31 March 2009

"Profiles in Courage" Memorial Editon by John F. Kennedy

Profiles in Courage - Memorial Edition
John F. Kennedy
Special Foreword by Robert F. Kennedy
Date of Publication: 1964
Cover Price: 75 cents
238 pages

Profiles in Courage was originally written by President Kennedy during his senatorial days and published in 1957. There are eight United States Senators profiled in this heavily researched volume. Mr. Kennedy acknowledges in his introduction the scholarly assistance he had while planning this work, and takes full responsibility for any errors in historical accuracy. The error, I am sad to say, may well be in our history books frequently failing to include these incidents.

Kennedy's focus on U.S. Senators, of course, reflects his own status as one. Perhaps he was trying to find solace in a bothersome period of his own; perhaps he longed to see himself one day admitted to the annals of history favorably. (On that count, of course, he need not have worried.) The fact that we do not know, from this volume, his motives is actually apropos. Mr. Kennedy himself dismisses the relevance of the motives--or the outcomes--of the detailed acts he recounts as relevant, arguing instead that courage ought not be decided based on the outcome of one's actions. Right or wrong can be determined by the passage of time, but courage must not be linked to that judgment.

It is almost a shame that John F. Kennedy pursued a political career, because he would have made a wonderful historian. His characterizations of these courageous men are related in seemingly effortless prose. Profiles in Courage rarely feels like a work of non-fiction, so dedicated was Kennedy in his intent to take us to the moments at hand. I actually felt the anguish, the dread and the isolation of these men as I read their tales. Lest anyone expect these profiles to be concerned only with Senators who rose above controversy to do the right thing with the approval of history, Kennedy's conclusion passes judgment on these eight and does not write glowingly of how they ought to be remembered for their actions or personal character. It would be too easy to leave us with the impression that these eight men were all paragons of virtue; rather than do so, Kennedy bursts the very bubble he crafts.

It is in this context that Profiles in Courage reveals something about its author. At no point does this become an autobiography of our slain President. His thoughts on courage, democracy and legacies, though, tell us about himself. They reveal a man capable of seeing people as complex and complicated; a man who could recognize even in opponents something to admire. And it is evidence that he himself would very likely prefer his public legacy be linked to the truth of who he was. President John F. Kennedy was, by most accounts, a bright, optimistic young man plagued by physical ailments. He will forever be linked to his family, yet his image as a family man tarnished by his womanizing ways. In short, a flawed human being who, at times, displayed courage.

For those interested in knowing, the eight Senators are:
  1. John Quincy Adams
  2. Daniel Webster
  3. Thomas Hart Benton
  4. Sam Houston
  5. Edmund G. Ross
  6. Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar
  7. George Norris
  8. Robert A. Taft

29 March 2009

Disney Movie Rewards - Why You Should Join

If you've bought a Disney DVD in the last couple of years, you've probably noticed a little star-shaped logo on the package that reads, "Disney Movie Rewards" and a code printed on an included insert.  In case you're unclear how it works, you simply go to Disney Movie Rewards and set up a free account.  Then, you take those codes from the inserts and enter them.  Each code is generally worth 100 points.  Sometimes Disney runs bonus point promotions for buying new DVD's.  For instance, if you enter a code from both Bolt and Lilo & Stitch: Big Wave Edition by 21 April, you get an additional 50 points.  Also, there is a survey you can take to earn an additional 100 points (you can only take this once, though).

Anyway, you can redeem these points for different prizes.  There are iPod skins, vintage live action Disney DVD's, posters, collectible statuettes and all kinds of other Disney memorabilia.  For a dedicated Disneyphile, this is very enticing as Disney purchases effectively pay for more Disney merchandise.  If you have young kids, there are various things you can redeem for them; one prize is a personalized phone call from a Disney Princess.

It is of children that I implore you to open a Disney Movie Rewards account.  Currently, until 21 April, Disney is again offering the Disney Hospital Care Package Program redemption.  You donate 75 points; they donate a Disney DVD to a hospital for children to have available during their stay.  It's that simple.  There is a limit of 20 DVD donations,  Even if you don't have the classic animated features or the High School Musical/Hannah Montana era live action releases around the house, maybe you've got the Pirates of the Caribbean titles.  Do it for the kids, do it for me, do it for your own karma.  Do it because you've already bought the DVD and it will cost you nothing but time to donate to a worthy cause.

[I can donate another eight titles, so if you would rather send me your codes I will redeem those points for you.]

27 March 2009

Dan Seals (1948-2009)

Count me among those who had absolutely no idea Dan Seals was even sick, but on 25 March 2009 he passed away.  When my brother and I were younger, mom had a Ford Fairmont.  Every other Sunday, we'd go out and one of the things I remember most was that we played cassettes in the car.  Now, this will be hard for readers of the Sync generation to believe, but the car did not play cassettes.  Instead, we had a portable tape deck that typically would rest on my lap (my brother being younger, he was confined to the back seat) and loud enough we could all hear.  We played a tape of Seals's fairly often; many an afternoon found us singing along with "Bop," "Old Yellow Car" and "Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold)" among others.  I would be exaggerating to say I was a "big fan."  Still, it is a very peculiar thing when people you associate with your childhood die.

DVD: "Swing Vote"

Swing Vote
Directed by Joshua Michael Stern
Written by Jason Richman & Joshua Michael Stern
Starring: Kevin Costner, Paula Patton, Kelsey Grammer, Dennis Hopper, Nathan Lane, Stanley Tucci, George Lopez and Introducing Madeline Carroll
DVD Release Date: 13 January 2009
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (For Language)
List Price: $29.99

The Film
"Bud" (Costner) is an oblivious Joe Sixpack raising his daughter Molly (Carroll) in small town Texico, New Mexico.  On Election Day, Molly sneaks in and forges a ballot in her ignorant father's name...that is not completed because a custodian inadvertantly unplugs the machine.  As fate (or, at least, this film's plot) would have it, every other vote has been counted and the result is a complete tie.  Bud is entitled to legally re-cast his ballot ten days later, during which time incumbent President Boone (Grammer) and Democrat challenger Greenleaf (Hopper) court him publicly for the presidency.

The DVD
I've never before been asked to choose between English and Spanish at the very start of a DVD before Swing Vote.  I assume that, had I selected Spanish, that the trailers, menus and bonus features all would have been either dubbed or subtitled in Spanish.  In any event, you get a brief featurette of the director Stern, his co-writer Richman and the principle cast explaining what drew them to the project, a music video by Costner's Modern West band set to footage from the film and a few deleted scenes with optional commentary by Stern.  Note: This was a Redbox rental, so I have not listened to the feature audio commentary.

