Thursday, December 30, 2010

SHOW BUZZ

This year Santa—through the agency of The Wife—brought me The Fly Collection, a DVD boxed set of The Fly (1958) & its sequels Return of the Fly (1959) & Curse of the Fly (1965) plus abundant bonus goodies. I was most excited to get this, especially when it occurred to me that I’d never actually seen the original Fly, even though I’d read & heard about & seen clips & stills from it to the point where it almost seemed like I had.

Now I have. Good flick! So…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week our honoree is the hapless title character of this classic, a Montreal scientist experimenting with teleportation who transmits himself across his laboratory, not knowing that there’s a fly along for the ride. En route, man & insect swap their heads, plus a forelimb:



Al Hedison (later redubbed David Hedison) plays the poor fellow, & Patricia Owens his devoted wife, who starts chasing flies around the house & garden, trying to retrieve the one carrying a diminutive version of her husband’s melon. Vincent Price plays our hero’s brother, who witnesses something unpleasant in a spider web in the famous finale.


This really is a pretty effective picture, shot in lush color & played with an entirely straight face—a bit of an acting challenge, Vincent Price later claimed. The script, based on George Langelaan’s 1957 Playboy short story, was by James Clavell, & while most of his dialogue is reasonably literate, there are passages of hilarity. My favorite comes after the scientist has disintegrated his pet cat, who has failed to re-integrate. Asked where the cat went, he replies: “Into space…a stream of cat atoms. It would be funny, if life weren’t so sacred.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

WINNER WONDERLAND

The Phoenix Film Critics Society has announced the winners of our 11th annual awards:


Best Picture

The King's Speech

Top Ten Films

127 Hours

Inception

Never Let Me Go

Shutter Island

The Kids Are All Right

The King's Speech

The Social Network

True Grit

Toy Story 3

Winter's Bone

Best Director

Christopher Nolan, Inception

Best Actor in a Leading Role

Colin Firth, The King's Speech

Best Actress in a Leading Role

Natalie Portman, Black Swan

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Christian Bale, The Fighter

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Melissa Leo, The Fighter

Best Ensemble Acting

The Social Network

Best Screenplay - Original

Inception

Best Screenplay – Adaptation

The Social Network

Best Live Action Family Film

Alice in Wonderland

The Overlooked Film of the Year

Never Let Me Go

Best Animated Film

Toy Story 3

Best Foreign Language Film

Biutiful

Best Documentary Film

Restrepo

Best Original Song

Burlesque, "You Haven't See the Last of Me"

Best Original Score

Inception

Best Cinematography

True Grit

Best Film Editing

Inception

Best Production Design

Inception

Best Costume Design

Alice in Wonderland

Best Visual Effects

Inception

Best Stunts

Inception

Breakthrough Performance on Camera

Chloe Moretz, Kick-Ass

Breakthrough Performance behind the Camera

Debra Granik, Winter's Bone

Best Performance by a Youth in a Lead or Supporting Role – Male

Kodi Smit-McPhee, Let Me In

Best Performance by a Youth in a Lead or Supporting Role – Female

Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit

Sunday, December 26, 2010

RAD SKELTON

Hope everybody had at least as good a Christmas as the Arizona Cardinals!

After a promising showing two Sundays ago, newbie quarterback John Skelton...

...had a lousy game last weekend, then managed a win over the Cowboys yesterday. But far cooler than any of this, for me, is the fact that young Skelton shares his name with 16th-Century English poet John Skelton...


...who wrote wonderful, hip-hop-like run-on rhymes like this one, about a skull that somebody had given him as a gift:

Skelton Laureate, upon a dead man's head that was sent to him from an honorable gentlewoman for a token, devised this ghostly [spiritual] meditation in English, covenable [sacred] in sentence, commendable, lamentable, lacrimable, profitable for the soul.

