Thursday, January 16, 2014

Counterparts: John Sims & George Bailey

Yesterday I made mention of the film the Crowd (1928) by King Vidor, the last feature film remaining from my 2010 wish list, which I finally watched this week. I first learned of it from Kevin Brownlow's documentary series Hollywood and found the clips of massive skyscrapers and sprawling office spaces quite arresting.

The Crowd is a latter-day silent film, first arriving during the ascendency of the talkie. Throughout, Vidor demonstrated his mastery of images and found interesting ways of depicting life in a great city.

I think it's interesting to note some points of comparison between this film and its protagonist John Sims against George Bailey, protagonist of the much better-known It's a Wonderful Life (1946) by Frank Capra. Please indulge me, won't you?

Both films tell the story of an ambitious young man, beginning with his formative years near the start of the century, depicting his career and focusing on his love life and family, eventually bringing the protagonist to the brink of suicide.

However, the Crowd narrates its story directly to those of us in the audience, rather than through the intermediary of Clarence Oddbody in It's a Wonderful Life.

Both films' ambitious young protagonists are interrupted from daydreaming about their future when word arrives of their father's death.

However, while this leads to George Bailey being forced to take the reins of his father's business, John Sims is simply entrenched in fantasies about the great future his father insisted would come his way.

Both films bring their protagonists into office-bound careers they don't particularly want and only stifle their dreams of grander things.

However, George Bailey remains in his small town amongst family, remaining an indelible part of the community. John Sims leaves his small town origins for New York, where he sets himself apart from "the crowd," believing himself better than others. Further, George seems to have real plans of what he would do with his life where he not forced to operate the Bailey Savings & Loans, while John seems to expect great things will simply be handed to him.

Both films have their protagonists fall in love with a woman named Mary, although it wasn't part of their own plans.

However, while George's Mary seems to be the perfect supporting partner and their marriage is happy, John's Mary is forced to become pragmatic and struggle against her mayfly-like husband.

Both films send their protagonists into homes which are less than ideal.

However, while George's great frustration is with the loose bannister knob, John has two major problems in he and Mary's apartment: the bathroom door doesn't stay closed and an elevated train runs past their window.

Both films gift their protagonists with children.

However, while the arrival of children increases George's anxiety about his ability to be a good provider, John only reconciles an attempted separation when he learns Mary is pregnant; later, John is shown to be as lackadaisical in his work as ever and leaves most of the responsibility for the children to Mary.

Both films lead their protagonist into career-ending crises through circumstances beyond their control.

However, while George's career is threatened because of Mr. Potter's theft of his money, John quits his job of his own volition because the death of his second child has rattled his faculties.

Both films take the protagonist to the brink of suicide on a bridge, then pull him back.

However, while George requires supernatural intervention to halt his suicide, John simply lacks the courage to kill himself.

Both films grant the tormented protagonist a new view on life.

However, while George's spirit is restored through realizing how many peoples' lives he's touched, John's spirit is restored after learning his son looks up to him, even as he looked up to his own father.

Both films leave their protagonists pleased with their lot in life.

However, while George's career is rescued, John winds up dressed as a clown and carrying a sandwich board, the same kind of career John openly disparaged near the start of the film, but this is seen as triumphant because he saves his marriage and seems to have set realistic goals for himself.

Ultimately, it's interesting to note how similar (yet different) Vidor & Capra's thoughts were about the plight of men "trapped" by their careers. Both protagonists learn to give up their dreams and appreciate the goodness in their lives - but it's certainly a harsher lesson for John Sims to learn, given how far he falls.

Finally, given how for quite a few years John believes he could win an advertising slogan contest (he only attempts this once and wins, but otherwise doesn't put effort into this), one is reminded of yet another working-class protagonist who dreams of winning an advertising contest: Jimmy MacDonald of Preston Sturges' Christmas in July (1940). So there you go - King Vidor is the missing link between Capra and Sturges. You're welcome!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

That Darn List

One day in 2010, I sat down and watched A Personal Journey With Martin Scorcese Through American Movies, a 1995 special. As Scorcese listed off films from the 40s to 60s which fascinated him, I was amazed at how many were pictures I was unfamiliar with and just how arresting most of the featured film clips were. It was from this special I learned of Kevin Brownlow's Hollywood, which subsequently increased my interest in silent films. After both specials, I had quite a checklist of films I wanted to see.

