Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Television Watched in 2013

People that know me know that I don’t watch broadcast TV. If someone tells me about a show, I’ll either watch it on DVD or streaming, but I don’t watch anything as it airs, so this list is very short and not very representative of what aired in 2013. 

I only watched complete seasons of the following:

Breaking Bad - The Final Season

I’ve discussed this before at length, so I won’t go into it again, but rarely have I been so captivated by a TV show. Outstanding in every way. 

This Netflix original really caught on in a big way, thanks largely to Kevin Spacey’s great performance. I’m eager to catch the second season, also on Netflix streaming. 

Sherlock Season Two

If you haven’t checked this out yet, you’re more of a TV hermit than I am. Excellent stuff; I just wish the seasons were longer and more frequent. 

Dollhouse Season One

Some so-so episodes and some great ones, making Dollhouse (scroll to the bottom) a mixed bag, but a fascinating one. Eager to watch the second (and final) season in the near future. 

Shows I’ve started and need to finish:

The Killing - Season One
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. - Season One
Doctor Who - Fifth Series
The Sopranos - Season Five
Adventure Time - Season One

Blast-from-the-Past viewing:

The Wild Wild West

So.... Tell me what you watched and enjoyed this year. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Movies Seen in November 2013

Memories of Murder (2003) Joon-Ho Bong [2:12]

One of the best crime films I’ve seen in quite awhile, this one coming from South Korea. If you haven’t seen this one, check it out now. 


Hitler’s Children (NF 2011) Chanoch Zeevi [1:20]

No, Hitler had no children, but several of those in his inner circle - such as Goering, Himmler and Goeth - did. This documentary examines the lives of the descendants of those men. Currently streaming on Netflix.


12 Monkeys (1995) Terry Gilliam [2:07] 2x

Syfy may be working on a TV series based on the 1995 movie, but I’d rather just watch the Gilliam movie again. Although this film could’ve been tighter (Heck, all of Gilliam’s films stray and veer off-course frequently), I think it’s one of his best. 


The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) Bob Rafelson [1:43] 2x

I’ve revisited several films this year that have been major let-downs and The King of Marvin Gardens may literally be the king of them. There’s a great movie in here trying to get out, but it’s so loaded with pretension and vagueness, it never reaches its potential. Nicholson plays against type as a mild-mannered radio show host with his brother (Bruce Dern) trying to talk him into a shady business opportunity. I’ll probably keep the movie if only because it’s the only role of consequence in Julia Anne Robinson’s tragically short career. 


It Might Get Loud (NF 2008) Davis Guggenheim [1:38]

No doubt, it gets loud... Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White. A look at any one of these guys by themselves would be worth watching, but all three? A no-brainer for guitar freaks. 


Babette’s Feast (1987) Gabriel Axel [1:47] 2x

Even better after watching it a second time. This belongs in my permanent Top 10. The new Criterion Blu-ray is gorgeous. 


Nosferatu (1922) F.W. Murnau [1:36] 2x

This restored edition from Kino is fabulous. I haven’t even begun to explore all the extras, but if you’re a fan of horror films at all, this silent classic is a must-own. 


Pacific Rim (2013) Guillermo del Toro [2:11]

No, this is not great filmmaking, but it is fun. Pure and simple, it’s two hours of robots and aliens beating the crap out of each other. Know that going in, expect little else, and you’ll be fine. 


Sunday, November 03, 2013

October 2013 Movies

I must say, October was a pretty lousy month for movies. Of course, some of my movie choices were a bit suspect to begin with, so I have no one to blame but myself. So here we go.....

Le Samouräi (1967) Jean-Pierre Melville [1:45]

Alain Delon is in top-notch form in this neo-noir character study from French master Melville. I hope to watch this again soon. (Can you believe this is the only Criterion movie I watched in October?)