The Recommendation
The political plot is contrived, though this is sensibly explained at the very beginning of the film, meaning we're simply asked to go with it from the start.  There are several genuinely humorous moments involving the two candidates and their campaign managers (Lane and Tucci).  I have never been a fan of fictitious presidencies, and this film does not change that for me.  The real story of the film, though, is the evolving relationship between Bud and Molly, and this is where Swing Vote succeeds.  Madeline Carroll not only makes this aspect of the story, she really makes the whole film, easily moving from being a precocious small-town girl with aspirations of life away from Texico to a tormented girl struggling to convince herself that her dad really will one day be the responsible parent she needs him to be.  As a political allegory, Swing Vote is contrived and cliched; as a father/daughter story, it is sincerely moving at times.

26 March 2009

"Cruel Shoes" by Steve Martin

Cruel Shoes
Steve Martin
Date of Publication: June 1979
Cover Price: $6.95
128 pages

In LaGrange stands Karen's Book Barn.  Most customers peruse the obvious shelves of books for sale, all arranged on shelves where the subjects are clearly labeled.  They buy their coffee, maybe find something on the shelf, maybe place a special request and then they depart.  These are the ones who miss the real gem of the place: the basement.  Downstairs are far more books than are housed upstairs.  The disadvantage is that they are haphazardly strewn about, collecting dust; many are at least on shelves, but just as many are scattered across tables and in boxes.  The upshot is that there are some great finds waiting to be retrieved.  I was certain I'd found just such a diamond in the rough when I found a first printing of Steve Martin's Cruel Shoes.

Calling this a book depends almost exclusively on the definition of a book being a bound collection of printed pages, ostensibly united by a common theme.  The 128 pages include several full-page photographs of Martin performing on stage, as well as select photos of his backstage dressing room.  The print, spacing and margins are so large that today, a publisher would tell even a star of Martin's stature this is little more than a pamphlet.

By now, you're wondering what Cruel Shoes even is.  There are 52 absurdist...stories?  I really don't know how to characterize them.  What I can say, though, is they make Steven Wright look conventional.  Consider the following:
YES, SHE WAS WITTY; yes, she was intelligent.  She was born of high station.  She spoke and walked proudly.  She was the kind who displayed nobility, who showed style and class.  But above all, she had the jugs.
Many people called her by her last name; some closer friends had a confidence with her and shared the intimacy of her first name.  But to me, she was always "Lady jugs a-plenty."
It is true.  She was clever and she was charming, but above all, she had the jugs.
That is "She Had the Jugs," in its entirety, as printed on page 54.  Nowhere else in Cruel Shoes is this woman referenced.  One could scarcely even call these jokes, as there is no obvious punchline (except in a few, such as "Wrong Number").  Perhaps this material works best performed live by its author to an appreciative audience.  Isolated to the printed page, though, one begins to question how long it can possibly go before something recognizable as humor emerges.

And that's the charm of this little collection.  There is no punchline.  This is absurdity in its truest form.  Lewis Caroll himself never imagined such nonsense.  Fans expecting to laugh should instead expect to scratch their heads.  All I can say definitively is that the photographs by Bobby Klein (and one by S. Schwartz) alone make this volume worth owning.

23 March 2009

25 Years of Turtle Power!

This year is, believe it or not, the silver anniversary of the Turtles's debut.  Mirage Comics, Playmates Toys, Lionsgate, Warner Bros. and Ubisoft are combining for a year-long Shell-abration.  In addition to new Turtles animated series episodes, comics and action figures, the following will all be labeled as part of the 25th Anniversary:

Turtle Power in Print
The Turtles first appeared in Mirage Comics's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 in 1984 (unless you count their appearance on the back cover of Gobbledygook #1 as their first appearance); a 25th anniversary reprint will be available 2 May...for free!  It's part of the annual Free Comic Book Day.  On 14 June, Mirage will issue the 540-page TMNT Collected Book, Volume One, reprinting the first eleven issues in their entirety.

Turtle Power to Play
Action figures were always a part of the Turtle experience, and Playmates Toys's original molds are being brought back this year!  In addition to the four Turtles themselves, April O'Neil, Splinter, Shredder, Foot Soldier, Rocksteady, Bebop, Slash and Casey Jones will be available soon.  Figures weren't the only toys, though, and they won't go it alone this year, either; you can also get your grubby little paws on the Party Wagon!  There will also be a separate line of figures based on the Turtles's original comic book appearances; this line will also include Splinter, Shredder and a Foot Soldier.  Gamers should look to the fall for the release of Ubisoft's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Smash-Up.

Turtle Power to Watch
Lionsgate is up to the seventh season of its DVD release of the classic animated series.  Rather than one four-disc set, though, they've decided to release each disc separately...boxed with a replica of one of Playmates's original Turtles!  Disc 1 is packaged with Leonardo; 2 Michaelangelo; 3, Donatello; 4, Raphael.  Warner Bros. is also going to issue a boxed set of all four movies on DVD and Blu-Ray Disc in August.

"Adventures in the Screen Trade" by William Goldman

Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting
William Goldman
Date of Publication: 30 March 1983
Cover Price: $17.50
418 pages

William Goldman may not be familiar by name, but you're bound to recognize his work.  The subtitle, "A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting," would suggest that this is Goldman's memoirs.  In truth, this is really more of an introduction for laymen to how movies are made, told from a screenwriter's perspective.  There are three sections, each distinctive in its offerings.

The first section is an introduction of the key roles in films, complete with anecdotes illustrating each's ability to influence the outcome of the project.  Studio people with power of approval, directors, writers, actors, stars, agents; Goldman's thesis is that each is insecure and paranoid, and that everything one does is strictly to better his own idea of what his own self-interest might be.  A star encounters an agent at a gathering, and the latter scoffs at the former having to take a taxi on the way, rather than a limousine being sent for him; the star switched agents not long after.  Sound petty?  Sure it is; but petty by which party?  The agent who poached a client, the star who was talked into being upset about taking a taxi...or the original agent, who saw fit not to pamper his star client?  What of Dustin Hoffman deliberately making an aged Lawrence Olivier go through a series of physically demanding takes just to wear out the acting legend?  Olivier's graceful compliance--with nary a registered complaint--underscores not only Hoffman's insecurity and pettiness, but exposes the difference between a star and a real actor.

The second portion of Goldman's book is chock full of anecdotes from his film work up to the date of writing, on a film-by-film basis.  How's this for a filmography: Charly, Masquerade, Harper, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Thing of It Is..., The Stepford Wives, The Great Waldo Pepper, All the President's Men, Marathon Man, The Right Stuff, Great Hotel and A Bridge Too Far.  Of these, only Butch and Bridge are written glowingly.  In point of fact, Goldman spent five years working to make Great Hotel...and ultimately removed himself from the project; the rest, he completed and the results varied.

What makes this volume so fascinating, though, is the third act: "Da Vinci."  The title refers to a short story published by Goldman in 1960, which is included in its entirety.  Goldman then walks us through how he would approach adapting his short story as a screenplay.  Once that's finished, he presents a screenplay (again, in its entirety).  These three pieces (story, screenplay and notes about the adaptation process) were then sent to key movie-makers for their thoughts on how each would approach this were it an actual film.  Production designer Tony Walton, cinematographer Gordon Willis, editor Dede Allen, composer David Grusin and director George Roy Hill each weigh in about not only how each works in general (expanding the scope of Goldman's book in the process), but questions and remarks concerning this specific screenplay.