Therefore, I decided to truly delve into cinema. I added to this wish list movies I had wanted to see since I was a teenager; I included the films of directors/stars I was particularly fascinated by; I included personal recommendations from friends. Still, it wasn't enough. I looked up recommendation lists by genre on IMDB & Wikipedia, taking particular note of genres I didn't normally watch. I consulted various other websites, such as Cockeyed Caravan. By the end, the films I wanted to see numbered well into the hundreds.

To watch those films, I resorted to borrowing from friends, libraries, performing online rentals, checking Youtube, Netflix, Google Video and and buying up quite a lot of films from Amazon & Alibris. Last night, I watched the last film from the original list.

Now, I originally assumed the last picture I would watch would be Peter Lorre's Der Verlorene (1951) because it's obscure, expensive and hard to acquire with subtitles. However, I had my own copy of Der Verlorene by 2011, thanks to a rare film dealer. Instead, the hard-fought battle was for a copy of King Vidor's the Crowd (1928). Surprisingly, it is not in the public domain. More surprisingly, the rights holder has never released it on DVD, even though (at the very least) a transfer from VHS would be possible. Perhaps they're just waiting for the resources to attempt a decent restoration of the film? The Big Parade (1925) received a restored DVD/Blu-Ray release last year and was part of the same VHS set the Crowd belonged to. In the end, I tracked down a reasonably-priced copy of the VHS edition of the Crowd.

Glancing over everything I watched, I would rank these films at the top; many of them will be very familiar to film fans, but at least it meant something to scratch them off my list:

About a Boy (2002)
The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
Being There (1979)
Cape Fear (1962)
Captains Courageous (1937)
Crime and Punishment (1935)
The Crowd (1928)
The Defiant Ones (1958)
Les Diaboliques (1955)
The Fallen Idol (1948)
A Few Good Men (1992)
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Gandhi (1982)
Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Grizzly Man (2005)
Gun Crazy (1950)
High Noon (1952)
Hoop Dreams (1995)
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932)
Ikiru (1952)
Journey Into Fear (1943)
Kagemusha (1980)
The Killing Fields (1984)
The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)
The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944)
Mr. Death: the Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999)
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Of Mice and Men (1939)
One That Got Away (1957)
One, Two, Three (1961)
One Week (1920)
Our Man in Havana (1959)
The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
Ran (1985)
The Right Stuff (1983)
Robin and Marian (1976)
Sanjuro (1962)
Scarface (1932)
Sleuth (1972)
The Spiral Staircase (1946)
Stage Door (1937)
Stand by Me (1986)
The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Three Comrades (1938)
Time After Time (1979)
To Be or Not to Be (1942)
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Unforgiven (1992)
Up (2009)
The Verdict (1982)
Der Verlorene (1951)
Wait Until Dark (1967)
Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
Yojimbo (1961)

These films, however... these I kind of regret watching:

Cat Women of the Moon (1953)
Men Are Such Fools (1938)
Midnight (1934)
Platinum Blonde (1931)
The Sign of the Cross (1932)
Solaris (2002)
Swing Your Lady (1938)
The Vanishing (1993)

Boy, Plantium Blonde... so far, the only Frank Capra picture I've disliked.

Exploring film genres I didn't normally watch yielded a few nice surprises; I was indifferent to the western genre before and made a concerted effort to give the genre a chance... it didn't really pan out, but I found at least a fistful of films I'm willing to say I enjoyed. While musicals were a part of my upbringing (being a music teacher's son), I'd had exposure to the genre, but felt I'd seen enough; Scorcese helped convince me to try out Busby Berkeley's films, which turned out to be immensely entertaining and replete with surprising visuals.

However, my greatest take-away from this experiment was the documentary film genre. I wouldn't have watched the Thin Blue Line if it hadn't appeared on various lists of "greatest documentaries" and... wow. I wound up watching all of Errol Morris' documentaries during the last 5 years (and read his book) and he's easily become my favourite living filmmaker. In turn, it's opened up my eyes to how interesting documentaries can be; rather than being simply educational (or polemical), they can reveal interesting stories and (in Morris' case) expose just how puzzling and random people are.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Warner-holics Synonymous

Ever one to enjoy a decent session of list-making, I've spent several months preparing this one on IMDB: a list of every Warner Bros. feature film from 1926-1956!