YOUR ugly token
My mind hath broken
From worldly lust,
For I have discuss'd
We are but dust
And die we must.
It is general
To be mortal:
I have well espi'd
No man may him hide
From Death hollow-eyed
With sinews widered*, [withered]
With bones shidered*, [shattered]
With his worm-eaten maw,
And his ghastly jaw
Gaping aside,
Naked of hide,
Neither flesh nor fell.
Thou by my counsel
Look that ye spell
Well this gospel,
For whereso we dwell
Death will us quell
And with us mell*. [intermingle]
For all our pamper'd paunchis* [pauches]
There may no fraunchis* [franchise]
Nor worldly bliss
Redeem us from this:
Our days be dated
To be checkmated
With draughts of Death,
Stopping our breath;
Our eyen sinking,
Our bodies stinking,
Our gums grinning,
Our souls brinning*. [burning]
To whom, then, shall we sue
For to have rescue
But to sweet Jesu
On us then for to rue?
O goodly Child
Of Mary mild,
Then be our shild*, [shield]
That we be not exil'd
To the dyne dale* [dark valley]
Of bottomless bale*, [sorrow]
Nor to the lake
Of fiends black.
But grant us grace
To see Thy face,
And to purchase
Thine heavenly place,
And thy palace
Full of solace
Above the sky
That is so high,
Eternally
To behold and see
The Trinity.
Mirres vous y

Saturday, December 25, 2010

A VERY STING-Y CHRISTMAS

Merry Christmas!

Here's a beauty from Sting.

Friday, December 24, 2010

STOCKING STUFFERS

George Bailey chucking a snowball at Mr. Potter's office. Kris Kringle holding court at Macy's. Der Bingle and Danny Kaye lip-syncing "Sisters." The Grinch and Max dangling off Mt. Krumpet. Rudolph and friends among the Misfit Toys. Charlie Brown and his little charity-case tree. Poor Flick's tongue, frozen to the flagpole.

For many Americans--those of us who've grown up since the advent of TV--these moments are more a part of the holiday season than spiced hot cider or caroling. But familiarity can breed boredom. No one disputes that these are classic movies and shows, but what if you want something heartwarming and festive that you haven't seen a hundred times, or that you haven't seen in many years?

Here are some road-less-taken holiday videos -- the underappreciated, the too-often-forgotten, the just plain odd:



The Muppet Christmas Carol: Relative to its quality, this may be the most underappreciated Christmas movie in many years. Combining the sweet melodies and lyrics of Paul Williams, the bottomless invention of the Muppets and the brilliantly non-campy performance of Michael Caine as Scrooge, it's a genuinely funny, genuinely touching original. While we're on the subject of the Muppets: a friend of mine makes an annual ritual of the neglected Emmett Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, a delightful down-home Muppet musical from 1977.

Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol: How many years since you've seen this gentle, eccentric take on the tale? Even if it's been decades, you may find that the catchy tunes, by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill (the team that brought us "Funny Girl"!), come back to you—I was able to sing right along with "We're Despicable." My mother-in-law loved this show, especially the young Scrooge’s poignant song “I’m All Alone in the World.”

The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus: This stop-motion animated special from 1985 is an adaptation of a book by L. Frank Baum. It's like a Christmas show for Wiccans, or maybe Wagnerians: A group of forest Immortals meet to decide whether Santa should be admitted to the club. It's available on DVD, paired with 1977's Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey. (Careful with that one—tear-jerker alert!).

The Gathering: It's not for kids, but this 1977 TV movie, with Ed Asner as a husband and father trying to reconnect with his family on what he knows will be his last earthly Christmas, has a lovely wistful atmosphere and fine, understated acting. Long unavailable on DVD, it came out in 2006, with its sequel The Gathering Part II thrown in.