Anyone who has seen or heard Goldman speak on a DVD feature will expect the salty language that permeates this work.  This is a guy that is entirely in love with movies, and largely frustrated by participating in the making of them.  (Small wonder, once you've read these "adventures.")  Very few people named in this account come off very well; Olivier and Richard Attenborough are the only two that come to mind as I write this.  Even Robert Redford, with whom Goldman collaborated several times, fails to come out of this unscathed.

Be advised that there is a streak of sexism throughout--key personnel, when not named, are called "he;" there are "copy girls" and other such titles.  These are not necessarily to be taken as Goldman's sexism, though, but rather a reflection of the industry at the time.  Even today, there are few women directors, studio executives or producers.  For those who aspire to change that, I would strongly suggest they start by reading this account of the dangers and frustrations that lie ahead.

Note: A subsequent edition includes the complete screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  This is noted on the cover of such printings.

22 March 2009

Film: "I Love You, Man"

I Love You, Man
Directed by John Hamburg
Story by Larry Levin
Screenplay by John Hamburg and Larry Levin
Starring: Paul Rudd, Jason Segel, Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg, J.K. Simmons, Jane Curtin, Jon Favreau, Jaime Pressly
Date of Screening:  20 March 2009
MPAA Rating: R (For Pervasive Language, Including Crude and Sexual References)

Peter Klaven (Rudd) discovers, while planning his wedding to Zooey (Jones), that his serial monogamy has come at the expense of having friends.  He sets out to find at least one male friend in time for the wedding, going on a series of ill-fated "man dates" until he meets Sydney Fife (Segel).  Sydney's man child is the yin to Peter's yang; but is there room for Zooey in this bromance?

The cast is superb, including a terribly entertaining turn by Favreau and Pressly as married friends of Zooey's who are constantly at one another's throats.  There is nothing outrageously memorable (as, say, the pants-stain in Superbad), though it is charming and funny.  This film needs to be seen with a large audience, though; I saw it in a theater where my wife, friend and I comprised about a third of the audience size and the absence of room-filling laughter cheapened the experience.

There are, however, several problems with the film.  For one, it's entirely too long--especially in the first half.  The reason this is the case is that most of the humor hinges on Peter being awkward in his pursuit of a buddy, and this is personified by his spontaneous, nervous habit of inventing absolutely horrible catchphrases and nicknames.  As his friendship with Sydney develops, though, this eventually yields to a more confident (and more normal) way of speaking.

As a premise, it's not bad, except that it is entirely too reminiscient of Kevin James's performance in the TV series King of Queens.  This connection is driven home by a subplot wherein Peter is trying desperately to sell the $4 million home of...Lou Ferrigno.  The film, simply put, could have benefitted from at least one more draft and one more edit.  Too many moments were left in that simply stall the story; in today's DVD world, there is simply no reason to include so many scenes of Rudd stammering into a phone in the theatrical release.

Ultimately, fans of Rudd and Segel will be amused--if not thoroughly roused--by I Love You, Man.  Fans of King of Queens are even likelier to enjoy it.

19 March 2009

DVD: "Howard the Duck" - Special Edition

Howard the Duck
Directed by Willard Huyck
Screenplay by Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz
Based on the Marvel Comics Character "Howard the Duck" Created by Steve Gerber
Starring: Lea Thompson, Jeffrey Jones, Tim Robbins
DVD Release Date: 10 March 2009
MPAA Rating: PG
List Price: $14.98
Cinescopes Personality Types: Magical Creator, Youthful Sage, Chosen Adventurer

The Film
Minding his own business, Howard is inexplicably drawn from Duckworld and through space to ours.  His only companion is Beverly (Thompson), leader of an up-and-coming girl band in Cleveland.  Through Phil (Robbins), they are introduced to Dr. Jenning (Jones), who is apparently responsible for the scientific-experiment-gone-wrong that drew Howard here in the first place.  Their effort to reverse the action and send Howard home backfires, though, instead retrieving one of the banished Dark Lords from space!

The DVD
There are two new features; one, "A Look Back at Howard the Duck" focuses on the production of the film.  The other, "Releasing the Duck," spotlights post-production and the disappointing reaction to the film upon its release in 1986.  There are four vintage features that last a few minutes apiece, and two teaser trailers.  Curiously, the trailers play back-to-back and there is no option of viewing them individually.

The Recommendation
George Lucas, Gloria Katz, Willard Huyck--their previous collaboration was the outstanding American Graffiti.  Lea Thompson was fresh off Back to the Future; Tim Robbins, Top Gun on his way to his breakout in Bull Durham.  Katz and husband Huyck felt this would have been better as an animated feature and Universal was too impatient to wait that long.  Still, being in the hands of Phil Tippett (stop-motion effects), Ben Burtt (sound editing) and John Barry (composer) should have been a safe place for any film.  The film has developed a cult following, and these fans would argue that it was simply ahead of its time.  They may be right.  Aside from the fact that, obviously, today the film would have a CGI Howard, it has aged fairly well in truth; parents should know, however, that this was a 1986 PG; today, it would easily be a PG-13.

18 March 2009

MPAA Ratings Chart

This used to be on display at the Great Escape Oldham 8 in LaGrange, and I was always entertained by the rabbit.  Note that he is not included in the group allowed into the R-rated film, but, wearing sunglasses, is there for the NC-17 film!  Also note that only G-Rated films are deemed appropriate for giraffes and minority males.

Incidentally, I really want a legible large scan of the MPAA's PG or PG-13 ratings to use as the new header image of this blog.  I can't find one, so if anyone out there can point me in the right direction, I'd appreciate it.  You may recall that, back in the day, the small text simply stated what the rating classification meant (i.e., "Parental Guidance Suggested"); today, they spell out what elements of the film earned the rating.  Given a choice, I'd prefer the more generic text for the purpose of this blog.

DVD: "Bubba Ho-Tep" - Collector's Edition

Bubba Ho-Tep
Screenplay & Directed by Don Coscarelli
Based on the Short Story by Joe R. Lansdale
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis, Ella Joyce, Heidi Marnhout and Bob Ivy as "Bubba Ho-Tep"
DVD Release Date: 25 May 2004
MPAA Rating: R (For Language, Some Sexual Content and Brief Violent Images)
List Price: $19.98
Cinescopes Personality Types: Existential Savior, Destined Hunter

The Film
In one of the two commentary tracks, Bruce Campbell characterizes this film as Grumpy Old Ghostbusters and that's a pretty good summation.  A cursed mummy (Ivy) has been released following a road accident near a nursing home, which he quickly learns is a prime hunting ground.  Opposing him are Sebastian Haff (Campbell), who is really Elvis Presley.  Elvis, it seems, tired of the publicity machine and pulled a "prince and the pauper" switcheroo with a dedicated Elvis impersonator back in the early '70s.  To thwart the mummy, Elvis unites with Jack (Davis), a man who claims to be the brain of President John F. Kennedy, surviving the assassination attempt in Dallas by being transplanted into the body of an African-American.  It's every bit as absurd as this synposis makes it sound.