I've only seen about 10% of the films on the above list and I'm not certain how authoritative it is (unless I find a truly authoritative source listing ever Warner film from the period). I composed in part because I'm fascinated by that era of Hollywood and their assembly line manufacturing process, where the Warners would attempt to have a new movie in theaters every week. It's interesting for me to arrange all of those films in order if only to stare at the patterns which emerge amongst actors, directors and genres. It's also interesting to see just how much they cut back on quantity of films post-WW2.

Naturally, I'm also smitten with Warner pictures of the period - their unique look and feel, the strong ties to social ills of the times, the familiar actors and the frequently-recycled plots. I recently finished watching the complete filmography of Warner's greatest star, Humphrey Bogart; I'm now fascinated at the idea of doing the same with Warner faces like James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Errol Flynn, Bette Davis and so forth. I wouldn't go to these lengths for old studios like RKO, MGM or even the home of my beloved monsters, Universal, but the Warner Bros. films - oh yeah.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

What I read in 2013

Apparently I read an average of about 2 books per week in 2013. Yikes.


Why, you'd think I were making annual trips to the continent or something...

A number of these books turned out to be heavily steeped in opinion; books like They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children by Romeo Dallaire, We Wish To Inform You Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch, The Graves Are Not Yet Full by Bill Berkeley, Imperial Reckoning by Caroline Elkins (more about it here) and A Continent for the Taking by Howard W. French ultimately convinced me I've read enough opinions about Africa (especially the Rwandan genocide) and would prefer to read more African history.

So far as history is concerned, I really enjoyed Zulu by Saul David, which did a compelling job of explaining the Zulu War of 1879. Africa: a Biography of the Continent by John Reader was a different kind of historical book, as it begins its study of Africa's history around the time the continent was shaped. I found this latter book a little jumbled, but when it would take up particular threads of African history (especially by the time of the first European contact) it taught me a lot.

I should also mention Sword and Scalpel by Lory Lutz, a biography of my uncle's father, Dr. Robert Foster. Since my first trip to Angola, I've not only been learning more about Africa, but about this side of my family; the book explained a lot about the family's history, answering questions I hadn't even raised.


I finished up three of Peter Rollins' books in 2013: The Orthodox Heretic, Insurrection and the Idolatry of God; I was also fortunate enough to attend a lecture by Rollins and shake his hand. I don't always agree with Rollins' ideas, but I truly enjoy the way he upsets assumptions people make about their beliefs, seizing on angles which challenge the sort of stock answers people give when questioned about their faith.

Having seen Carl Medearis in 2012, I finally bought his book Speaking of Jesus last year; it really expounds upon the ideas Medearis talks about in his lectures, interviews and websites - and how to better communicate with non-Christians about faith.

I also read up on two classics: Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton; Chesterton is always lively in his essays, but the real discovery for me was Bonhoeffer and his ideas about the importance of community, something which has kept coming up in my own church activities.

I finished up the year with Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller (pretty good, similar to Peter Rollins) and, along a very different path, Commander of the Faithful by John W. Kiser, a biography of Ibn El-Kader, an Algerian Muslim who fought the French in the 1830s and won international recognition later in life for saving thousands from an attempted Christian massacre in Damascus. I first learned of El-Kader on this blog and the biography fascinated me, knowing as little as I did about Algeria's history. As the author notes, post-9/11, El-Kader is someone people in the western world could stand to learn more about. One wishes the openness between faiths which El-Kader sought in his life were achieved by our supposedly-enlightened age.

BOOKS ABOUT FILM I finally read Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut, the legendary series of interviews which I had read about in every book I own about Alfred Hitchcock. It was particularly interesting to hear Hitchcock describe his early days in his own words, but frustrating that he wanted to skip over so much of his own career - I wish Truffaut had held him a little closer to the fire, even on the films Hitchcock didn't particularly care for, as even Hitchcock's failures are still worthy of discussion.

