A Christmas Story (****)

Posted on December 25th, 2002 in Movie Reviews by mynagirl

It’s Christmas Day, and we’re watching TNT’s Christmas Story marathon (http://us.imdb.com/Title?0085334), and I am again (as I am every year) amazed at the wonderfully crafted, perfectly told, exquisitely cast, and fabulously created story that is this movie.

I’d seen it as a child but didn’t really remember it. Scott re-introduced me to it two years ago, and I was absolutely blown over! The movie is nostalgic without being one bit smarmy, hilarious without being smart-ass, and wonderfully narrated without being distracting (as a matter of fact, the adult voice-over is so well done, it’s almost the star of the movie). The characters are richly told — Ralphie is believable throughout, whether he’s hopeful, sad, fearful, or angry. Ralphie’s mother and father are both wonderfully imagined, fitting within their early 50’s archetypes without being caricatures. The scene where the father attempts to repair the “Major Award” while the mother tries not to laugh in the background is pure genius.

If you’ve never seen this movie, I really recommend it. In my all-time top list of movies, it is absolutely perfect from beginning to end. I resisted it for years because if you haven’t seen it, it looks like so much pseudo-sentimental Christmastime dreck. However, if it looks silly and smarmy from the outside, it’s just as amazing and wonderful on the inside.

*Tiny plot spoiler*

As an aside, Scott and I both love this movie so much we decided to order Chinese food last night (Christmas Eve) instead of our planned Christmas Eve home-cooked feast. I think we’ve decided to have that as our annual tradition, now. (He even tried to order the Peking duck!)

*End spoiler*

It’s A Wonderful Life (****)

Posted on December 20th, 2002 in Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

I hadn’t watched It’s A Wonderful Life in a number of years, at least not all the way through from beginning to end. Well, we watched it last night, and I have to say that this movie deserves its legendary status. I know the whole story, inside and out, having seen it many, many times, but I was still caught up in the film, still cared about the characters, still marvelled at the darkness of the tribulations in this supposedly sweet holiday film, still got choked up at the end, and still loved it. LOVED it!

Jimmy Stewart is one of my favorite actors, and my admiration of him grows with each film of his I view. We recently watched the excellent “Anatomy of a Murder”, which (like Wonderful Life) allowed Jimmy Stewart to play light comedy while also exploring deep, almost dark, themes. His wit, intelligence, and everyman-ness make him charming, but not cloying, and powerful, but not twisted. That’s it — take the charm of Cary Grant (minus smarm), the power and menace of Marlon Brando (minus psychoses), and the looks of Howdy Doody, put them all together and you’d get something close to Jimmy Stewart.

In the years since It’s A Wonderful Life was released, many films with similar themes have been made, and have been referred to as Capra-esque (after Wonderful Life’s director Frank Capra). The genre has been done and redone so many times that many recent “Capra-esque” films seem to border on parody. Do yourself a favor and go back to the source, get the DVD or tape to avoid commercial interruptions, and watch this great film from beginning to end again. It is well worth the investment of your time.

The Larry Sanders Show (****) (TV)

Posted on December 18th, 2002 in Television by EngineerBoy

Bravo has started showing The Larry Sanders Show in rerun. I used to watch it sporadically during its inital run on HBO, and really liked it, but was not a regular viewer.

Bravo shows it twice a night, and with TiVo I am now a regular viewer, and I have to say that this show is one of the best pieces of entertainment it has been my pleasure to experience. Just for kicks I checked it out at IMDB and found that The Larry Sanders Show was nominated for over 50 Emmy’s during its six year run! And most people I talk to have never even heard of it, much less seen it.

For those unfamiliar, the star of the show is Garry Shandling, and he plays a character named Larry Sanders. In the show, Larry Sanders has a talk show that competes with Leno and Letterman, complete with real guests playing themselves as if they were on a talk show. For example, on the final show of the series, the following people appeared as themselves: Ellen DeGeneres, Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Carrey, Clint Black, Tim Allen, Warren Beatty, Carol Burnett, David Duchovny, Greg Kinnear, Jon Stewart, Bruno Kirby, Sean Penn, and Tom Petty.

