The Films of July, such as they were


my brother's in-house
entertainment server
The Cat from Outer Space (1978)

Apparently I haven't watched this since 2013, which is frankly a little surprising. I know my kids have watched it with my parents and that's where I last remember seeing it as well. But maybe it's been longer than I think? Who know.

As a kid, I loved this movie but the beer made me a bit uncomfortable. (Good thing I didn't realize how postcoital the end of the airplain-rescue was.) As an adult, I'm amazed so many things slipped by me. I mean---if I'd stopped to think, surely that security would have seemed too slim? I dunno. Kids believe what they're told, I suppose. But so many parts of this movie don't hold up to scrutiny. It could be interesting to really rewrite this to make more sense. But then again maybe not.

The movie has the space-cat plot and the outwitting-the-Army plot and then a James-Bond-villain plot tacked on, perhaps to fit Roddie McDowell in? Who knows.

The movie comes by its dumb honestly and it really means it. Maybe that's why it works.

my brother's in-house
entertainment server
Tron: Legacy (2010)

I've never seen the original Tron. It's hard to say why but I've just never cared. And that carried over to this film as well. But my brother has the Tron: Legacy pinball game and we've been playing it a lot, so he busted this out.

And it's pretty terrible. (The game's fun, though!)

Pretty clear the writers just followed a preforma outline and punched a bunch of big ideas into it without much idea what to do with them. The movie's filled with all sorts of important stuff, Biblical references and fascist imagery (laundered through Star Wars) and genocide and you name it. All stuffed into a script that knows what pages certain cliches and catchphrases should appear on but unclear how to make us thrilled by them.

One of the weirdest choices was the uncanny-valley Young Jeff Bridges. I get why they wanted to do it. And it cuold have been fine. But they wanted to believe they were at Mandalorian-level Luke when they were only at Rogue One-level Grand Moff Tarkin. Which, again, COULD have been fine. All they had to do was spend the money to make all the other programs uncanny and voila. Problem solved. But they didn't go that direction.

I haven't seen the original so I don't know if this scifi-Lebowski version of Jeff Daniels was there back in the 80s but I thought he was good. Olivia Wilde did well also. Everybody else either was mediocre or didn't make sense. Other than it's supposed to tickle pretrained funny bones, what was the deal with the Marchael Sheen character? Really, most of the world was supposed to meke sense because we've already seen it in a million other movies, but that laziness means that the unique things about that world we're just set dressing and cool costumes rather than the engine that drove plot and character. A huge missed opportunity. Done right, the threat posed by this bad guy could have been unique in filmdom. Instead we can only think that Ragnarok and Valerian and even the ******* prequels did this better.

Another thing that really bugged me about this is what the Marvel movies and Star Wars #9 have worn me out on: celebration of (wealth and) royal blood to win the day.

But I really am pissed at how our hero character used meaningless lines in places of the writers knowing what's going on. Lines like that work when the writing is strong! Not as wallpapering over bad writing! How could you all put such a terrible script out and think that cool (and unique) visuals would win the day? I guess Kevin Feige's reign at Marvel hadn't been around long enough to prove the point....

Anyway. Guess I need to finally see the original now.

our dvd
O Brother, Where Art? (2000)

Since seeing O Brother a couple months ago, all the Big O has wanted to do was show it to his brothers. But I managed to show them Sullivan's Travels first which made the showing only more necessary. So the first film watched upon our return---notwithstanding our pile of library dvds---was O Brother.

I can't remember the last time the Eldest had a movie he so badly wanted to show his brothers. It was great to see. And I'm happy to say the choice was a good one. They dug it too.

What's the next influxion of taste to attempt?

library dvd
This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

It's been about twenty years since we last watched this. Lady Steed remembers find it much funnier. I remember finding it less funny. There is no record to determine which of us is right.