It’s a Disaster (2012) Todd Berger [1:28]

Well, it wasn’t a complete disaster, but it could’ve been. This dark comedy has a few fun moments, but the end-of-the-world scenario exists only to allow the characters to do their thing, which gets old after awhile, even with the odd direction the film takes near the end. 


The Shuttered Room (1967) David Greene [1:39]

Oh, this was quite bad.... A pretty good cast of Gig Young, Oliver Reed and Carol Lynley is wasted in what amounts to a “thing trapped in a room” story. A double feature on one of Warner’s Horror Double Feature DVDs


Murder, My Sweet (1944) Edward Dmytryk [1:35]

Considered a classic of film noir, this adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1940 novel Farewell, My Lovely, is a prime example of noir at the height of its glory days. 


Gravity (2013) Alfonso Cuarón [1:31]

The visual spectacle far outweighs the story (and sometimes believability) of this “astronauts in space” thriller, but there’s more than enough good to outweigh the bad. See this on the largest screen possible.


Upstream Color (2013) Shane Carruth [1:36] (2x)

I first saw this film in July and it intrigued me enough to watch it again. The second time, I saw how it’s more (far more) about the director than it is the audience. The picture above is one of the few times anyone smiles in the entire film. Carruth is a talented filmmaker (especially visually), but the sum total of this film on a second viewing was highly disappointing. 


Whirlpool (1949) Otto Preminger [1:38]

Whirlpool is certainly not the stinker Pauline Kael says it is in her book 5001 Nights at the Movies, but it’s also far from Preminger’s best work. The always gorgeous Gene Tierney plays a kleptomaniac looking for a cure via hypnotist José Ferrer. Her psycho-analyst husband (Richard Conte) is clueless for most of the film. Although the ending doesn’t satisfy, Ferrer is the film’s standout as the condescending hypnotist. Worth a look.  


It! (1967) Herbert J. Leder [1:36]

The other feature on the previously mentioned Horror Double Feature DVD. This one starts well, with a London assistant museum curator (Roddy McDowall) discovering a golem who will carry out his every wish. I remember recording this one on late night TV years ago and missing the last 20 minutes. I should’ve left well enough alone. The ending is so ridiculous it’s laughable. The golem looks pretty cool, though....


Young Frankenstein (1974) Mel Brooks [1:46] (4x)

What can you say about Young Frankenstein? Many consider it Mel Brooks’s best film. It may very well be. What struck me was the wonderful cinematography and how well Brooks constructs the look and feel of some of the old horror classics. And the cast is just about perfect. 


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Vincent Price Collection

Shout Factory has just released a really nifty collection of six Vincent Price treasures*, just in time for Halloween. For some reason (probably getting nostalgic in my old age), I often prefer revising some of the old (and yes, sometimes cheesy) horror films of my youth over the more current horror choices. The Vincent Price Collection on Blu-ray is still too steep for my budget, but I'd love to revisit these at some point. (Hey Amazon, this would be a really nice Deal of the Day, as would the Universal Classic Monsters collection... just sayin'....)

* The set includes:

The Fall of the House of Usher
The Pit and the Pendulum
The Haunted Palace
The Masque of the Red Death
Witchfinder General
The Abominable Dr. Phibes

September 2013 Movies

Wow, I'm very late getting my list of Movies Watched in September 2013 out there, but better late than never....

Mud (2012) Jeff Nichols [2:10]


Certified Copy (2010) Abbas Kiarostami [1:46]

The second time through, this film is just as compelling and fascinating.


The Tale of Zatoichi (1962) Kenji Misumi [1:36]

Criterion is coming out with a massive set of all the Zatoichi films next month, but I’m certainly not a big enough fan to even consider that purchase. I did, however, enjoy the first film in the series from 1962 and hope to watch more. 


Gun Crazy (1950) Joseph H. Lewis [1:26]

A very unusual (and unusually shot) film noir that clearly paved the way for later films like Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands. Joseph H. Lewis makes some really odd visual choices, but the film really works for me in a strange sort of way. 