I was utterly enthralled with Bogart by A.M. Sperber, which I read just as I was wrapping my exploration into Humphrey Bogart's entire filmography. Not only was Bogart's life extremely interesting, from his meager days as a supplicant at Warner to being the biggest man in Hollywood (albeit not particularly tall), but the history of Hollywood in those days had a few wrinkles I only thought I understood. The book's explanation of the HUAC hearings as an attempt by Republicans to link the Democrats to the communists so they could win back the White House had somehow never come up in any of the other histories I'd read about the "Red Scare."

The Parade's Gone By by Kevin Brownlow was a fine history of Hollywood's silent era, but a quite incomplete one (more about it here). Similarly, Groucho and Me by Groucho Marx skips around a lot with Groucho's life, seemingly focusing only on those memories Groucho linked to decent jokes he wanted to tell. Still, it was a very funny book. There was also Apocalypse on the Set by Ben Taylor, a tidy little book about how certain films became disasters. Each film assessed (such as Apocalypse Now and Heaven's Gate) could have held down a book about their breakdowns (and I believe they have).


After happening across the Bee-Man of Orn by Frank R. Stockton I went through a brief period of reading all the Stockton I could find - it's not all of the same quality, but the gentle humour in his fairy tale-like stories were a lot of fun, especially read on the bus first thing in the morning.

At last, I found the Adventures of Gerard by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the first of Doyle's Gerard collections (having read the other about 13 years ago). As I hoped, it was adventurous and whimsical with Gerard ever the clueless protagonist who's not nearly as clever as he thinks (yet, extremely lucky).

I delved into both Captain Blood and Captain Blood Returns by Rafael Sabatini, having loved the film version for years. I enjoyed the first book the most as the other was really a collection of short stories set between the events of the novel. Great light reading which has encouraged me to read more of Sabatini's books.

Were it not for the film I adaptation, I would have never touched Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but the film helped me realize it wasn't as ponderous as its reputation suggested. Sure enough, it was an extremely lively read, certainly deeper than the film. Speaking of which The Mouse That Roared by Leonard Wibberley turned out to be a lot more clever than the film and I had thought the film was pretty good! Some other books I came to having first enjoyed the film adaptations were the Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain and A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler.

I spent years hoping to find a copy of Mr. Mergenthwirker's Lobblies by Nelson S. Bond before finally obtaining it in 2013. I'd heard some adaptations of Bond's stories on the 1950s radio program Sleep No More and wanted to find more; it's a fantastic collection of short stories, taking some fun slants with old ideas. I should really write a blog entry about it!

Arsene Lupin by Maurice Leblanc proved to be the Raffles sequel I'd always wished for; like Raffles, it's a great collection of stories about a gentleman thief who outsmarts all his foes (even Sherlock Holmes in an unofficial crossover!). It's a fine collection of stories, always encouraging the reader to try and guess the twists ahead.

On a much more somber note, there's The Death of Grass by John Christopher, a desperately depressing tale in a post-Apocalypse vein where the worldwide loss of grass brings about the end of civilization. Given today's culture's current fascination with post-Apocalypse fare, this book's just waiting to be rediscovered.


Having enjoyed the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay so much, I keep giving Michael Chabon other chances, but having read the Yiddish Policeman's Union I think I've given him all the rope I'm willing to; I'm simply not enjoying his books - I think Kavalier and Clay was anomalous so far as my interest in his work goes.

Similarly, I keep having trouble with G.K. Chesterton's fiction. Outside of his Father Brown tales and the Man Who Was Thursday, I keep finding books with neat ideas which I can't quite appreciate, perhaps because I live in a different time and place than Chesterton did. The Napoleon of Notting Hill is the most recent disappointment.

I gave Lilith by George MacDonald a chance to see how he influenced C.S. Lewis, but the dreamlike quality of the book was too overwhelming for me in the end.


Somehow my interest in comic books waned in 2013. Although I began a boycott of Marvel & DC in 2012, the real problem of 2013 was winning an ipad; once I saw how easy (and cheaper) it was to read comics on the ipad, I thought I'd switch from physical copies to the digital. Uh, that was the plan... in the last half of 2013, I visited my local comic shop just two times, but I made almost no purchases on the ipad. Somehow, there just doesn't seem to be any urgency to buy comics when you don't have to worry about the shop's stock running out. Instead, most of the comics I read in 2013 were library books, Amazon purchases or Kickstarter rewards.