The DVD
As mentioned, there are two commentary tracks.  The first features screen-writer/director Coscarelli and star Campbell; the second is entirely Campbell in character as "The King," in which he laments the vulgarity of the script and its frequently cheap production values.  It's worth the additional 92 minutes to hear this stuff.  The production is detailed in four featurettes: one on the making of the film, one on the mummy make-up and effects, one on the Elvis costuming and the fourth on Brian Tyler's score.  You also get a photo gallery, the original theatrical trailer and TV spot and a music video.  The most interesting feature--by virtue of being something I've never seen on another DVD--is an reading by Joe R. Lansdale of the first chapter of his original short story.

The Recommendation
Let's be honest.  Chances are, if you're a Bruce Campbell fan, you've already heard of this film, seen it, loved it and bought this DVD.  Otherwise, this is likely the first time you've encountered this and if the concept of Elvis Presley and JFK secretly being alive in a nursing home, banding together to fight a soul-devouring mummy hasn't piqued your interest, then this simply isn't for you.

DVD: "Pocahontas" - 10th Anniversary Edition

Pocahontas
Directed by Mike Gabriel & Eric Goldberg
Screenplay by Carl Binder, Susannah Grant, Philip LaZebnik
Starring the Voice Talent of: Irene Bedard, Judy Kuhn, Mel Gibson, David Ogden Stiers, Russell Means, Linda Hunt, James Apaumat Fall
DVD Release Date: 3 May 2005
MPAA Rating: G
List Price: $29.99
Cinescopes Personality Types: Chosen Adventurer, Magical Creator

The Film
Think "Romeo & Juliet: Jamestown."  In this version of the legend, Pocahontas (Bedard/Kuhn) is at least in her late teens and not particularly interested in the marriage to the stoic Kocoum (Fall) arranged by her father, the tribe's chieftain (Means).  Enter: the arrival of the Virginia Company, headed by the gold-seeking Governor Ratcliffe (Ogden-Stiers).  Savage-slaying John Smith (Gibson) secretly meets Pocahontas, and as they come to learn from one another, their respective people escalate toward an inevitable violent confrontation.

The DVD
For the tenth anniversary, Disney restored a cut musical segment of Mel Gibson singing "If I Never Knew You" into the film; fans may recall the song was performed over the end credits by Jon Secada and Shanice.  If you prefer the film without (or simply want to compare the two versions), you have your choice--just go to "Set Up" in the main menu; otherwise, if you simply hit "Play Movie," it is the anniversary version that plays.  The anniversary edition also includes a commentary by producer James Pentecost and co-directors Gabriel and Goldberg.  Otherwise, nearly every bonus feature to be found on these two discs are vintage material, including production art, a 28:00 documentary hosted by Irene Bedard and the obligatory excised segments of songs re-invented as sing-alongs.

The Recommendation
Historians should content themselves that much of the film's background imagery and depictions of Powhatan rituals were reasonably well-researched because the principal plot of the film is based entirely on the legend of Pocahontas, rather than fact.  Once you get past that and simply take the film as a film, it's quite enjoyable.  Largely, this is due to the mature handling of the story by Disney--for once, the animals do not sing.  There are some not-so-subtle messages (pro-environment, anti-prejudice) that perhaps mean more today than they did in 1995.  Parents should know there are two on-screen shootings, including one on-screen death.

16 March 2009

Film: "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Directed by Steve Barron
Story by Bobby Herbeck
Screenplay by Todd W. Langen and Bobby Herbeck
Starring: Judith Hoag, Elias Koteas
Date of Screening: 14 March 2009
MPAA Rating: PG
Cinescopes Personality Type: Chosen Adventurer

I distinctly recall the frenzy that greeted this film nineteen years ago for its initial release.  I was eleven years old, and I loved the Turtles.  Most of the audience, I would suspect, expected the film to resemble the animated series that we had come to know and adore.  Little did we suspect that it would, instead, favor the original comic book series--something none of us knew a thing about, in all honesty--as its basis.  It's hard to say the film is played "seriously" when it revolves around four anthropomorphic turtles trained as ninjas, but the humor is certainly not as juvenile as was the cartoon.

The screenplay is, effectively, an amalgamation of the first several issues of the comic book series.  Splinter (the rat) learned to be a ninja from his master, Hamato Yoshi.  Yoshi fled to New York with Tang Shen, the woman he loved, rather than fight rival Oroku Saki for her; Splinter watched from his cage as they both fell before Saki's hand.  Escaping, he encountered four turtles in the sewer, coated in radioactive muck.  Before long, the five of them have anthropomorphized and Splinter has trained them as ninjas, naming them after Renaissance artists--Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Donatello and Raphael.  The story picks up some years after the fact, as a rash of thefts plagues the city.  News journalist April O'Neil (Hoag) has turned up reports that the activities bear a strong resemblance to previous robberies committed a while back in Japan.  In case you need me to connect the dots, Saki (now operating as "The Shredder") is behind them, having become a sort of martial arts master Fagin.

I was honestly surprised at how well the film has held up over the years.  Granted, any screening benefits from an audience that already loves the film, and nearly everyone laughed in unison at the same parts throughout the 95 minute long feature.  That's the kind of audience buzz that is unique to screenings of older movies, and one of the reasons I continue to delight in the Midnights at the Baxter series.  As a bonus, they arranged for us to be fed pizza from Spinelli's (included with the price of admission), and my wife discovered their concession stand's fountain drinks include Cherry Coke!

The print itself could have been better, though this is nitpicking.  Many of the dark frames looked very over-exposed, giving off a grainy, gray-ish look.  Also, there were two or three moments that "skipped."  For a nineteen year old print, it's hard to complain, though.  On a personal note, I found it especially rewarding to have introduced my 13 year old cousin to not only this film, but the Turtles in general.  Mayhaps Baxter will see fit to screen Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze soon?

14 March 2009

DVD: "Alice in Wonderland" - The Masterpiece Edition

Alice in Wonderland
Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske
Based upon the Novels "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking-Glass" by Lewis Carroll
Starring the Voice Talent of: Kathryn Beaumont, Ed Wynn, Richard Haydn, Sterling Holloway, Jerry Colonna, Verna Felton
DVD Release Date: 27 January 2004
MPAA Rating: G
List Price: $29.99, Currently Out of Print
Cinescopes Personality Types: Magical Creator, Youthful Sage, Existential Savior

The Film
It took Walt Disney more than twenty years to get this project off the ground, and when he finally got it going, it took five years and three million dollars to complete.  Rather than limiting the writers to the scope of Lewis Carroll's famed novel, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," Disney authorized this amalgamation of both of Carroll's "Alice" stories.  The film follows the structure of "Wonderland" (Alice's boring day of studying with her sister is interrupted by a talking White Rabbit, whom she follows into the surreal Wonderland), but several segments were taken from "Looking-Glass."  Perhaps this is because they feared they might not get to adapt the second book later, or perhaps because they felt it enhanced the Wonderland experience.