The Blob (1958) Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr. [1:26]

I really have no idea why Criterion added this film to their collection, much less gave it a Blu-ray upgrade, other than as a humorous, nostalgic look at 50s culture. I enjoyed it more the first time I saw it, when I was just a kid. This just isn’t a very good film.


Paul (2011) Greg Mottola [1:44]

This “first contact” comedy has a lot of fun playing with sf conventions (using both meanings of the noun), which I enjoyed a lot. It never takes itself too seriously (which is good) and you shouldn’t pay too close attention to the plot holes and inconsistencies. I’m never pleased to see Christians portrayed as backwards, narrow-minded people (I know, I know.... some of us can be....), but that’s not the focus of the film. Overall, lots of fun. (There’s also a nice Dylan joke in the movie. :)


Rango (2011) Gore Verbinski [1:47]

I’ve seen this film three times now and love it more each time. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a real treasure. 


Breaking Bad: The Fifth Season (Part 2) (TV 2013) 

It’s a rare thing these days for me to watch a TV show from beginning to end. I’m certainly sad to see this one come to a close, but it ended well. One of the best-written and best-acted shows I can remember watching. 


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Star Trek: The Art of Juan Ortiz (2013)

Star Trek: The Art of Juan Ortiz (2013)
Oversized hardcover (14.3” x 10.5”)
Titan Books, 112 pages
ISBN 9781781166703
Retail $39.99

Juan Ortiz was first and foremost a fan, which comes across in each of his retro-style posters based on the 80 episodes from the original Star Trek television show (1966-69). Many of these works are absolutely stunning, some of them humorous, all of them interesting. If you grew up in the late 60s/early 70s, you’ll recognize the styles represented here, some borrowed from German Expressionism, comic book, pulp and magazine covers, and other examples of period pop art. 

Making things even more authentic, Ortiz has given many prints a worn, discolored look around the edges. Many of them even have built-in creases in their images. All in all, the retro-style is a perfect fit for Ortiz’s art. 

The Starship Enterprise features prominently in most of the prints, usually to great effect. I find it interesting that some of the most stunning posters are based on some of the show’s weakest episodes. In the Index and Commentary, Ortiz gives brief thoughts on each of the prints and how they were created.  

Poke around on Ortiz’s website and you’ll find even more of his work. He’s also working on posters for the animated series (1973-74) and much more. 

Even if you’ve seen every episode many times, these artworks will give the stories a fresh, unique flavor. This book instantly jumps to the top of the gift list for any Star Trek fan. But buy it soon before it goes out of print. 


Sunday, September 08, 2013

The Twilight Zone: "King Nine Will Not Return"

A word or two of explanation: I love The Twilight Zone. I have seen every episode of its original run (1959-1964) at least once and own them all on Blu-ray. Sometime last year I started watching the show from the beginning, with the intent of blogging on each of the 156 episodes. I watched all 36 episodes of Season One and blogged on most of them, but have been on something of a hiatus while trying to finish my MLIS. Now that that’s over, it’s time to re-enter the Zone. 

Other than my own thoughts, ideas and opinions, I have three print resources that are invaluable for all things Zone related:

The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scott Zicree

And now, let’s jump into Season Two:

Season Two, Episode 1

“King Nine Will Not Return”

Original air date: September 30, 1960
Written by Rod Serling
Directed by Buzz Kulik
Production Costs: $61,812.53

Truth is stranger - and usually more interesting - than fiction. That’s certainly the case with the opener for the second season of The Twilight Zone, a Rod Serling-penned story called “King Nine Will Not Return.”  

In 1959 (about a year before Serling wrote the story), a group of British geologists exploring the Libyan desert discovered the wreckage of an American B-24 bomber called the Lady Be Good, which had disappeared during WWII sixteen years earlier. The geologists discovered the plane’s guns and ammo intact, its water jugs full - but found absolutely no sign of the nine-man crew. 