In terms of books about comics, I really enjoyed Message in a Bottle, a terrific collection of Bernie Krigstein stories with footnotes. Jim Steranko's History of the Comics was a breezy tour through early comic book heroes (more about it here). The Secret History of Marvel Comics was a great look at the publisher's earlier history, even though it wasn't quite what I'd hoped for - too many chapters repeat information already established.

Kickstarter helped bring me to a few neat projects, including Steve Ditko's the Ditko Package (more about it here), Lars Brown's Penultimate Quest (more about it here) and Batton Lash's the Werewolf of New York (more about it here). I'm pleased to have helped bring these books into existence - hopefully there will be more to support in 2014.

My great achievement in terms of graphic novels was finishing up Dave Sim's Cerebus (about which, here). I also tried out Guy Delisle for the first time with Pyonyang and Jerusalem, revisited Joe Sacco with the Great War (more about it here), read David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp, Jacques Tardi's It Was the War of the Trenches, Sergio Toppi's Sharaz-de (more about it here) and finally read Persepolis, having already seen the film. Taking a reverse slant, I picked up the graphic novel adaptation of Alien by Archie Goodwin & Walter Simonson, not because I'm a great fan of the film, but because I'd heard the adaptation was exceptional - which, it is.

In standard formats, I'm still enjoying Sergio Aragones Funnies (reviews of two issues found here and here), the first issue of Dean Haspiel's quite fun the Fox (my review here) and Francesco Francavilla's decent period piece the Black Beetle, more of interest due to Francavilla's art than the pretty standard "noir" plot. I began following Brian K. Vaughan & Marcos Martin's Private Eye in both English & Portuguese, which has been both a nice teaching tool for me and a nice opportunity to revisit Martin's fantastic art (more about the series here and here. There also a pair of books I've been reading on the ipad which I mean to cover here on the blog eventually - James Turner's Rebel Angels and Chris Wisnia's Monstrosis.


Tending our comic art at the University, I've been becoming more and more interested in the history of comic strips, having spent a few years collecting the hardcovers of Milt Caniff's Terry and the Pirates, finally wrapping it up in 2013. From there, I gave Flash Gordon a chance (more about it here), picked up Sam's Strip (more about it here), bought up quite a few of Checker's collection of Winsor McCay's strips (which are unfortunately not reproduced in high quality) and I tried out the first hardcover edition of Captain Easy (more about it here); I'd like to try out more Captain Easy, but boy, those hardcovers are expensive.

Finally, while I've been interested in some webcomics on-and-off, in 2013 I finally located one I really enjoy: Housepets!, a comedy series about talking cats and dogs. No, seriously, I quite enjoy it. Hopefully in 2014 I'll find some time to blog about the series.

Friday, January 3, 2014

What I watched in 2013

People who know me well know I enjoy writing lists. One which I've been keeping for the past few years is a record of every feature film I've watched. According to my notes, in the year of 2013 I watched 292 films. Of those, 178 were my first-time viewings. This is actually down from my 2012 statistics!


I began watching massive amounts of Bogart films in 2012 and 2013 was the year I finished that obsession - I watched every single Humphrey Bogart film in existence which I hadn't seen before. I wrote up a little on my findings here, but overall it was disappointing - while there were definite oddball delights in Bogart's lesser-known works, there was nothing I'd actually care to see again. On the other hand, I'm now similarly fascinated by the career of James Cagney and in 2013 began looking up more of his filmography. So far it's been fairly rewarding, especially discovering some of his early pictures like Blonde Crazy and Picture Snatcher.