Saturday Night Live – Christmas: Don't overlook this inexpensive 90-minute compendium of holiday sketches from SNL. You may be surprised at how many of them qualify as classic--Adam Sandler's "Hanukkah Song," Jon Lovitz saving Christmas as Hanukkah Harry, Alec Baldwin's notorious visit to "Delicious Dish." The DVD dates from 2003, however; it may be time for a second volume.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

BLUE CHRISTMAS

Merry Christmas Eve eve everybody!

In observance of the occasion...

Monster-of-the-week: …today let’s honor the redoubtable Cookie Monster, seen here singing “Silver Bells” with Jeff Bridges on last weekend’s Saturday Night Live.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

GRITTY REALISM

The first film version of True Grit, directed by Henry Hathaway in 1969, is one of those movies beloved of squares & hipsters alike. Even more than Stagecoach or The Searchers or The Quiet Man or Rio Bravo, it’s probably the movie with which John Wayne is most associated—if somebody tells you to picture John Wayne, there’s a good chance you’ll conjure him up in middle age, wearing the eye-patch of “Rooster” Cogburn, perhaps riding with the reins in his mouth & guns blazing in both hands.



Thus the decision by the Coen Brothers to make a new version of True Grit, one closer in plot, language & tone to the 1968 novel by Charles Portis, ran the risk of comparison to a film toward which many people feel protective. But while their version need not (& likely won’t) replace the Wayne version in anyone’s affections, it’s still a fascinating & grimly funny picture.

The story is roughly the same, though harsher. In Arkansas in the late 19th-Century, a precociously strong-willed & articulate 14-year-old named Mattie Ross engages Cogburn, a drunken, shoot-first Federal Marshal, to hunt down the man who killed her father. The two of them, in company with a Texas Ranger, track the man, now riding with a dangerous gang, into the Oklahoma Territory, where they face various perils, & gradually bond.

But the flavor of the Coen’s film, shot in chilly shades by Roger Deakins, & with a fine score by Carter Burwell (using “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” as his main theme), is entirely different. In part, this has to do with their use of the language—that same ornate, curlicued, contraction-free dialogue that makes their contemporary-setting films seem stylized makes their True Grit feel pretty authentic to its period & place.

The film’s originality, however, has even more to do with the performance of Jeff Bridges. Wayne’s great strength as an actor, especially late in his career, was his larger-than-life warmth, & he was at his most ebullient as Cogburn. Bridges makes the Marshal a crusty, muttering old ruin, not without laconic wit, not even without moments of dignity & sympathy, but still a killer, & not lovable in the usual sense.

It’s a fine performance, but it’s not the only fine performance. The Coens keep their directorial touch more austere & restrained than usual here. Not everything in the movie works; the midsection sort of sags, & a shooting contest between Cogburn & the Texas Ranger isn’t as amusing as it’s meant to be. But the Coens focus on the performances, & the movie offers, pound for pound, maybe the highest concentration of enjoyable acting I’ve seen all year—by Matt Damon as the uppity Texas Ranger, who speaks in the same lofty manner as Mattie, by Josh Brolin as the whiny, self-pitying killer, by Dakin Matthews as the waspish, aggrieved horse merchant, & especially by Barry Pepper, who, as the gang leader, looks like he stepped out of an old photograph.

Still, the real story, perhaps, is Hailee Steinfeld, who gives an almost unearthly poise to the role of Mattie. As with Bridges, she brings a subtly different tone to the role than Kim Darby, who was quite wonderful in the Wayne version. Steinfeld’s line readings carry a touch of avidity, a sense that even though her anger about her father’s murder is very real, there’s also a bit of adventuresome enthusiasm in her attitude toward the project, a sense of chivalric play.