This was just too good for Serling to pass up. He adapted the story and acquired the talented actor Bob Cummings to play Captain James Embry, a man who awakens in the desert amidst the wreckage of the King Nine, but with no traces of his crew. 

For anyone who’s been watching The Twilight Zone from the beginning, the biggest problem with “King Nine” is its similarity to the series pilot “Where is Everybody?” One of Serling’s most-used themes in the show is the “man in isolation” theme. This wasn’t the first time Zone fans would see it and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. 

But despite the “We’ve seen this before” problem, “King Nine” does have some good points and is certainly worth watching. First, Cummings gives a convincing performance that still holds up well 50 years later. (Serling pushed for an Emmy nomination for Cummings, but didn’t get it.) Second, the downed plane in the middle of the desert makes for a stark, impressive shot, all the more so considering that this was well before the days of CGI and the crew had to transport and reassemble an actual aircraft in the desert area of Lone Pine, California. (Somehow Serling talked the Air Force into letting him use one of their B-25 war surplus planes for $2,500 rather than the original asking price of $345,000.) 

Although it had nothing to do with the show itself, “King Nine” marks the first time Serling appears onscreen at the beginning and end of each episode (although he did in the Season One finale, “A World of His Own.”) 


Friday, September 06, 2013

Mud (2012) Jeff Nichols

Mud (2012) Jeff Nichols [2:10]

There’s not much I can say about Mud that hasn’t already been explored so wonderfully by Cinema Enthusiast, but I will say a word or two, starting with this: if you haven’t seen any of the three films by Jeff Nichols, you should, and as soon as possible. 

Nichols’ first film, Shotgun Stories (2007) came out of nowhere to appear on many “Best of the Year” lists (including those of Roger Ebert and David Edelstein). It’s the story of a family feud between two half-brothers following the death of their father. Set in rural Arkansas (Nichols’ home state) with a title like Shotgun Stories, you might think the film would be a “rednecks-gone-wild” flick with non-stop guns blazing and buckshot flying. Not so. The film is a highly contemplative, well-thought out drama with wonderful performances, most of them by friends of Nichols. (One actor, Michael Shannon, recently General Zod in Man of Steel, appears in all three Nichols films.) One reviewer on IMDb mentioned that you watch the film waiting for something big to happen, then realize it did, but without gunshots and explosions. Oh, and Shotgun Stories had a budget of only $250,000 (dirt cheap).

Take Shelter (2011) shows a young husband/father (again, played by Michael Shannon) haunted by visions that a storm is coming that could destroy his family and entire way of life. Only no one else sees the things he sees. He desperately tries to build an underground storm shelter, in spite of his unbelieving friends and family. Take Shelter is a good drama/thriller that helped spread the word that Nichols is a director to be watched. (The budget for Take Shelter: $5 million; still pretty cheap.)

Now with Mud, Nichols proves himself to be a serious contender. He also shows how he can stretch a dollar. Mud cost $10 million to make - twice the budget of Take Shelter, but still a very inexpensive film by today’s standards. With that, he was able to get some great performances out of some pretty big names: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Joe Don Baker and an actor I hope will continue to grow and mature for many, many years, Tye Sheridan from The Tree of Life

I thought about summarizing the plot of Mud for you, but again, Cinema Enthusiast has already done that exceptionally well. It’s not a perfect movie: the last half hour leaves a little (not a lot) to be desired as far as plot developments and believability, but in some ways, Nichols wrote himself into a corner that he had to get out of. He did so, and maybe that was the best scenario that he could come up with (I certainly couldn’t top it), but if you can overlook that, the film works very well. Again, Cinema Enthusiast touches on a couple of other legitimate points, but those didn’t totally diminish my enjoyment of the film. 