I’ve also seen episodes that included segments taped by Jay Leno, as if doing the Tonight Show, where he refers to ‘The Larry Sanders Show’. Also, the guest stars are not treated with kid gloves, and are not always portrayed sympathetically. Some of them even gamely play into the most unappealing aspects of their own public personas.

All of this has the effect of blurring the lines of reality. I mean, at some points in the show, you’re watching Larry doing his show (the show within the show), and then other times you are watching the backstage/offstage stuff. And sometimes you’re seeing a view from offstage of the show as it’s being taped. They even shoot the show-within-a-show on tape, and the backstage/offstage stuff on film, so the distinction is always very clear, further enhancing the effect.

But all of the guest stars and filming techniques are simply the gravy…the meat and potatoes are the excellent writing and acting by the ensemble cast. Both the show and the show-within-a-show are well-written, funny, and engaging.

One note about content…since this was originally a cable series, the characters (when offstage) use profanity and make sexual innuendos, and Bravo only bleeps (not cuts) the very worst parts (they bleep the eff word, but not the ess word, for example). If you’re offended by profanity, even in context, you may want to skip this show altogether.

That being said, I highly recommend ‘The Larry Sanders Show’. Tune in for a couple of episodes to get a feel for the characters and the situation, and I think you’ll be hooked. Seeing this show also makes me wonder why nobody is syndicating Garry Shandling’s first series, “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show”, which had similar reality-blurring situations (and also had one of the catchiest theme songs in television history…my wife and daughter

Alias (**½) (TV)

Posted on December 18th, 2002 in Television by EngineerBoy

If you took 24, La Femme Nikita, Dawson’s Creek, and the Matrix, mixed them all up, kept in all the mediocre parts, and took out all the really good and really bad stuff, you’d end up with something a lot like Alias. This series is okay, bordering on good, with the potential to be really good, meaning that the ingredients are there, but they just need to be tweaked, in my opinion.

The basic storyline is that there is a father/daughter team who are good guys working for the CIA, but they also work as double agents infiltrating an organization called SD-6. SD-6 is part of a global conspiracy to…take over the world, I guess…but they tell all of their staffers that they’re working for the CIA. So, our main characters work for the *actual* CIA while also working undercover as double agents at an agency that *isn’t* the CIA but tells their people that they are. It’s actually not as confusing as it sounds.

Throw into that mix the fact that the lady who is the wife of the father and the mother of the daughter is also a KGB agent who has surrendered to the CIA and may actually be helping them against SD-6, but might also be playing Machiavillian games with them.

The premise actually works for me, and the actors do a good job. Unfortunately, though, for me the writing is already starting to get a little repetitive, and the plot is not moving along very quickly, and the scenes where they dip into personal-life-angst are a little heavy-handed, and the action sequences are well-staged, but unexciting.

I’m sticking with it, however, because it’s just good and interesting enough to keep me involved, and I want to see where they go with it. My hope is that they pick up the pace and drop some of the syrup.

CSI: Miami (*) (TV)

Posted on December 18th, 2002 in Television by EngineerBoy

What an idiotic show. These are supposed to be the crime scene investigators, but they end up questioning witnesses, pursuing suspects, making arrests, etc, none of which is their job. There was an episode with a private plane crash in the Everglades, and the CSI team handled the entire case. No local police. No feds. No FAA. Nothing. Ridiculous.

Some of the forensic stuff is interesting, but they dumb it wayyy down for the audience, and the characters spend a lot of time saying things like, “I think I’ll use the mike-row-scope now, which is a device that will let me be able to see tiny things as if they were slightly larger.”

