Sunday, July 22, 2007

Culture Vulture in a Cage

Congratulations to everyone who made it through two hours of President Cheney.

Numerous editing projects and work on that someday-to-be-a-skyrocketing bestseller of mine—the one I know you’re going to buy because you read these postings—has lately kept me caged at home. I know the description above promises you essays on travel and nature, but when you live in a place like Emeryville, California, it really is a long way from here to there: a lush desert island surrounded by a grey sea stretching to a flat gray horizon . . .

In my spare moments, I’ve been watching DVDs and, on occasion, getting out to the movies. For example, Live Free or Die Hard, which met my—and its own—not-too-high expectations. If you hate Bruce Willis and loud action movies, your mind will remain unsullied by change. I’ve pretty much lost my taste for the second item, but I’ve enjoyed Mr. Willis in the past (16 Blocks is a recent movie of his I liked) Justin Long—to Americans, the straight guy in those hilarious Apple commercials on TV featuring "Daily Show" Resident Expert and blogger on this service, John Hodgman (sorry, no link)—is the expected sidekick and does well playing . . . a computer, now that I think of it, albeit one that has been hacked by bad guy Timothy Olyphant, a central member of that wonderful Deadwood ensemble. Olyphant here takes a spin with Alan Rickman-type villainy . . . but maybe that’s not quite his tea (also, he suffers a very boring death for this type of movie). What I liked most is the use of real stuntmen for most of its cartoony—and typically confusing--action sequences. For sure, this movie is likely the last of its kind I’ll see for awhile. Back to Gunga Din and The Wild Bunch for me.

Apparently, the New York Times critic closed his review of the new Pixar animated film Ratatouille with “Thank you.” As I live two blocks from that rightfully legendary studio, I suppose I’m obliged to say likewise, but . . . . OK, as animation, Ratatouille shows Pixar blowing past the edge of all that can be done. The colors and shading of every frame are enchantingly beautiful, especially the shades of blues and reds and the full design of the characters . . . thank God, it distracted me from the flat script and story. I also admire the amount of research they did, not only on French culinary practice, but on rats. Unfortunately, I didn’t laugh much through most of it, until the end when . . . well, I won’t spoil it for my readers in Spain and Tunisia.

The great S.J. Perelman wrote a series of essays called “Cloudland Revisited” about his experiences rereading the books of his childhood as an adult. In an earlier post, I offered some thoughts about nostalgia. Of course, I couldn’t have written such a thing if I wasn’t caught in its grasp. My Netflix subscription—an American DVD rental service, for you international readers—acts as my time machine.

In the past year or so, I’ve revisited such boomer childhood TV highlights as The Wild Wild West, the James-Bond-Out-West spoof that ran for four years. I’m happy to say this has weathered well and seems to get better as I slowly move through the first season. Aside from Robert Conrad’s terrific stunt work (I just know Jackie Chan was a fan), there’s his rapport with his sidekick, the pseudo-master of disguise Artemus Gordon, played by the exuberant *Ross Martin.* The scripts are often funny; their spoofy aspects are played with straight faces, which is why this show is funnier than Batman. The episodes where Jim West battles the evil dwarf Dr. Miguelito Loveless (Michael Dunn) and his sidekick Voltaire (Richard “Jaws” Kiel) have been the best so far. (Fun note: the series creator, Michael Garrison, was openly gay . . . and it shows.)

When it came to The Untouchables, I couldn’t wait for Netflix and so bought disk 1 of season 1. This gangbuster series that ran from 1959 to 1963 has been a favorite of mine forever. Even so, I confess that it’s a mixed bag now: its view of law enforcement is pretty stale and its way with 1930s gangland history is stupidly cavalier, even though I forgive the nonsense of Eliot Ness (pictured here) fighting every gangster who ever lived. But this ancestor of Miami Vice and The Sopranos is a great production with punchy action, wonderful old cars, great clothes and scenes full of chewy dialogue spoken by a parade of the great character actors of the day.

The best surprise of all has been Combat!, a World War II series that stretched out that conflict for five years from 1962 to 1967. For its time, and considering its TV budget and censors’ restrictions, this manages to sometimes be a very evocative and unglamorous picture of Men at War. The scripts are thoughtful and even stretch toward daring in their treatment of certain themes. The best episodes so far have been helmed by a director known to serious film lovers everywhere: Robert Altman.

BLOG NOTE: Next weeks’ schedule will be altered. I’ll post briefly this Thursday or Friday but I will be absent the following Sunday, returning 8/12. And I may have actual Adventures in Nature to share!

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