The DVD
The first thing you should know is that Alice in Wonderland was produced in a 4:3 aspect ratio, meaning there is no widescreen edition.  Beyond that, this lives up to its billing as "The Masterpiece Edition."  The only thing missing from this DVD release is a commentary track of some kind--a common feature absent on Disney DVDs.  New material includes are a few "set top games" (things you play using your DVD remote); one is a virtual tea party that features a newly cast Alice and Mad Hatter.  Kathryn Beaumont (the voice of Alice) introduces a recorded--but deleted--song for the Cheshire Cat, "I'm Odd."  "The Unbirthday Song" and "All in the Golden Afternoon" are excised and presented as sing-alongs.

Where this release really shines, though is in the vintage material.  There is a "One Hour in Wonderland" TV broadcast from Christmas Day 1950 in which the Magic Mirror is used to show excerpts from previous features to a party hosted by Walt Disney and attended by, among others, Kathy Beaumont.  (Warning: it is impossible to not want a refreshing Coca-Cola while watching this.)  Beaumont and Sterling Holloway (voice of the Cheshire Cat) also appear in character in an excerpt from The Fred Waring Show in which they lead an elaborate stage performance of a medley of the songs from the film.  There is also an original, 11:05 long behind-the-scenes documentary of the making of the film, more than 12 minutes' worth of song demos, two original trailers (one for the 1951 release, the other for a subsequent re-issue), and an art gallery.

You also get two vintage short films inspired by the "Wonderland" stories: an original Mickey Mouse short, Thru the Mirror, as well as a silent short film written, produced and directed by Walt Disney in 1923 called Alice's Wonderland.  Cementing Disney's adoration of the stories are his original introductions to the TV broadcasts of this film version in 1954 and 1964.

The Recommendation
Fans of the Lewis Carroll original stories might balk at first at Disney's conflation of the two books, but I think the essence of Carroll's stories shines through.  Yes, things have been omitted or re-sequenced, but the feel of Carroll's works is unmistakable.  The Cheshire Cat has forever staked a claim in the annals of Disney characters, in no small part due to Sterling Holloway's reading of the character.  If there is one complaint to be registered with this film, it's that to boast the record for number of songs in the film, only "The Unbirthday Song" is remotely memorable.  There is no "When You Wish Upon a Star" or "Circle of Life" to be found here, and that's greatly disappointing from this particular studio.

Note that, while this is currently out of print, it is rumored to be considered as an inclusion in Disney's hallowed Platinum Edition line of titles for its next re-issue, due in a few years.

"Thank You for Smoking" by Christopher Buckley

Thank You for Smoking
Christopher Buckley
Date of Publication: 17 May 1994
Cover Price: $22.00
272 pages

As you may recall, one of my 2009 reading goals is to get to some of the books that have been the basis for some of my favorite films. Thank You for Smoking was adapted and directed by Jason Reitman in 2004, and quickly became one of my top twenty favorite films of all time thanks largely to the sardonic humor and Aaron Eckhart's irresistibly charming portrayal of lead character Nick Naylor. It's always difficult coming to a written work after seeing the film version of it, because of two things.

First, the notion of being cheated out of being able to visualize characters and other elements for yourself because you see the actors and sets from the film. For me, this is not much of a problem because I rarely visualize anything I read. To be honest, it helps me to read the character of Nick and picture Eckhart. Secondly, and this actually does apply to me, I find it difficult not to think of the film version while reading. I find myself thinking in terms of, "That was arranged in a different order," "They truncated that character/plot" and "Oh, so that's what that was about."

For those unfamiliar with the premise, it is the 1990s and Nick Naylor is the chief spokesman for the tobacco industry. We follow his efforts at maneuvering and finagaling the truth to his employers' advantage against the backdrop of the industry's political death throes. He largely justifies doing what he does using what is characterized as the "yuppie Nuremberg defense:" to pay the mortgage.

Buckley deftly paints a portrait of the D.C. climate of the '90s, complete with fictionalized versions of many real figures. At one point, Nick makes small talk about wondering who will succeed Morton Kondracke on The McLaughlin Group, noting, "Boy...the things we care about in Washington...." The problem is that Buckley has left alone the history up through the Nixon administration, but has re-written is successors. Naylor, as a news correspondent, mistakenly reported the death of a President Broadbent, for which he was drummed out of journalism; John Hinckley is still locked up, though President Reagan is never named--rather, a President Finisterre was assassinated (it is never connected to Hinckley), and his nephew is fighting for his political life by going after tobacco.

By moving back and forth between reality and fiction, Buckley treats us to an insider's view of our system and then, without warning, takes us out of the story entirely. Curiously, it's the invocation of the fictitious characters that ruin the effect. Given that the story never actually involves these people, I cannot fathom why it matters that Nick's journalistic faux pas involved a President Broadbent; it could just as believably been President Ford, or Carter.

In any event, the story is greatly entertaining from start to finish. As a political junkie, I find it titillating; as someone with a bent sense of humor, I laughed aloud countless times. I would recommend that anyone interested in this story see the film first, though. The reason I say this is that the original novel--with numerous different plot points, including an entirely alternate conclusion--costs the film some of its luster. I think, were I to have read the novel first, I would have never thought so highly of the Reitman adaptation.

13 March 2009

DVD: "Knocked Up" - Unrated and Unprotected

Knocked Up
Written and Directed by Judd Apatow
Starring: Seth Rogen, Katherine Heigl, Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Jason Segel, Martin Starr
DVD Release Date: 25 September 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
List Price: $19.98
Cinescopes Personality Types: Vivacious Romantic, Invincible Optimist

The Film
What if a chick flick and a stoner movie made a movie baby?  Alison (Heigl) goes clubbing with her sister (Mann) to blow off some steam.  She has too much to drink and goes home with slacker Ben Stone (Rogen), becoming (in case the title wasn't a dead giveaway) pregnant.  Concurrent with Alison's struggles to whip Ben into shape as a prospective father are her sister's marital woes, further discouraging the idea that relationships can possibly work out.

The DVD
Insights abound in the commentary track featuring writer/director Apatow, Rogen and supporting actor Bill Hader (whose contributions largely consist of sporadic impressions).  For instance, many of the film's story elements came from Apatow's real life experiences with wife Leslie Mann, embellished for the sake of comedy.  There is a brief featurette on how they forced Jay Baruchel to ride a roller coaster against his will for a scene, and a truly bizarre segment of a clash between Apatow and Bennett Miller (director of Capote, allegedly sent by Universal to oversee Apatow's directorial debut).  They play the whole thing straight, as though they really are at each other's throats (figuratively and literally), but one cannot imagine such an embarrassing situation being allowed onto a DVD except as a gag.  Otherwise, the only features are deleted, expanded and alternate scenes--none of which feature a commentary.  There is also a 2-Disc Collector's Edition with additional features.