Unlike 2012, I didn't watch anything in the theater more than once; I made 10 trips to the cinema and was more-or-less satisfied. The ten were:

  1. Skyfall, which I watched twice in 2012 but was happy to see again with my family in Angola, making it the only film I've watched in an African theater.
  2. Iron Man 3 and
  3. ...Thor: the Dark World were both on my personal boycott list, but free passes and the opportunity to spend time with my friends ultimately brought me to the theater. They were both fun movies.
  4. I went to see Life of Pi on the recommendation of a friend and as it was a cheap theater, it was worth the $4 I paid.
  5. Similarly, Star Trek: Into Darkness held no particular interest to me, but I went so I could hang out with my friends. This was my least-favourite picture of the year, but it wasn't exactly terrible - just a collection of missed opportunities. (more here)
  6. The opportunity to see The Great Escape on the big screen led to the Cineplex during its tour in the Classic Film Series, also giving me an excuse to drag along a friend and introduce him to the picture - one of my absolute favourite films.
  7. Pacific Rim was easily the best picture I saw in 2013 but it wasn't exactly flawless. It looked great, it was fun, it had neat ideas and yet it didn't quite click with me. Gee, if this is my favourite, it wasn't much of a year, was it? (more here)
  8. Starship Troopers was well-worth revisiting on the big screen courtesy of Rifftrax, which proved to be a great night out. Maybe I'll visit some other Rifftrax Live shows in the future. (more here)
  9. The World's End came very close to being my favourite picture of the year. There's something not quite satisfying about the film - probably the weird tone in the film's climax. Perhaps I'm unfairly comparing it against Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz in my mind? I was never bored and it was neat to see Pegg & Frost portraying characters with different edges to their personalities, I just don't know about the ending; watch it for yourself and let me know what you think.
  10. Finally, there's the Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug. I think I'll be glad when this trilogy is done. Again, I wasn't unhappy with the film, but it doesn't compare in my mind to the director's earlier work; for all the complaints people have of Lord of the Rings being too long, it's at fighting trim weight compared to the bloat of the Hobbit. All too often scenes passed by which held no purpose other than to remind the audience of things we already knew; exactly the sort of thing Jackson had no time for in Lord of the Rings, but now indulged in just to fill up screen time! It's death by padding, I'm afraid.


With all the time I spend digging up old movies, I'm always pleasantly surprised to unearth something truly wonderful. I don't think any of my sources had spoken of the Good Fairy (1935), but it turned out to be the most pleasing film I watched all year - I don't think I even knew it was written by Preston Sturges until after I watched it!

Some of the great films I watched are widely-appreciated, I'm just late to the party. So, kudos to you Toy Story 3 and Dawn of the Dead (1978). I told myself I had no reason to watch Dawn of the Dead, but the many positive reviews from so many trusted corners finally led me to sit down with it and yes, it's one fine horror picture. 2013 is also the year I rewatched Back to the Future for the first time in more than 20 years. You know what? It's a great movie! I'm sorry, that must sound so obvious, and yet while I hadn't forgotten the story at all, I had forgotten how cleverly it was put together, how economical and well thought-out it was.

Other highlights include: Home of the Brave, a very-good and all-too-rare 1940s picture which tackled racism; 49th Parallel, a fantastic early propaganda picture about escaped Nazis crossing Canada; the thriller film Red Eye which disappointed a little when it left its airplane environment for the climax, but was otherwise very well-strung; Val Lewton's Leopard Man and Ghost Ship, the last two Lewton horror pictures I hadn't seen and each haunting in its own way; having seen all of Akira Kurosawa's samurai pictures (and many of his non-samurai films), I was very pleased to find another great film of that ilk, Sword of Vengeance, the first Lone Wolf and Cub picture; the mockumentary Incident at Loch Ness turned out to be very funny as it switched gears from satire to "found footage" in the climax - what a gem!; finally, I located a pre-code movie which really delivered - 1931's Night Nurse which was great fun (more about it here).


I hadn't seen the first Expendables movie, yet went into Expendables 2 anyway, thinking it would be some not-too-challenging fun. It's a mess, barely managing to deliver a story and clearly hamstrung by budgetary restrictions on how many scenes their cast of characters could appear in. The one redeeming factor was Jean-Claude Van Damme, who obviously understood this film would be the most widely-seen picture he'd made in years so he brought his A-game! The other actors just cashed their checks.

Boy, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner has not aged gracefully. I acknowledge its importance in film history, the particularly fine performance of Spencer Tracy and changing attitudes of the times, but dang, the daughter is a frustrating character, seemingly determined to make the acceptance of her fiancee a bigger problem than it is. The film's also not particularly good at making a case for other reasons why Poitier's character should, perhaps, not marry Tracy's daughter - namely, he's known her for about a month! If it's the real thing, surely a year's courtship isn't out of line? The film refuses to be about anything other than racism, to its detriment.

