold-loving dragon named Smaug. It's damned hard to try to write something in my review of this film that hasn't been written a million times before. The bottom line is that this movie was disappointing, and I knew going in that it was going to be disappointing, and I even knew why it was going to be disappointing, and yet I'm still glad to have seen it in the theater, just for the sheer spectacle of the thing. The film's root problem (and the same one every other reviewer has identified) is that Jackson took a relatively slim book and decided to s-t-r-e-t-c-h its story over the course of three (presumably long) films. So while An Unexpected Journey contained many beautifully-executed effects shots and multiple virtuoso battle sequences, the thrill was diluted considerably by an underlying feeling that the story was progressing at a glacial pace. There is also, as you may have read, a technical novelty at work with this release: It is being presented in no less than SIX different formats: Standard, IMAX, Digital 3D, IMAX 3D, HFR 3D and HFR IMAX 3D! HFR stands for "high frame rate," which means it was shot, rendered and projected at 48 frames per second, double the standard 24fps rate. Though I deliberately steered my wife and myself to the safety and comfort of a standard, non-3D showing, I think I'm going to have to check it out in HFR 3D as well.
The Rabbi's Cat (12/18/12) Graphic Novel (2005 ***1/2) Written and illustrated by Joann Sfar, English translation by Alexis Siegel and Anjali Singh. Set in Algiers in the 1930s, a cat eats a troublesome parrot and gains the ability to speak, immediately becoming a philosophical pain-in-the-neck to his owner, a well-meaning rabbi. If you've been reading my recent reviews, it's obvious I've been on something of a Joann Sfar kick lately. I knew my studio was having a screening of the animated adaptation of this book, so I hurriedly ordered it from Amazon and devoted a lunch hour to reading almost all of it just before seeing the film. The idea was that the book would give me a greater appreciation for the movie, which is usually the case. For a variety of reasons, after the screening it took me another week to get around to finishing the remaining pages. I wrote in my review of the film that the narratives between the printed and projected versions begin the same but then branch apart. I wonder if the film's story was based on further stories covered in the follow-up volume to this book. Overall, however, I think Sfar's trademark (based on the few data points I have) rambling narrative style was better suited to comic book form.
Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (12/18/12) FXM (2009 **) Directed by Betty Thomas, starring Zachary Levi, David Cross, Jason Lee and Wendie Malick, featuring the voices of Justin Long (Alvin), Christina Applegate (Brittany) and and Amy Poehler (Eleanor). When Alvin, Simon and Theodore's "dad" Dave Seville is hospitalized, Dave's irresponsible brother Toby must enroll the Chipmunks into high school. I was a fan of the original Chipmunks and was quite surprised when I enjoyed the 2007 film enough to give it three stars. The sequel.. sorry, the "squeakquel" could have been so much better had it not been saddled with a weak script penned by Jon Vitti, Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger. My best guess is that after the surprising success of the first film, the sequel (grrr... "squeakquel") was rushed into production before the script was fully baked. Funny thing, though: In spite of the weak script, I still liked The Chipmunks themselves (and yes, even The Chipettes). So, while this film was a disappointment, I still, believe it or not, want to watch the third film, Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked (2011).
Elvis on Tour (12/20/12) TCM (1972 **1/2) Directed by Robert Abel and Pierre Adidge, starring Elvis Presley. Early 1970s Concert and behind-the-scenes footage is presented in a Woodstock-style split-screen format. This music documentary was a follow-up to Elvis: That's the Way It Is (1970), and it actually won a Golden Globe award for best documentary. Though primarily a concert film, it painted an interesting portrait of Elvis as a spiritual man, one who sang gospel songs through the night and into the early morning. The film also attempted to frame the early 1970s Elvis against the backdrop of his early success, and to that end it included a lesser-seen 1956 Presley performance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Tour cities featured in the film were Hampton Roads, Richmond and Roanoke, Virginia; Greensboro, North Carolina; San Antonio, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. Watching Elvis on Tour, I couldn't help but think about an Elvis concert I attended in the mid-1970s with my mother and grandmother. Though my memories are somewhat fuzzy, the concert I attended at the Omaha Civic Auditorium was very similar.Elvis aside, the production featured a couple of other notables: Its director Robert Abel (who died in 2001) went on to found Robert Abel and Associates, which produced some of the earliest commercial computer animation. In addition, a guy named Martin Scorsese was credited as "montage supervisor."