And (my apologies to Marie) *what* is the appeal of David Caruso? He looks as translucent and fragile as a newborn baby bird (see http://us.imdb.com/Name?Caruso,+David), he arrogantly left his first-and-only hit TV show (NYPD Blue) for a film career that flopped, while boldly predicting that NYPD Blue would fail without him (it’s still going strong), has made a string of deplorable movies, and just doesn’t seem to have any charisma at all, to me. I guess he falls into the category of Things Scott Doesn’t Understand About Women. He’ll be entry number 165,145,798,643,654,134. Approximately.

24 (****) (TV)

Posted on December 17th, 2002 in Television by EngineerBoy

The last TV drama I watched with any regularity was probably…L.A. Law, maybe? That was a long time ago. Since then I’ve never been able to ‘get into’ any of the drama series. Part of the reason is that I found it increasingly difficult to commit to an hour a week at a fixed time. But the major reason was that they just didn’t do it for me. I tried to watch ER, but didn’t care for it. I tried to watch Law and Order, didn’t care for it. I tried to watch some of the family dramas, but I not only didn’t care for them, their treacly contrivances actually offended me, artistically (even though I was allowing for the fact that it was television in the first place).

Then last year I saw the first couple episodes of the first season of 24, at Marie’s request. It was very interesting, well-acted, gripping stuff, and I really liked it, but I still drifted in my viewership habits, and once you miss an episode of 24, you’re really stuck, because each season is one day (24 hours) in real time.

But now I have TiVo (why did I wait!!???), so I don’t have to worry about being home at a certain time, or missing an episode, and I have seen every episode so far this season (2nd season). I look forward to each episode with great anticipation, but also some dread, because the series builds up incredible amounts of tension and suspense, and I find that watching it is a draining experience. For reference, I’m no lightweight entertainment consumer, and regularly watch such tense/suspenseful fare as Apocalypse Now, Clockwork Orange, Eraserhead, etc, all of which are life-changingly intense, so I have a tolerance for that type of thing.

But 24 still manages to get under my skin and make me squirm. It’s not gross or ultra-violent, but it uses the story and the characters to build incredible amounts of tension and anticipation, all while telling a tight, believable story. I’m not going to give any of the plot away, because this series is *very* plot-driven, but suffice it to say that it involves things of global importance as well as things that are of paramount importance to the individual characters as people.

I highly recommend this series. If you’ve missed part of this season, I suggest you wait until it comes out on DVD and/or in reruns. I’m also thinking about getting all of last season on DVD, even though I know how it turned out. That’s how much I like this show.

Hot Bagel Shop – Highly Recommended

Posted on December 12th, 2002 in Houston,Restaurant Reviews by EngineerBoy

2019 South Shephard – between Westheimer and West Gray

While  growing up in Texas, I never developed a taste for bagels. In my small hometown,  the only bagel options were store-bought, like Lender’s, and I found them to be  unremarkable.

Then I moved to the Northeast and worked for 6 years in the  New York/New Jersey area, and learned what bagels were *supposed* to taste like.  And boy oh boy, did I fall in love with bagels. There was a bagel shop a couple  of blocks from my home, and for years I started the day with a fresh, hot bagel,  usually toasted with either chive cream cheese or with butter.

Then I  moved back to Houston. I *love* Houston and moved back because I knew I missed  everything about it (except for the relentless heat), and I have never regretted  moving back. However, I did miss the hot, fresh, real-deal bagels that I had  grown to love. I tried some of the chains (Einstein Brothers, various donut  chains), but found them to be pale imitations and not worth the  trouble.

And then I was introduced to The Hot Bagel shop. Ohhhhh, baby.  This is the real deal. The good stuff. Authentic, legitimate, tasty, hot,  fresh bagels. If you’ve never had anything but grocery store-bought or  Einstein’s, I urge you to head to the Hot Bagel Shop and try their fantastic  bagels. They also have freshly prepared flavored cream cheeses that are  wonderful. Prices are rock bottom.