How much do I like Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped? Well, I wrote the back matter of Marvel's comic book version, for starters. Hearing the 1938 Fox film of Kidnapped was part of the late 30s "high adventure" period (such as Gunga Din, Captain Blood and the Adventures of Robin Hood) I was a little excited to see the '38 film, but was ultimately disappointed with it; the shipboard mutiny & siege which was the action highlight of the book is dealt with far too quickly in the film, nor does the picture spend too much effort on the, ah, you know, kidnapping of the protagonist! It's far too-talky to be an action film and the female lead - Arleen Whelan - delivers a cringeworthy tearful breakdown at one point.

Much as I enjoy Larry Blamire's productions, Dark and Stormy Night was a letdown. He and his usual players did a great job of parodying the "old dark house" mystery genre (somewhat undermined by the fact 1932's Old Dark House did a better job of it) and there are great individual performances, but the need to accomodate so many actors and satirize so many storytelling cliches gets in the way of the fun. The pieces of this movie are fine, there's just weren't assembled smoothly (I will note, Blamire's own character is consistently fantastic).


Of those 292, which do I regret spending time on? Oh, I suppose Sign of the Cross (1932) is one. For all the great actors, costumes and sets, I can't get over the climax, wherein the Romans start sending Christians into the arena to be killed in various vicious ways until the film runs out of Christians and... the end. In those closing minutes, I saw the birth of the "torture porn" genre and it did not impress me.

Despite the IMDB reviews, I sought out the 1972 animated feature the Man Who Hated Laughter. Having spent so much time learning about comic strip history through my work at the University, I was interested in seeing this animated snapshot of 1972 comic strips. Oh boy, it's lousy, in every conceivable way. Lousy animation, lousy jokes, lousy voice acting. It's not worth viewing, not even to see Steve Canyon, the Phantom and Popeye share scenes (go read Roger Langridge's Popeye#12 instead for a swell Popeye/Barney Google team-up).

Finally, what more can I say about Tarzan the Ape Man than what I said before? Oh, it's a mess.


Those who know me well also know I don't watch television - that is, I have no subscription service. The one program I have kept up with is the Amazing Race, but 2013 was a turning point for me and the show. I ultimately didn't really care about either of 2013's races, even bailing out on last fall's race (season 23) without seeing the finale. I'm tired of the meta-game; I'm tired of the manufactured controversies; I'm tired of the pseudo-celebrity contestants; I'm tired of seeing the same countries; I think I'm done with this program.

On the other hand, I didn't intend to watch Amazing Race Canada this summer, but became intrigued after seeing a few minutes of it in a bar; ultimately, it turned out to be a lot of fun, certainly more entertaining than its southern neighbour. I might be back for the Canada variant later this year.

2013 saw the return of Whose Line is it Anyway?, which takes me back to where I was in 1998 when the US version debuted. At first, I thought it was inferior to the British version, largely because of host Drew Carey whose frat boy-style humour was an ill-replacement for Clive Anderson's dry wit from the UK. And yet, around 2002 (when CTV was airing the show for an hour each day), I became very fond of the program, ultimately moreso than the UK (which lacked some of the latter show's polish). Having seen just a few of the new episodes with host Aisha Taylor, again I find myself making comparisons - here thinking "well, at least Drew Carey knew how to be funny..."

The renewal of Whose Line caused me to look back over the various improv shows connected to its cast and that's been immensely rewarding - not just rewatching old Whose Line episodes, but digging up specials like Drew Carey's Improv All-Stars (2001) and Brad and Colin: Two Man Group (2011) was great fun. I also watched the complete run of Drew Carey's Green Screen Show (2004), a short-lived and somewhat ill-conceived program where animation was used to depict the things we're meant to be imagining the improv actors are doing; despite the animated distractions, the performances are quite funny and it's especially of interest to see "fourth chair" Whose Line participants like Jeff Davis, Brad Sherwood and Chip Esten assuming larger roles. The lack of Whose Line's host-participant banter is a letdown, however.