Anyway, it's funny! We do agree that Chris Guest's later films are funnier and we suspect it's because, in a film like Best of Show or A Mighty Wind, there are multiple clusters of hilarious characters doing different sorts of comedy. With Spinal Tap, you're pretty much just with the band. And while they're funny, we also feel they didn't push it as hard as they could have. This may be a minority opinion.

As an aside, it's fascinating how the cast connects with Saturday Night Live. For instance, Christopher Guest and (former cast member) Harry Shearer and (bit-mime) Billy Crystal, if I'm reading it correctly, both joined SNL the season following Spinal Tap. Michael McKean wouldn't become a cast member for another decade and (bit-mime) Dana Carvey would join a couple years later. I wonder how those pieces fit together.

The dvd includes a full-length commentary with the band (in character) but I'm not sure I'll have a chance to experience it before we return it to the library.

One funny thing about this is that some of the parts I remember best were from the outtakes---the traveling mouth-sore and signing the black album with black pens, for instance. But last time we watched it on VHS and I doubt those were included. Maybe there's an extended version?

Oh, wait. Look what I found:

our dvd
A Mighty Wind (2003)

So no, actually. I'm not sure they do pack more jokes into this movie than Spinal Tap. But I do think rotating characters does help. What helps even more, though, is making Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara the emotional core of the movie. That gives the thing a skeleton. It makes the comedy mean a bit more. And that makes the whole that much better.


library dvd
The Innocents (1961)

I'm sure I'd heard of this movie before but not in any sort of sticky way. I decided to watch it though largely so I could scratch something else off my horror-movies poster. And a fine choice it was!

I read Turn of the Screw the summer I turned fifteen. Thirty summers later, I don't remember exactly what I thought about it. I believe I learned later that some people think there are ghosts or that there are no ghosts and that that alternate possibility had not occurred to me, but I can't remember what my initial opinion had been. But no matter.

I felt this film leaned heavily into no-ghosts, but Lady Steed (and apparently the people working on it) could never settle on a decision. Which is appropriate, I think, because the film, visually, never lets you settle on anything. Fabulous swooping shots through rooms and around characters---bringing first one person or thing into focus, then another. Unsettling use of light and blocking. The Criterion edition has interviews exploring how some of this was accomplished and, in short, it was hella complicated. The camera had two lenses that each required separate focusing! The lighting involved multiple people dimming and undimming as characters turned around!

Among the other things that are interesting is how happy accidents occurred. Deborah Kerr is too old for the character but that is better. Film ran out on one shot creating a timing effect. A third example that I have just forgotten.

One thing I wasn't really conscious of as we watched but was pointed out by several scholars and filmmakers is that instead of ghost-reaction, almost every instance is reaction-ghost. It's a small difference but it's part of what makes this film so interesting.

And they use the entire Cinemascope screen well. I don't see how you could possibly pan-and-scan this thing and do it any justice. No wonder it required "rediscovery" twenty years ago or whenever.

library dvd
The Caine Mutiny (1954)

We watched this because my son just read the novel (and dug it). He wasn't sure how it would be movified but mostly guessed right, I guess

The Caine Mutiny was arguably the biggest story of the early '50s. Huge novel, huge play, huge movie. The novel started things off and several studios wanted to make it---but didn't want to make it without the Navy's help. And the Navy wanted lots of changes to the story so the studios backed out, letting Staney Kramer snap up the rights. Then, as the story became the zeitgeist, the Navy realized it a) wanted to be involved and b) couldn't demand that many changes. Because everyone would know.

Anyway, some parts haven't aged great. For instance, instead of gutting the love story, they should have just cut it entirely. But you can't make a movie in 1954 without a woman or a song and that sidebit provided both. The score also was too much. Long portions of the film felt like they were scored with old sitcom music.