Paranorman (12/19/12) DVD (2012 ***1/4) Directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell, screenplay by Chris Butler, featuring the voices of Kodi-Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick and Casey Affleck. Just like the little boy with a "sixth sense" before him, Norman Babcock sees dead people all the time, and so it falls to him to protect his town from zombies and a witch's curse. I'm a big fan of Laika, the animation studio behind this film, and I loved their previous film Coraline (2009), giving it four stars. But as well-executed technically as Paranorman was, its story didn't work nearly as well for me. My overall sense was that the screenplay needed more time in the oven. Much of the dialogue felt like it was coming from a second draft, and there were characterizations that definitely could have been pushed further. In addition, there was a potentially major story element involving Norman's grandmother that was introduced but never paid off. Having said that, I appreciated much of the film's humor, which pushed the outer boundaries of what was acceptable in a movie intended for kids.
White Christmas (12/20/12) AMC (1954 ***) Directed by Michael Curtiz, starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen. Two song-and-dance men (plus their love interests) decide to "put on a show" in a quaint Vermont inn to help out their former WWII commanding general. This movie was clearly intended to cash in on the popularity of the song "White Christmas," which had been introduced in the film Holiday Inn (1942), starring Crosby and Fred Astaire. White Christmas (the movie) borrowed many of the elements from the earlier film, including its setting in a New England Inn. The casting of the female leads was curious. Vera Ellen was clearly cast for her dancing ability and the fact that she wouldn't outshine Rosemary Clooney in the looks department. As beautiful as her voice was, George Clooney's aunt Rosemary wasn't exactly a bombshell in the same league as Marilyn Monroe. She was attractive, but not in a traditional leading lady sense. Further, Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby were definitely out of their depths in some of the dance numbers, but it was fun to watch Kaye do his damnedest to keep up with Vera Ellen. Along those lines, keep an eye peeled for a young George Chakiris (West Side Story's Bernardo) as one of the dancers. On a side-note, this was the first time in a long time I'd watched a movie on AMC and thank God I DVR'd it. With all the commercials, the running time was stretched from two hours to nearly three!
The Lemon Drop Kid (12/23/12) TCM (1951 **1/2) Directed by Sydney Lanfield, based on the story by Damon Runyon, starring Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell. A small-time racetrack con man with an oral fixation has until Christmas to pay a mobster named Moose Moran $10,000. This film's main claim to fame is that it introduced the song "Silver Bells" to the great American holiday songbook. The song was written with the deliberate intent to compete with Hope's frequent partner Bing Crosby's "White Christmas," which of course went on to become the most recorded song of all time. As for the film, as likable as Bob Hope was, I had a hard time getting over the story's built-in unlikability for his character, whose goal was to save his own skin by using a bunch of little old ladies as pawns in a bunko scheme that would leave them all out in the cold... on Christmas!
Cabin in the Woods (12/28/12) Netflix (2011 ***1/2) Directed by Drew Goddard, written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, starring Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford. A group of five young people take a weekend trip to a creepy cabin, but all is not as it seems... on multiple levels. Wow. I LOVED this film, from start to... well, almost its finish. The only reason I'm not giving it four stars is that I was a little disatisfied by how it ended. I don't want to write too much about Cabin in the Woods because I don't want to give anything away. Let's just say that it's a film that remains true to the conventions of the slasher horror genre, yet also builds a second story completely around them. Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins were great fun to watch and their presence was even more entertaining because Whitford essentially played his character from The West Wing, Josh Lyman.
Kitty Foyle (12/28/12) TCM (1940 ***) Directed by Sam Wood, based on the novel by Christopher Morley, starring Ginger Rogers, Dennis Morgan and James Craig. A Philadelphia office girl falls for her no-good rich boss and can't get him out of her head. Best known as Fred Astaire's dance partner, Ginger Rogers showed her acting chops and won a Best Actress Oscar, somehow beating Kate Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. Though I enjoyed Rogers and grant that her performance was frequently more nuanced than I'd expected, I had a hard time getting into the story. This was due to a number of factors, but primarily I didn't care for the "told in flashback" structure using a snow globe as a visual cue nor its occasional lapses into outright melodrama. Also, let's be fair: It didn't exactly take a genius to figure out who (SPOILER ALERT, I guess) the titular Kitty Foyle should wind up with in the end. Having said that, it was kind of a relief when she made the right choice.
