I’ve mentioned several times that we’ve become TV-less here at the HQ. That’s true, and a truly wrenching experience that I’m backing into; but it’s also not like the old days — pre-DVD, pre-VCR –when turning off your TV was the media survival equivalent of pouring a drum of ice water on the fire you were counting on to keep you alive through the winter. In other words, our little electronic fireplace can still keep us warm. The “tele-” part of the TV might be switched off for now, but there’s plenty of “vision” left in the box if you have the requisite hardware hooked up.
We have some DVDs of old TV shows: “SCTV” and “Saturday Night Live,” “NewsRadio” and “Mad About You” and “Taxi,” too. “NewsRadio” is the only one we’ve been watching; Phil Hartmann’s show all the way, and I’m simultaneously surprised by how good he could be and shocked, still, that he’s dead.
But you could say TV on DVD — even inspired TV, which I admit exists — is nothing but the vast wasteland without the commercials. True, but that’s a great improvement. The last week or so, we’ve gone on to the part of the vast wasteland that comes out first-run in theaters and then comes home on DVD: movies.
We’ve been watching a mixture of old favorites and some stuff we’ve been curious about. To wit, the past five days have featured “Young Frankenstein,” “A Night at the Opera,” “Mr. Brooks,” “The Flying Scotsman,” and “Zodiac.” The capsule reactions and reviews:
“Young Frankenstein”: First viewed decades ago. Not as sharp or funny as I remembered it. Teri Garr and Marty Feldman — not as funny. Neither was Madeline Kahn. Cloris Leachman: inspired. Gene Wilder — nah. Peter Boyle and Kenneth Mars: very good. But the main thing: The first time through this and other Mel Brooks films, you don’t really mind his penchant for trying to pound you into submission, for the constant reminders that what you’re watching is funny. Coming back to it, some of the bits are inspired, but more are painful. I’ll come back to this in 2020 or so.
“A Night at the Opera”: Wanted to see this after watching the last third, close-captioned, on a TV at the bar where we occasionally go for pizza and beer on Friday nights. It’s as good as I’ve always though it was — which is very, very good.
“Mr. Brooks”: You sit down and willingly watch Kevin Costner and Demi Moore, you’ve got no right to complain about it. And for the first half of the movie, in which Costner plays a company CEO who’s also a kinky serial killer and Moore is the multimillionaire homicide detective fumbling to find him, I wasn’t inclined to gripe. Much. But after Costner’s daughter turned out to be a killer, too; and after daddy had to go down to Stanford and commit a copycat murder to get his girl off the hook; and after daddy set up a dazzling plot to get rid of the annoying Moore and some idiot who accidentally figured out daddy was a killer; and after daddy has a nightmare lifted right out of “Carrie” — after all that, the movie went from interestingly implausible to absurd. William Hurt was given the scary job of being Costner’s alter ego and did more than OK, as usual.
“The Flying Scotsman”: True story of a Scots cyclist who sets out to break one of the legendary marks in cycling — the one-hour record — and does it on a home-built bike. Find it and rent it if you’re remotely interested in the world of bicycle racing or in the world of depressed Scotsmen. So: kudos for the story. But the movie shares the usual modern flaw of minimizing characterization in favor of plot. Yes, movies have always had to find dramatic shortcuts to inform you why George “It’s a Wonderful Life” Bailey is the way he is and why he was a big enough sap to stay in Hooterville and try to run his family’s stupid bank. But compare the time and detail Frank Capra devotes to explaining George to the stick figures thrown at you in “Mr. Brooks.” Capra, in the midst of a light entertainment, practically gives us “War and Peace”; in the midst of what someone must fancy to be a psychological thriller, “Mr. Brooks” barely matches “Ren and Stimpy” in terms of character development.
“Zodiac”: Continues a trend that began several weeks ago when watching, “The Hoax,” an adaptation of Clifford Irving’s account of inventing Howard Hughes’s autobiography. The trend is that people I’ve worked with — Frank McCulloch in “The Hoax,” Paul Avery in “Zodiac” — are showing up as characters in movies (if you’ve seen these and your curious about where I am, I’m the guy berating some poor obit writer in the background). But on to the movie: I though it was good, almost great; I think that’s because the movie actually spends time with the characters — though here again, would it be too much to ask the writer and director to give us a little on why Avery was such a wildman and why Robert Graysmith, the editorial cartoonist who is the movie’s main character, became so obsessed with the case? Maybe not, though; maybe both characters, the overwhelming dimension of their dysfunction and obsession, is enough. That perhaps involuntary spurt of bile aside, “Zodiac” was worth the now-extraordinary two hours and thirty-eight minutes running time.