But the bulk of the performances and the story as a whole were strong. And it was fun to see Jose Ferrer as a younger man But the strongest performance was by Van Johnson. I'm not sure that I've seen him in anything outside Batman and I associated his name with forgettable pop, but his face is this film's anchor. It took the movie a while to realize it, but once it let his face become the emotional center, it soared.

library dvd
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

The Manchurian Candidate is a movie I've meant to watch for as long as I can remember. I have no idea when I first heard of it. I do remember, in 2004 when the remake came out, I couldn't believe I STILL had not watched the original. Seventeen years later...here we are.

Anyway, it's long. I would argue, after first watch, it dragged a bit in the middle. But I loved how it dragged at the end. It's excrutiating to wait the entire national anthem before our hero can start moving again. And then we hear the entire talk.... It's a wild ride. I imagine it is a film that improves with each viewing. Though who knows when (if) I'll watch it again.

Aspects of the movie felt uncannily appropriate to our current moment. But the most uncanny thing must be learning that the novelist based the villain on Ray Cohn.

Anyway, it's a classic. I wish it were fifteen or twenty minutes shorter but no one asked me. What is certainly true is that it goes much harder than I ever expected. Even knowing as much about it as I did, it retained the power to shock.

Previous films watched


jan feb mar apr may
jun jul aug sep oct nov dec










When the zombies come, it really won't matter what order I put these in.



061) World War Z (abridged audiobook) by Max Brooks, finished June 23

So I first listened to this some time ago and liked it enough that I made Lady Steed want to hear it. And, eventually, the kids grew interested in it as well. Perhaps because of another Max Brooks novel? And so, on our multistate drive, this was the book that made the cut for first listen.

I was surprised how many of the stories I remembered. Even the ones I had forgotten often came back to me quickly. They're great stories.

The trailer for the movie seemed like a rejection of the book; the time to remake it is now---as premium tv. Each interview an episode.

Speaking of, I would like to hear the other interviews now that the full thing has been recorded.

One funny thing about this book is how it's already in the past. When the zombies arrive, for instance, Castro and Mandela are still alive. I suspect the president is Colin Powell? But even though some aspects are dated, others seem like clear predictions of the Trump era or the failed response to Covid-19.

And isn't that what zombie books are for?

(Incidentally, I now have some strong opinions about what the missing-from-the-abridgement parts had better be. More stories from Africa, for instance, as we never learn why people were calling it African rabies.)

two days of driving

= = = END OOPS = = =

064) The Child Buyer by John Hersey, finished on July 14

If you are of my generation or younger, if you know John Hersey at all, it's most likely as the author of Hiroshima. I didn't know he spent most of his time as a novelist.

When I found this book at the recycling center, the startling cover and backcopy made me take it home. But then I didn't read it and didn't read it and didn't read it and when Lady Steed told me to get rid of some books I chose this and then she investigated it front and back and said no. So I started reading it. And hoo nelly is it a ride!

It comes in the form of transcripts from a state legislature committee as they try to figure out what's going on in the town of Pequot. In short, a man has appeared in the town looking to buy an intelligent kid attending the local school. Why? For the National Defense, of course.

The child buyer immediately wins over the politicians and over the course of the novel convinces the child's parents and friends and teachers as well. The book is structured like a nightmare and so, even though every page has laughs, dread builds as you wonder how young Barry will escape all the adults in his life (in America?) who see him as a product. It's like a dystopia that already existed and you just didn't hear about it.

The novel is a vicious satire of politics and the defense industry and schools and small towns and television and you name it. Although it's sixty years old and aspects of the way people talk and details of, say, education have changed, the novel retains its bite.

Because the novel is 100% transcript, I can't imagine a better thing to be turned into an audiobook. (Although Paul Rudd should not play the character Paul Rudd. Give him some other role.) And apparently (based on info from the Bookshop link up top) it's now in the public domain. I'm not sure why. Maybe it was first published in a magazine? But I would doublecheck that before I started recording.

Anyway, somebody! Make it so!

about eleven months or more

065) Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, finished on July 15

Hello, fellow modern. Likely you have read Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" and not a lick more of her. So it was with me. But her utopian novel Herland is an option for an assignment I've been doing the last few years, and it is frequently selected by students and universally enjoyed. So I finally picked it up myself.