The Recommendation
At its heart, Knocked Up is either an "opposites attract" romance or a tale about reluctantly maturing into manhood, depending on with which of the two main characters you identify.  A friend of mine argued that Ben's stoner friends are mere caricatures, that most people don't have real friends like that.  I have reflected on that, and decided that they are necessary to give true perspective on Ben's arc.  Besides, they help give the film some escapist fun, and that's needed in films.  Apatow found the humor, but more importantly, the humanity, of this scenario.  What makes this film so enjoyable is that at least one of the main four characters (Alison, Ben, Debbie or Pete) is instantly identifiable for the audience.

11 March 2009

AFI's Top 100 Movie Poster Classics

I missed it, but in 2003, the American Film Institute ranked the one hundred greatest movie posters of the 20th Century.  Movie Goods has a collection of replicas, shown in a ranked gallery you can view here.  At the risk of spoiling the whole thing for you, I can tell you the top ten are as follows:
  1. Gilda (1946)
  2. Sin of Nora Moran (1933)
  3. The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
  4. The Mummy (1932)
  5. King Kong (1933)
  6. The Kid (1921)
  7. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
  8. The Birth of a Nation (1915)
  9. South of the Rio Grande (1932)
  10. Cleopatra (1917)

DVD: "Glory" - Special Edition

Glory
Directed by Edward Zwick
Screenplay by Kevin Jarre
Based on the Books "One Gallant Rush" by Peter Burchard and "Lay This Laurel" by Lincoln Kirstein
And the Letters of Robert Gould Shaw
Starring: Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes and Morgan Freeman
DVD Release Date: 30 January 2001
MPAA Rating: R
List Price: $19.94
Cinescopes Personality Types: Loyal Warrior, Passionate Maverick

The Film
Patrician class Union officer Robert Gould Shaw (Broderick), survivor of the battle at Antietam, accepts promotion to colonel and agrees to command the first regiment of African-American soldiers.  Among the men under his command are Trip (Washington, who earned an Academy Award for this performance) and Rawlins (Freeman), who is made a non-commissioned officer and serves as a sort of liaison between the colonel and his men.

The DVD
There are two commentaries; an audio commentary by director Zwick and a video commentary that alternates between Zwick and actors Broderick and Freeman.  Disappointingly, Zwick's video commentary is just excerpts from his full-length audio track and the three were not recorded together.  Zwick's insights largely relate to the shooting of each scene; Broderick, the evolution of the film from script to shooting.  Freeman's insights are the most interesting, as he places the events of the film in their historical context.  What I would give to sit in on a history class taught by that guy!

Other features include "The Voices of Glory," in which excerpts from surviving letters from the real members of the 54th Massachussettes regiment are read against a narrative of the events that happened during and after the scope of the film.  Back in the VHS era, Tri Star also commissioned the production of an hour long documentary of the real soldiers and events directed by Ben Burtt and narrated by Freeman; it, too, is included, along with two deleted scenes (with optional commentary by Zwick) and talent files of the principals.  The original theatrical trailer is accompanied by trailers for two other films starring Washington (Devil in a Blue Dress and A Soldier's Story).  This is a two-disc set; disc one has the widescreen version of the film with both commentaries; disc two has the pan & scan version with the audio commentary and the rest of the features.

The Recommendation
Morgan Freeman laments the notion of African-American history being confined to February, arguing instead that "there is just history."  He's absolutely right, and this is a tale that had long gone forgotten by Americans before this film.  Shaw himself was real, and accurately depicted in the film; the rest of the characters are composites of the brave men who enlisted to serve in the War Between the States.  The least we can do for the legacy of these brave men is watch a film version of their story.  Glory is compelling, faithful and holds a permanent place in my top ten favorite films list.

Bonus: the score is James Horner's finest work, ever, and one of the greatest film scores of all time, nominated for an Academy Award and winning a Grammy.

DVD: "The Directors: John McTiernan"

The Directors: John McTiernan
Written, Produced and Directed by Robert J. Emery
Starring: John McTiernan, Alec Baldwin, Bonnie Bedelia, James Earl Jones, Andrew Vajna, Carl Weathers, Bruce Willis
Release Date: 14 December 1999
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
List Price: $9.98

The Television Episode
This episode of the American Film Institute's series, The Directors, spotlights John McTiernan.  As this was originally aired in 1997, only his first seven features are tracked.  New interview footage is cut with archived interviews as well as clips from these films.  The remarks from the actors consistently revolve around how decisive and determined McTiernan was on set, while the director himself largely laments how studio people and actor's entourages interfered with his work.

The DVD
There is an on-screen text list of the seven features directed by McTiernan as of the production of this episode.  Since this information is readily available on IMDB and there are only seven of them, I will tell you what they are: Nomads (1986), Predator (1987), Die Hard (1988), The Hunt for Red October (1990), Medicine Man (1992), Last Action Hero (1993) and Die Hard: With a Vengeance (1995).

The Recommendation
The film clips frequently include language one would not expect in a television documentary series.  Given that only dedicated film enthusiasts are likely to have any interest in this series in the first place, coupled with this particular filmography, I can't imagine any of the handful of people who watch this to be surprised or offended.  Any time you survey an entire filmography, there is a trade made between quantity and quality, and the bottom line is that there are few genuine insights into McTiernan's approach as a director to be gleaned from this.  It is really more of an introduction to his filmography than it is an insightful look at directing.  So, while I would nominally say this is for enthusiasts only, it's really for beginner enthusiasts.

09 March 2009

DVD: "Pitcher and the Pin-Up"

Pitcher and the Pin-Up
Directed by Drew Johnson
Written by Drew Johnson & David A. Burr
Starring: Drew Johnson, Corinna Harney-Jones, Donald Turner, Stephen Bishop, Paul Kent, Bo Hopkins with Wilford Brimley and John Saxon
DVD Release Date: 7 June 2005
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (For Some Violence, Sensuality and Brief Strong Language)
List Price: $5.98

The Film
Part Jerry Maguire, part Forrest Gump and part For Love of the Game, Pitcher and the Pin-Up traces Danny (Drew) and Melissa (Harney-Jones) from their first meeting at age eight through their respective rises to fame in their respective worlds.  Danny discovers he is a baseball phenom, while Melissa dreams of writing poetry.  What Danny discovers is that, like baseball, neither life nor love can be scripted.

The DVD
The DVD menu options are "Play movie" and "Chapters."  Suffice it to say, this is not a features-laden release.  There is a trailer for a Paul Hogan flick, Strange Bedfellows, that plays once you start the film.  Not the DVD, mind you; the film itself.  Screen Media Films must have been afraid that you might skip that if they let you.

The Recommendation
There are several cliches in this film, and had this been a studio film it would have suffered more from them.  Being an indie project, though, the nearly documentarian feel (coupled with the convincing performances of a nearly unrecognizable cast) overcome these moments that we've seen in other films.  In fact, what drives Pitcher and the Pin-Up is the idea that while these challenges and moments of triumph might be the climax of another film, they are simply moments in the lives of these characters.  It is greatly disappointing that Drew Johnson, who co-wrote, co-produced, starred in and directed this film, does not have a commentary track for the DVD release.  This is not so much a story about a baseball player as it is about relationships, and that is what is at the heart of nearly every great story.