The place is really a  hole-in-the-wall, and it’s kind of hard to find. I go there regularly and I  still sometimes drive right by it. It’s on the east side of Shephard, just about  halfway between Westheimer and West Gray. It’s in a smallish white two-story  strip center that also contains the River Oaks Nail shop.

2001: A Space Odyssey (****)

Posted on December 3rd, 2002 in Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

I’m astonished at the number of negative responses I’ve heard from people regarding this film. “Slow”, “Unemotional”, “Bad effects”, “Doesn’t make sense”, “Nothing happens”, etc. For those who “don’t get it”, a primer:

Slow: Movement in space takes a very long time. Astrophysics demands slow, controlled movement, which Kubrick deftly depicts. The pod return scene takes a long time; thoughtful viewers realize the astronaut is dying, and feel tension.

Unemotional: The primary characters are astronauts, who necessarily have steely nerves. Watch Dave control his anguish over his dying friend in the pod return scene. Notice the same thing when he discovers the rest of the crew have been killed by HAL while in stasis. Notice the cold-blooded, murderous efficiency with which Dave decommissions HAL, and notice the heartbreaking decay of HAL and his impassioned (for a computer) pleas to spare his ‘life’.

Effects: These effects still surpass those being done today. Flashier? Louder? No. Technically, visually, scientifically perfect? Yes. Check out the vehicle that transports Dr. Floyd to the Moon…it’s basically a prototype for the Space Shuttle which appeared over a decade later.

Doesn’t make sense: When the ape-man uses the bone as a tool, then tosses it in the air, we flash forward to a spacecraft. The genius of this is that it indicates that once ape-man learned to use tools, it was a straightforward progression to developing a space station. The meaning, purpose, and nature of the monolith are *supposed* to be unknown (and probably unknowable), to illustrate the feebleness of man’s quest to understand the true nature of existence.

Nothing happens: Um, only the evolution of man to the next level of existence (which during the final scenes, is as incomprehensible to us as our world would be to a prehistoric ape-man).

You were expecting what? Car crashes? Sound traveling through (airless) space? Histrionic astronauts? Klingon cloaking devices? Aliens gestating in stomachs? Cute, engaging robot sidekicks? Cliff’s Notes?

Slow and deep does not equal boring and ponderous. In the early stages of the film we see primitive ape-men living a precarious life, barely subsisting and in danger of losing their watering hole to a neighboring tribe/clan/group. The monolith appears and the members of our group touch the monolith in a very inscrutable scene. What’s happening? Why is it happening? What does it mean? The mystery is partially solved when we see one member of the clan idly playing with a bone. As he plays with it, it dawns on him that he could use the bone to hunt the wild pigs that live in the area. The next thing we see is our group of ape-men, looking a little fatter, and the bones of a few more pigs littering the ground.

So, apparently, the monolith has provided this group of ape-men with a heightened sense of logic and reason, through mechanisms unknown. That is, in and of itself, deep commentary on the nature of man and god. But what happens next is even more disturbing. After getting fatter and stronger by using his newfound technique,

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (****)

Posted on December 3rd, 2002 in Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

I love MPatHG. It is the pinnacle of silliness, satire and comedy…all the things that make Monty Python great. Personally, I use people’s reaction to this film as an indicator of their potential as an enjoyable friend or acquaintance. One has to be intelligent and free of pretensions to be able to laugh at the enormous stupidity and pretentiousness in this film, and in life.

If you get it, then you’re probably all right in my book. If you don’t get it, then lighten up, relax, free your mind and try it again until you do.

The Princess Bride (****)

Posted on December 3rd, 2002 in Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

Perfect from beginning to end…not one false note or mis-step. I am not a fan of fairy tales, period pieces or romantic comedies. This is all three but is still one of my all time favorite films. Watch it with someone you love (spouse, children, family, good friends).

“Life is pain, anyone who says differently is selling something.”

“Stop that rhyming now, I MEAN it!” “Anybody want a peanut?”

“Inconceivable!”

Read these again after you’ve seen it and you’ll laugh out loud.

Next Page »