And I enjoyed it too. Like a lot of utopian fiction, much of it is spent exploring the ways this female-only-for-two-thousand-years society is different from the society from which the novel sprung, but Gilman's satires swing from gentle to violent and it's hard to disagree with the points she's making. And the frisson between our three male interlopers and the nation of women they've intruded upon keeps the preaching interesting. (Rumor has it, this is all missing from the sequel.)

Anyway, the novel is short and entertaining and I am glad to have written it. Here are a couple quotations:

They had no exact analogue for our word HOME, any more than they had for our Roman-based FAMILY.

They loved one another with a practically universal affection, rising to exquisite and unbroken friendships, and broadening to a devotion to their country and people for which our word PATRIOTISM is no definition at all.

Patriotism, red hot, is compatible with the existence of a neglect of national interests, a dishonesty, a cold indifference to the suffering of millions. Patriotism is largely pride, and very largely combativeness. Patriotism generally has a chip on its shoulder.


What Terry meant by saying they had no “modesty” was that this great life-view had no shady places; they had a high sense of personal decorum, but no shame—no knowledge of anything to be ashamed of.

Even their shortcomings and misdeeds in childhood never were presented to them as sins; merely as errors and misplays—as in a game. Some of them, who were palpably less agreeable than others or who had a real weakness or fault, were treated with cheerful allowance, as a friendly group at whist would treat a poor player.

Their religion, you see, was maternal; and their ethics, based on the full perception of evolution, showed the principle of growth and the beauty of wise culture. They had no theory of the essential opposition of good and evil; life to them was growth; their pleasure was in growing, and their duty also.

Incidentally, the version I read also included a slew of short stories. I've read a few and will likely read more before I return the book to the library, but I checked it out to read Herland and Herland I have read. That said, they were strong. Less fraught than "Yellow Wallpaper" but honestly I like the light touch and the subtlety. Her work holds up.

a month and a week with a three-week gap taking up most of that time

066) Dani and Ramen: A Nomad's Tale, volume one by Jake Morrison, finished on July 17
067) Dani and Ramen: A Nomad's Tale, volume two by Jake Morrison, finished on July 17

I became aware of this comic when a bunch of my friends started buying it on Kickstarter. I had backed a previous campaign of the artist's and decided to jump in on this one as well. And I'm glad I did. Although it was not at all surprising to learn from a note on page 173 of volume two that the characters dated back to youth and that the project took its initial form as a proposed tv show, Dani and Ramen works perfectly well as comics. Although it's all funny animals in a high-fantasy world, Morrison's pacing makes everything feel more real. And I mean real in the sense of "realism"---the characters' discussions, the way scenes end without ending---all this stuff is hallmarks of realism and I love how calmly this story proceeds, even with its talking animals and trendy eyeshapes and etc etc.

The best talking-animals fantasy I've read since The Autumnlands and I look forward to more.

two days

068) The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey, finished on July 23

This book came into my hands quite randomly and any other day might have found its way to a shelf to be eternally to-be-read. But stuff worked out just right and I slid right in and I read right through.

Kind of a great book to follow up my reading of How to Do Nothing, in fact. Bailey had no choice but to do nothing. A mysterious illness fells her and she can do nothing but lie on her back for months and months. A friend brings her a local snail and, a snail being the level of excitement she can handle, she becomes a close observer of said snail.

The book took her years to write and incorporates both the latest science and rapturous words from the likes of Darwin and Issa. But the whole is a beautiful and poetic personal essay. It is not long and she is a marvelous companion. As is the snail.

two days

069) Kirby: King of Comics by Mark Evanier, finished on July 23

I really didn't know much about Jack Kirby. I knew he was involved in the creation of tons of midcentury comics---including many heroes still going strong---and that he had largely been ripped off and written out of history and never got the full measure of fame and fortune he was owed before he passed. I also knew while that latter part was essentially true, that (Stan Lee's credit-hogging notwithstanding) his is now arguably the most heralded creative mind comics' ever produced.