Mud should be seen if for no other reason, to show audiences that you can make a thoughtful, meaningful film about teenage life, struggles, coming-of-age, love, and anguish. Even when he doesn’t quite succeed, Nichols is certainly not afraid of showing us both sides of the pain and joy of growing up in a world that’s broken. 


Tuesday, September 03, 2013

French Cinema from its Beginnings to the Present (2002) Rémi Fournier Lanzoni

After realizing that I've really enjoyed the last several French films I've seen, I decided I wanted to read more about French cinema. I was looking for a book that would serve as a good introduction to the historical and intellectual origins, trends and philosophies of French film. 

About the first half of the book is quite good, laying a solid foundation by discussing the birth of French cinema and its influences on life and culture. Lanzoni also examines non-cinematic historical and cultural trends, making logical connections between life and film. Yet as the book progresses, it gets bogged down in far too much political history. That would be fine if that history translated directly into the consequences and repercussions of French film, but often that is not the case. 

Lanzoni also tends to pick a handful of films to illustrate historical trends, which is understandable, since the chosen films are generally the most famous and most available. But the reader should be aware that all of the films discussed contain complete synopses with spoilers. 

The treatment of French World War II cinema, post-war cinema and the New Wave is good, the last of which could've been expanded into a separate book. (But I'm sure there are many books on the French New Wave already out there, so we can excuse not going into a lot of detail here.) In fact, the pre- and post-WWII chapters are the most fascinating in that Lanzoni shows us how the actual hardships of the war led directly to important trends in filmmaking.   

Unfortunately, later chapters dwell on political events that do have significance to French film, but the level of detail is far too much for readers who, after all, want to read about the cinema. The films represented here seem to be simply the most popular without giving us enough reasons as to why they were popular, why the culture was ready for them, and why they were well-received. 

I was looking for a good introduction to French film. This one isn't bad, and I'll keep it as a reference, but my search will definitely continue. 


Bad Blu-ray Covers Catch Up to Hitchcock

A couple of years ago, Cinema Enthusiast wrote a great post about bad Blu-ray cover art. I'm sorry to say that this epidemic seems to have caught up with one of my favorite directors, Alfred Hitchcock, and his films. 

Universal seems committed to releasing some really bad covers for many of the individual Hitchcock films in the Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Series. The first of these really isn't that bad, but I still don't like it because the image (which looks like one of those old colorized stills) from the 1956 The Man Who Knew Too Much actually shows too much and is misleading. From this image it looks like James Stewart has just killed the poor guy on the ground, maybe because the guy knew too much? No, that's not the case. The image has also been taken out of it's context and setting and isn't even a direct image from the film. (But when has that ever stopped the marketing folks?)   

The old cover at least gives you a sense of the desperation in the faces of Stewart and Doris Day. You don't know what's going on, but you're pretty sure she isn't ordering a pizza. Of course, you've got Hitchcock's jowls to contend with, but I still prefer this to the other cover. 

Then there's Rope, a Hitchcock film that's something of a hard-sell anyway. Oh, here's a picture of Stewart with a strand of rope dangling from the letter E. How exciting....

At least with the old cover, you get a sense of conflict. There's clearly a struggle going on, even if we're not sure what it's about, which is way more exciting than the Blu-ray cover (unless you're a big fan of the letter E and things hanging from it...). 

And then there's the Blu-ray cover of Strangers on a Train. The image itself isn't bad but these aren't the strangers on the train! This cover leads you to believe that this man and woman meet on a speeding train, have some torrid affair, and perhaps some type of dangerous adventure. The film is exciting, dangerous and filled with unbearable tension, but the cover is completely misleading. It's dangerously close to false advertising. 

It might be old-school, but the old cover is not only more artistic, but more representative of the film as a whole. Sure, you've got the couple in the upper right hand corner, but they're not the focus of attention. 

It just baffles me that we have the most incredible format ever for home video releases with Blu-ray and some of the worst covers to match. Wow....