08 March 2009

DVD: "Cool World"

Cool World
Directed by Ralph Bakshi
Written by Michael Grais & Mark Victor
Starring: Kim Basinger, Gabriel Byrne, Brad Pitt
DVD Release Date: 11 November 2003
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (For Language and Sensuality)
List Price: $14.99 - Currently Out of Print
Cinescopes Personality Type: Existential Savior

The Film
Cool World is a place where doodles (cartoons) exist.  World War II veteran Frank (Pitt) was mistakenly transported there in 1945, where he became a detective.  Jack Deebs (Byrne) is an ex-con released in 1992.  Jack has spent his time behind bars writing and illustrating a comic book based upon the Cool World, never anticipating that he would, himself, be taken there shortly after his release.  In the middle of these two is Holli Would (Basinger), a voluptuous and promiscuous doodle determined to escape to the real world--and become real herself.

The DVD
Unless you consider English subtitles a bonus feature, this is a barebones release.  Paramount didn't even see fit to include the original theatrical trailer!

The Recommendation
Cool World was released in the wake of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? suggesting that it was a similar concept--certainly the trailer conveyed that idea.  (I remember seeing it a thousand times because it was attached to the VHS release of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country back in the day.)  Parents ought to be advised that this film is entirely about sex.  It's not just that there are discussions about it, that there is a pivotal scene about it, or even that the entire plot hinges on sex; there is virtually nothing in the film that isn't about sex.  That said, for older audiences, there is perhaps a message about sexualized escapism that might ring a bit too true for geeks and fanboys.  Otherwise, the only one I could entirely recommend this to would be Jennifer Aniston.  Surely, she must find some satisfactory revenge in knowing that this is in Brad Pitt's filmography.

07 March 2009

Film: "Watchmen"

Watchmen
Directed by Zack Snyder
Screenplay by David Hayter & Alex Tse
Based upon the Graphic Novel Co-Created by Dave Gibbons and Published by DC Comics
Starring: Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson
Date of Screening: 6 March 2009
MPAA Rating: R (For Strong Graphic Violence, Sexuality, Nudity and Language)

Watchmen's reputation for being critically acclaimed has been rivaled only by its reputation as being unfilmable for 23 years.  Zack Snyder, with his panel-for-panel adaptation of Frank Miller's 300 under his belt, has attempted to bring the same faithfulness and attention to detail to Alan Moore's masterpiece.  The early knocks on the film version are that Snyder has slavishly sacrificed any originality of his own in favor of putting on the screen what Moore and Dave Gibbons put on page.

I had never read Watchmen, despite knowing my geek status would be incomplete until I did.  A friend lent me his copy of the trade paperback collection (what today's marketers call a graphic novel) of the original twelve issues and I finished reading it about forty minutes before showtime.

Before we go any further, you may wish to know the premise.  A costumed hero, The Comedian (Morgan) is murdered, instigating a murder investigation by Rorschach (Haley).  This is an alternative timeline, one in which a man capable of manipulating the laws of phyics themselves (Dr. Manhattan, played by Crudup) secured victory for the United States in Vietnam.  His power and presence not only helped carry President Richard Nixon into a constitutionally permitted third term of office, but has held the Cold War in check as there is nothing the Soviets could possibly use to counter him.  Regardless, the Doomsday Clock, a symbolic representation of the tensions between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., ticks ever closer to nuclear holocaust.  Who murdered The Comedian?  And what is the connection between the murder and the ever-escalating tensions?

Watchmen was originally published in 1986 and '87, when President Ronald Reagan's "peace through strength" policy convinced many around the world that a nuclear war was not only likely, but inevitable.  The real appeal of this story is not that it's a murder mystery about costumed heroes, but rather a commentary on humanity itself.  What kind of psychological and emotional causes could lead people to put on costumes and try to help others?  What do they do when it becomes an exercise in futility?  What are the effects of living under constant threat of Armageddon?

Unfortunately, most of these questions are best discussed in elements that Snyder cut from the theatrical release of his film.  As it stands, the 163 minute long film is convoluted enough for audiences who have not read the original source material, with its frequent flashbacks.  They work brilliantly in print, but the linear demands of the film medium may be confusing for general audiences.  Without the extra material, much of which focuses on ordinary citizens, the film adaptation loses much of the elements that made the graphic story so brilliant.  What is left is a murder mystery somewhat out of context.

Final judgment really must be reserved for the director's cut DVD release.  As it stands, all I can really say about Zack Snyder's film is that, in terms of faithfulness to dialogue and imagery, it is exactly the film Watchmen readers could ever have hoped to have.  In terms of telling the story of Watchmen, Snyder must surely have discovered in the editing room why this was long considered unfilmable.

"The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" by Dorothy M. Johnson

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and A Man Called Horse, The Hanging Tree, Lost Sister: The Great Western Stories of Dorothy M. Johnson
Dorothy M. Johnson
Date of Publication: 1 March 2005
Cover Price: $12.95
216 pages

At the risk of redundancy, this is a collection of four western short stories: "A Man Called Horse," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "Lost Sister" and "The Hanging Tree." These stories were originally published between 1947 and 1959; the afterward credits Johnson with not imposing 20th Century values on 19th Century characters, and you can well imagine the difference between even the values at the time of Johnson's writing and reading these stories today. They are unapologetically racist and sexist at times; coupled with Johnson's researched level of detail, one walks away from this collection having felt their authenticity.

Captive narratives were a popular 19th Century genre, and Johnson gives us two of them. "A Man Called Horse" is an eastern white man taken by a Crow tribe when he went west seeking adventure. An alternate title might have been, "The Ties That Bind," because Horse discovers a series of excuses and then reasons not to flee captivity. This is an allegedly accurate depiction of Crow rites and rituals of the time, explored through Horse's increasing conflict between his desire to return home and his growing obligations amongst the tribe.

The second captive narrative concerns the "Lost Sister," a tale about a middle-aged white woman being returned to her sisters after forty years living with the tribe that abducted her as a small girl. Owing to the age at which she was captured and the length of time spent with them, Bessie no longer has a white identity save a vague recollection of her one oldest sister, Mary. At the time of her abduction, Mary was her only sister and so her only tenuous link to her white identity. Had this been placed prior to "A Man Called Horse," it might easily be characterized as a Stockholm Syndrome story; having already seen in that earlier story the genuine bonds that could be formed between captor and captive--and how that relationship might easily transform into something far less adversarial--it becomes an inverted tale of captivity. Blood may be thicker than water, Johnson argues, but not thick enough.

Betwixt these two tales is "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." Having seen the 1962 film starring James Stewart and John Wayne before reading this, my reading was preoccupied with noting the vast differences between story and film incarnations. At its heart, this is a tale of western manhood; an aimless tenderfoot (Ransome Foster) mans up to seek vengeance against a bullying outlaw (Liberty Valance) after being thrashed and left for dead. Given my predilection for not spoiling stories--and since this is a generic blog, rather than a scholarly reading of literature--I will say nothing else about the tale at this time.