But his background or the details of his story or anything human about him? I was in ignorance.

I was on a library bench, trying to get all my daughter's picture books into a manageable pile when I saw this book on the oversized shelf. On an impulse, I pulled it off.

That's not so unusual, but it is unusual for me to actually read the entire thing. And here I did. Evanier's text is authoritative and welcoming and it was impossible to not keep reading. The layout is friendly---lots of images, large text. It's just pleasant to have open and to look at. And Kirby is such a fine character, why would anyone stop?

But what most astonished me is how moving I found the final act. When people come around, start paying him (too little too late but still), applauding him, respecting him, recognizing his place in the pantheon. It's touching.

And the personal story Evanier shares at the end is similarly moving. I didn't know I was signing up for that.

Anyway, terrific book. Find it on the oversized shelves of your library today.


Previously . . . . :


Books finished from one 14 to another


057) Messages on the Water by Merrijane Rice, finished on June 14

File this book under volumes that fell behind some furniture midread thus causing me to forget most of what I wanted to say about it. But I did rediscover it Saturday and finished it Monday. Most of what I would have had to say would have been similar to what I said about Grace Like Water (or yet will say---my full review is coming out fall). The final poem, I think, gives you an appropriate flavor:

Like love,

you can only write so many poems
about the sky—

whether saturated with slate-blue clouds,
heavy as huddled bison herds
in leisurely migration
over valley grazing grounds,

or dry and flat
as bone china crisply glazed,
as lead crystal glinting
so it seems to ping
when light first hits—

but every time I look up,
heaven grabs hold and lifts,
pumps my heart as full
as a helium balloon, and I think:
This should be a poem.

Just like when you walk by
raining unexpected kisses
across my upturned face.

about six months

058) Words on Fire by Jennifer A. Nielsen, finished on June 16

I found this book frustrating almost to the point of enraging. While the second half of the book has sustained sequence of adventure and suspense that work well, the first half relies on the character development of our protagonist, Audra, a Lithuanian girl in the 1890s whose parents, book smugglers, are arrested, throwing her into a world of chaos.

She starts meek and quiet and illiterate and ends brave and outspoken and authorial. And not one moment of epiphany or changed opinion or personal growth is believable. Not one. Every bit of emotion that is supposed to project personal growth is cheap telling in showing's clothing.

Maybe this is typical of middle-grade fiction, but somehow I doubt it. But the book won awards and praise and I am left frustrated and mystified.

I almost purchased this book for myself (I bought another instead) but since my mother was interested (for the same reason) I bought it for her instead, with the intention of borrowing it later (which took longer than anticipated as she recommended it to her book group and then she made my sister read it when she was visiting over the holidays).

Honestly, if I'd gotten this from the library, I would not have finished it. If I'd purchased it for myself, it may have taken me years to get to the entertaining second half. But I borrowed it from my mom who loved it, so, you know, had to finish it.

I do wonder if some of the praise the book has received is backpatting among the book-loving set, but it's also possible I'm an awful snob who does not deserve nice things. Anyway. I can't recommend it. Sorry.

a small number of months

059) There There by Tommy Orange, finished on June 19

Natives who live in Oakland and their interconnecting lives. That's the elevator for this novel. And it's well written with a host of rich characters crammed into less that 300 pages. Many of the chapters (less so those at the end) work excellently well as short stories---honestly, they work better as stories than as pieces of a novel for a long time. It takes a while for the pieces to start connecting. I read this book relatively quickly and I read many books at once and yet this was still difficult to keep track of. Even at the end, I would sometimes spend half a chapter figuring out who the protagonist was. I recommend taking notes as you read this novel. Maybe in the paperback they added a fantasynovelesque family tree? Probably not.