Having watched all of those shows, I finally broke down and watched the entirety of Drew Carey's Improv-A-Ganza (2011). It didn't do much to change my initial impression - while it's great to see virtually everyone from Whose Line together again and working in different match-ups (rather than the constant Ryan-Colin dynamic, both are allowed to play off other performers), as a series of tapings of live shows it's just not as smooth as Whose Line was. The game introductions seem to drag on (in one episode, Greg Proops' explanation of the mousetrap game occupies all of the clip between commercial breaks!), audience participation games tend to misfire and often the performers are visibly struggling to keep their sketches going. I guess I also have to be one of those fans who complains about Kathy Kinney - she's got chutzpah, but not wit. Back when it started, I was also very turned-off by an early episode guest-starring Charlie Sheen, in which Sheen attempted to derail the sketch (it might have been the last episode I watched). On other hand, it's great to see how much Drew Carey's improv abilities have sharpened since Whose Line - not to the point where he's a match for the professionals, but well above where he was. There's also Heather Anne Campbell who is perhaps the best female improv artist I've seen in this chain of programs - like, she holds her own. I appreciate that the show is "truer" to the experience of live improv, but man, those editors on Whose Line must have logged a lot of hours in the booth.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Legacy of Tron

In a recent article at the Guardian website, Stuart Heritage took a moment to reconsider the 2010 motion picture Tron: Legacy and why he believes the film ultimately failed to find its audience. It seems to be widely-agreed that Tron: Legacy did not satisfy its audience, despite earning $400 million at the box office.

Heritage asserted the 1982 Tron was "Star Wars for people born a year or two too late." I'm not sure what that means - I first saw Tron somewhere within a year of its release, but Star Wars was massively important to me as a child, what with the new home video & cable TV markets making the films available beyond their original theatrical release and the simple fact that 1983's Return of the Jedi hadn't even come out yet. Heritage also wrote of Tron's reputation having been "built to the point where the producers made the mistake of treating it with a bit too much respect." I have to admit, I was unaware Tron had much of a reputation by 2010 - I watched it at least once on television later in the 1980s, but that's it - I saw it twice as a child and while I had fond memories of it, it didn't mean much in my household, nor was it a film my friends reminisced about with me.

Surely there was a great following behind Tron - heck, I'm sure Krull still has a lot of fans. I do agree with Heritage's assertion about Tron's reputation being a problem in Tron; Legacy, but for a different reason; Heritage complains about many deviations from the style of the earlier film. Myself, I was simply lost for great periods of time. Tron: Legacy is certainly not a very well-plotted movie, but as I didn't commit the details of the original film to memory, I blanked out at much of the attempted exposition. Heck, I didn't remember who/what Clu was and he's essential to the sequel. Still, for all I'd forgotten of the earlier film, I did have an uneasy feeling that some of what appeared in the sequel was retconning details from before, but that's an aside.

To sum up: I think the real problem with Tron: Legacy was assuming there was a rabid following for the earlier film who were chomping at the bit to pick up the story as though 28 years hadn't passed. For the rest of us, we may have had some familiarity with Tron (uh, the one where the guy goes inside a video game, right?), but we assumed this picture would be a more-or-less self-contained sequel. Show this film to someone who hasn't seen the original and they'll surely wonder why the movie even has "Tron" in the title, given how little that character has to do with the film.

Heritage and I do agree about Bridges' odd performance in Tron: Legacy, wherein for some reason he channels "the Dude" from the Big Lebowski. I did appreciate the humour in the theater (anything which evoked an emotional reaction was welcome), but at same time... c'mon. Popular as "the Dude" performance is with audiences, there was no need to pander. Y'know, we do realize Jeff Bridges is an actor and does from time to time portray different characters. Some lampshades need not be hung.

My biggest disagreement with Heritage is over the soundtrack. He wrote: "Where there was once a machine-like hum, now there is the sort of relentlessly urgent soundbed that everyone starting ripping off The Dark Knight came out." Laying aside that the Dark Knight is perhaps my favourite soundtrack, I enjoyed the Tron: Legacy soundtrack Daft Punk developed quite a bit - it was the one element of the film my friends and I all agreed upon at the theater. Not only did I bring the soundtrack home, later I wound up with the Tron: Legacy - Reconfigured soundtrack which I enjoy even more than the original. This, to me, is the real "legacy" of the picture - some pretty good Daft Punk music. As for the picture... I saw it once. That'll probably do.