The final half of this book is the novella, "The Hanging Tree." A 19 year old woman (Elizabeth Armistead) is the lone survivor of a stage coach ambush outside a gold prospecting camp. She is eventually found, near death, and turned over to the care of Doc Frail. Frail returned to practicing medicine after his prospecting yielded a fortune, known to everyone in the ominously named Skull Creek mining camp. Where Ransome Foster's manhood was awakened by his encounter with Liberty Valance, Doc Frail discovered at the expense of his mining partner that he is, in fact, incapable of taking another life. He makes public his prowess with a gun and carries himself strongly, hoping all the while he will never again be tested and shown to be the coward he is.

Partly, "The Hanging Tree" is a further examination of western machismo; it is also a discussion of the corruptive power of wealth. Because of its length, these are easily the best developed characters in the collection and stand in testament to Johnson's devotion to telling stories about humanity. What constitutes a man? For that matter, a woman? Elizabeth struggles to establish her own identity, having always deferred to her father; she finds no welcome among the few other women in the camp. Simply put, students of gender issues will find much to contemplate as they read of Doc and Elizabeth.

Technically, there are several typographical errors in this publication; many of them in "The Hanging Tree." The font size is rather large, and the spacing generous; despite its 217 page count, I read the entire collection over about four hours. As I've previously confessed, I am hardly a great student of the American West; I prefer to let that era exist in its mythological state, rather than debunk the wonder of the time with the deflating disappointment of truth. In any event, I wholeheartedly recommend this collection to fans of short fiction. I doubt other fans of the film version of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance will get much out of the original short story; I've not seen the film adaptations of "A Man Called Horse" or "The Hanging Tree" so I cannot comment on those. Taken entirely as short stories, though, these are engaging--even if they conflict with our 21st Century sensitivities.

06 March 2009

AFI Best Ten Movies of 2008

The ten best films of 2008, alphabetically ranked by the American Film Institute:
  1. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  2. The Dark Knight
  3. Frost/Nixon
  4. Frozen River
  5. Gran Torino
  6. Iron Man
  7. Milk
  8. WALL-E
  9. Wendy and Lucy
  10. The Wrestler
I have, to date, seen just two of these ten.  Surprisingly, though, I did see both in their theatrical runs.  Not surprisingly, the two I saw were The Dark Knight and WALL-E.

DVD: "Mother, Jugs & Speed"

Mother, Jugs & Speed
Directed by Peter Yates
Screenplay by Tom Mankiewicz
Story by Stephen Manes and Tom Mankiewicz
Starring: Bill Cosby, Raquel Welch, Harvey Keitel, Allen Garfield, Dick Butkus, L.Q. Jones, Bruce Davison and Larry Hagman
DVD Release Date: 9 March 2004
MPAA Rating: PG
List Price: $9.98

The Film
In late 1970s Los Angeles, two independent ambulance companies vie for the coveted, lucrative, county contract.  This story follows the antics--mostly comedic, some particularly dramatic--of the titular trio.  "Mother" (Cosby) is the best driver in the whole county, and he has elected to work not for a better paying company, but one that indulges his desire to play his own taped music and drink beer during his shift.  "Jugs" (Welch) is F&B's secretary, who has secretly been working toward being certified as a medic.  "Speed" (Keitel) is a suspended police officer who needs a source of income pending his hearing and comes to F&B because being a medic is the only other skill he has, learned in Vietnam.

The DVD
Aside from the film itself, this DVD only includes trailers.  There are four for Mother, Jugs & Speed: the teaser, the theatrical trailer, the theatrical trailer with Spanish subtitles and a TV spot.  It's curious to note that only the teaser includes a line about "transporting dead bodies to the morgue," and in all my years of watching DVD's, this is the only one I know of that includes a subtitled trailer.  This DVD was also released in a boxed set, the Raquel Welch Collection, and so there are trailers for its other titles: Bandolero!, Fathom, Myra Breckinridge and One Million Years B.C.

The Recommendation
Fans might recognize the screenwriter (Mankiewicz) from his work on other 70s films such as Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die and Superman.  It's easy to see his storytelling sensibilities at work in this release; there is a comedic car chase sequence, and the characters tell jokes at the least opportune moments.  I first saw this film on TV many years ago, not in its entirety; rewatching it with my former EMT wife made it very different.  Most of today's audiences will content themselves to believe that the darker and sexist side of the ambulance world existed last at the time of this film; from my wife's experiences I sadly know this not to be true.  Perhaps that's what lends significance to the characters's desperate search for comedy in the face of such circumstances.  This is lighter than, say, Bringing Out the Dead, but there are still several moments (many involving a truly immoral performance by Larry Hagman) that make one question the labeling of this as a "comedy."

04 March 2009

DVD: "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" - Unrated Widescreen

The 40-Year-Old Virgin
Directed by Judd Apatow
Written by Judd Apatow & Steve Carell
Starring: Steve Carell, Catherine Keener, Paul Rudd, Seth Rogan, Romany Malco
DVD Release Date: 13 December 2005
MPAA Rating: Unrated
List Price: $19.98
Cinescopes Personality Types: Invincible Optimist, Vivacious Romantic, Dedicated Idealist

The Film
Andy (Carell) is the titular character, the termination of whose virginity becomes a quest for his stoner co-workers.  That's pretty much the entire premise.  You can imagine the kind of horrible guidance middle-aged stoners can be expected to give a guy in this situation, and they do not disappoint.

The DVD
Nearly every extra on the DVD is either an alternative, deleted or extended scene.  Given that the extended feature runs 2 hours, 13 minutes anyway, it's intimidating to consider what this film might have been had it included all these removed scenes.  There is a brief documentary of the filming of the infamous chest waxing scene (which is highlighted in all the trailers) that appears on both the rated and unrated DVD releases.  The unrated features include full versions of Andy's fantasies, and a brief segment of Seth Rogen talking with porn actress Stormy.  The DVD package lists "multiple cast commentary tracks," and this is misleading.  There is only one feature commentary (which features Apatow and nearly every member of the cast save Keener); the rest of the commentary tracks consist of Apatow and Rogen discussing select deleted scenes.  Why some of these extras are grouped under "Deleted Scenes" and include these commentaries and others stand alone as their own bonus feature, I cannot say.

The Recommendation
Given that Andy is a middle-aged geek, it would have been very easy for this film to be bullying about its treatment of guys who collect action figures past childhood.  Despite the fun poked at such guys via Andy, the film never devolves into meanness.  Furthermore, Andy's pursuit of sexuality is secondary to finding a woman with whom to develop an actual relationship.  We see his screening process, and it's actually nice to see that there's nothing wrong with holding out for something meaningful.  In nearly anyone else's hands, this film could easily have been a failure; instead, Apatow found the humanity in these characters and situations, and that's what makes it so endearing.  There is also 2-disc release that features more making-of material.