Anyway! Oakland people who claim Cheyenne or mixed or uncertain ancestry stretched over several decades from Right Now on back, all building to a powwow held at the Oakland Coliseum. Families will be reunited, crimes will be committed, distances will be traveled, and time will collapse.

This is not a novel that can really be spoiled or summarized. It's a series of life slices layered atop one another like colored cellophane; as they pass under and beyond one another, the light you see by shifts to reveal and conceal.

And if you never read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the intro should catch you up.

(Incidentally, this book should also be considered in conversation with recent movies like Sorry to Bother You and Black Panther and Blindspotting that also look at the disadvantaged-minorities-in-Oakland experience. Different minorities with different experiences but the conversation is what I'm pointing out, not any particular conclusions.)

a week's worth of days with a week break in the middle

060) The Shakespeare Stories by Andrew Matthews and illustrated by Tony Ross, finished on June 19

This isn't really a book. It's twelve books that fail to qualify for this list. It's twelve books because I bought them at Costco. This was years ago. Hoping son #3 would read them. He read I think one. And I read one to him. The end.

Then I decided to maybe read As You Like It over the internet to my seniors before we read the play. But I read it to daughter #1 first. But she wanted to read a different one so As You Like It had to wait to be second. Then we continued on and finally read them all.

Each book is 60 pages of text and Quentin Blake-like illustrations. Necessarily, this results in much cutting. For instance, Romeo and Juliet (our final read) began in act two, with the party.

Largely, the reductions work pretty well. A few choices annoyed me, but I recognize that with the amount of flesh left on the floor, some blood will be spilt.

Speaking of which, Merchant of Venice and Taming of the Shrew should not have been included. They ended up too problematic for an audience this age, in my opinion. And it's not like there weren't other plays to choose from.

That said, all the tragedies were bloody messes not typical of children's fare. But the four-year-old stuck with them, to the end.

When we came to Hamlet, the most interior of the plays, Matthews made a good choice by telling the story in first person. (Same choice employed for Richard III.)

On a few of the plays, the initial cast list contained no women, an observation my daughter noted each time. And in some cases (eg, Julius Caesar, Richard III) a woman does make an appearance. It wouldn't have been hard to put her on the cast-list spread. An oversight my daughter was troubled by every time. Good for her.

Anyway, I thought they were pretty good. I won't reread them but I wonder, when she comes to read, if she will?

under two months

061) The Garden of Enid: Adventures of a Weird Mormon Girl, Part Two by Scott Hales, finished on June 20

I haven't had the daughter for bedtime on many Sundays of late, but we did finish up Enid today, albeit at a slower pace than volume one.

She always pushed back when I proposed reading Enid but she always loved it when we did. And she asked so many questions, which I think is a good sign of engagement at her age.

Plus, volume two makes me cry. I cried when Enid's mom died and I cried when her friends rescue her. While it seems like a series of silly moments, they add up to a great character with a strong supporting cast.

These are great books to have on the shelf, near your kids, where they one day might take them down and start to read.

over a month

062) Do the Movies Have a Future? by David Denby, finished on July 14

I picked up this book from a Little Free Library a few years ago and lost it and forgot about it almost immediately. I found it not long back and decided, since it was by a New Yorker critic, to start it after finishing my Pauline Kael book. I started with his essay on Kael which set the tone for the rest of the book.

Here's the summary: Young David is adopted by old Pauline as one of her proteges. After a close relationship for some years, he apostatizes from the cult of Pauline and their relationship, though it never disappears, becomes weird and strained.

This seems to be a trend with David. He has a similar relationship with some directors, some stars, and the movies themselves. While I liked reading the book, and while Denby makes some excellent points, I did find his company a bit tiresome at times. And no matter if he chose the (barely relevant) title to his book, it kind of captures him perfectly.

So while he makes me think about looking at Clint Eastwood-directed movies more closely (the only one I've seen is Sully), he also leaves me convinced that he doesn't understand the Coens at all.

a month and five days

Previously . . . . :