Stage Door (12/29/12) TCM (1937 ***1/2) Directed by Gregory La Cava, based on the play by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman, starring Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers and Adolphe Menjou, with supporting roles by Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, Ann Miller and Jack Carson. The aspiring actresses living in a female boardinghouse endure disappointments and temptations. Though some of the character motivations were a little suspect, the snappy dialogue running throughout this film more than made up for it, and it's clear why this movie has become such a classic. Rogers and Hepburn (not to be confused with Rodgers and Hart) would compete three years later for Best Actress. To see who won, consult Google or read my recent review of Kitty Foyle (1940). Though there were rumors of on-set rivalries between the two leading ladies, the pair were well-cast for their roles as quasi-adversarial roommates. It was also a delight every time a young Lucille Ball, Eve Arden or Ann Miller appeared onscreen.
Vivacious Lady (12/29/12) TCM (1938 ***1/4) Directed by George Stevens, based on the story by I.A.R. Wylie, starring Ginger Rogers, James Stewart, James Ellison and Charles Coburn. A university professor falls for and weds a nightclub singer, then encounters numerous hilarious impediments to introducing her to his parents. If you can swallow the "love at first sight / getting married in a day" premise, there's a lot to enjoy about this film, including a delightful little catfight between Francey (Rogers) and her romantic rival. There's also plenty of late-1930s sexual innuendo thrown in. Ginger Rogers was superb and adorable, and this screwball comedy came at a time when Stewart was just about to make some of his greatest films.
Panic in Year Zero! (12/30/12) TCM (1962 **1/2) Directed by Ray Milland, based on the story by Jay Simms, starring Ray Milland, Jean Hagen, Frankie Avalon and Mary Mitchel. When Los Angeles is blown away in a nuclear attack, domineering father Harry Baldwin takes his family to the woods and commands them to live in a cave. This film was aired on TCM in the early morning hours of December 21st, 2012, the date the world was supposed to end. At least that was according to those who believed the end of the Mayan calendar meant the end of recorded time. I recorded and watched Panic out of curiosity more than anything else, and it while it's not a very good film, it was entertaining on a shlock-tastic level. The jazzy "go man go" soundtrack by Les Baxter definitely combined with some over-the-top situations and dialogue for a potent little "atomic cocktail." I was surprised when the end credits revealed it had been directed by Ray Milland himself. "That explains a lot," I thought, particularly Milland's presence. For what its worth, he did a pretty decent job, given the material (and presumably the budget) he had to work with. Checking his filmography, he directed a total of fourteen projects in his career, though nine of those were episodes of TV shows. On a final note, there really ought to be a special place in cinema heaven for movies with exclamation points in their titles, and it would sure make for one heck of a film festival!
I Love You Again (12/30/12) TCM (1940 **1/2) Directed by W.S. Van Dyke, starring William Powell, Myrna Loy and Frank McHugh, with Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer as Leonard Harkspur, Jr. A conk on the head turns an amnesiac teetotaler back into the con man he was seven years before. This film was made smack dab in the middle of the delightful Powell & Loy's six-film Thin Man series. Four of those films, incidentally, were directed by Van Dyke, who passed away in 1943 before the final two were made. As for I Love You Again, it followed a formula common to early post-code romantic comedies in which outlandish plot elements that defied close examination were necessary to allow for a level of naughtiness. In this case, Powell's character discovers he's married to a knockout and his primary motivation thereafter is to get into their "marital" bed and, presumably, her vagina.
Viva Las Vegas (12/30/12) TCM (1964 ***) Directed by George Sidney, written by Sally Benson, starring Elvis Presley, Ann-Margret, Cesare Danova and William Demarest. Race car driver/mechanic Lucky Jackson falls for a swingin', singin' pool manager who wants him to settle down and give up racing. Considered one of Elvis' better films, this one demonstrated why he was such a star. Though the plotline bordered on non-existent at times, he was well-matched by the dynamic talents of Ann-Margret, though I wondered for the first few minutes if the director was going to feature any parts of her anatomy besides her rear end. As I watched the film, I kept in mind that this movie was shot and released during the period Beatlemania was sweeping the U.S., at a time when The King's spotlight would soon be shared with four mop-tops from Liverpool. According to Imdb.com, Viva Las Vegas was released on May 20th, 1964, mere weeks before A Hard Day's Night opened on July 6th.