This makes the Coen’s True Grit, for all its jocularity & macabre comedy, tragic in a way that Hathaway’s version was not (& didn’t want to be), & more truly a coming of age story—Mattie learns that, however righteous her cause, what she’s doing is no game. Unrelated parties suffer & die so she can have her revenge.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

CHRISTMAS, DAY

Here’s the weirdest Christmas video The Wife & I have encountered in a while…

It’s three holiday episodes of Doris’s corny, format-shifting ‘70s-era sitcom. Strictly as comedy, the show hasn’t aged at all well, but Day’s natural, sexy warmth still comes across, there’s a kitschy nostalgia to the mod fashions and décor, & there’s a gallery of great character actors like McLean Stevenson, Rose Marie, Kaye Ballard, Jackie Joseph, John Dehner, Bernie Kopell & Denver Pyle. The freak-out, however, is the third episode, an actual, no-kidding murder mystery, in which Doris must figure out who framed a local Santa Claus for shooting an old man! The half-hour includes a remote-control flying saucer, & Charles Nelson Reilly as the guest star. It’s like some fruitcake-and-eggnog-spawned pop-culture fever dream.

RIP to the hilarious Steve Landesberg, the deadpan Det. Dietrich of Barney Miller, passed on at 65.

Friday, December 17, 2010

STUTTER ISLAND

Three opening here in the Valley this weekend:

Colin Firth is a master—at the moment, he’s the master—of raw emotion behind a dour, reserved exterior. As a gay college professor in the early ‘60s in last year’s A Single Man, he had a scene on the telephone, learning of his lover’s death but unable to express his full grief, that may be the greatest piece of sustained acting confined to one shot I’ve ever seen in a movie.


The King’s Speech offers him another superb chance to be miserable behind a stuffy façade. In this lavish historical drama, he plays Albert Frederick Arthur George, Duke of York, known to his family as Bertie & to history, very reluctantly, as King George VI of the U.K. High on the list of what made Bertie the Man Who Would Rather Not Be King was his severe stammer, which made public speaking—a frequent duty even as a junior prince—a terror for him. I’ve heard that many people rate the fear of giving a speech higher than the fear of death, & Firth makes Bertie look like he’d prefer death hands down.

But as royalty buffs & Anglophiles know, the abdication of Edward VIII, Bertie’s older brother, flipped the crown onto his head in 1936. Not long after, Hitler’s troops marched into Poland, & the new King found that his job description included the delivery not just of the occasional few words at a factory or public ceremony, but of eloquent, inspiring wartime oratory over the radio.

Through all of this, or so we’re told by this movie, the poor fellow was coached by a pioneering speech therapist named Lionel Logue, a self-taught Australian working & living with his wife & sons in shabby quarters on Harley Street. Logue, played here by Geoffrey Rush, had a familiar manner—it was part of his therapeutic method—& seemed stubbornly (though never discourteously) unimpressed by his patient’s rank, & this initially met cranky indignation from the Prince. But Logue’s methods got results, & eventually his kindness did too, & he & the shy, short-tempered royal gradually became friends.

Directed by Tom Hooper from a script by David Seidler (the ultimate source is a book by Logue’s grandson), The King’s Speech is a smooth, well-turned piece of high-end Masterpiece Theatre. The film offers a fair amount of pomp & pageantry, & a gallery of entertaining supporting performances, by, among others, Helena Bonham-Carter as the young Queen Mum, Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill, Guy Pearce as Edward, Eve Best as Wallis Simpson &, especially good, Michael Gambon as the cantankerous George V. The cinematography by Danny Cohen is rich, & there’s an almost distractingly beautiful score by Alexander Desplat.

Whether the ability of a monarch, by then an almost completely ceremonial figurehead, to deliver a speech well had any real importance in the grand scheme of 20th-Century history is debatable at best. The drama in The King’s Speech is more personal than political—for all its spectacle, it’s finally the story of a man struggling with an abusive childhood, & the wary bond he forms with the man who helps him. I would have liked the film to get a bit more specific on the pathology of stuttering, & of the nuts & bolts of Logue’s methods for curing it, but even without the details, the connection between the two leads makes the movie touching.

Rush, an actor not known for his underplaying, underplays Logue to great effect. He gives us a portrait of a pedant & frustrated Shakespearean who, though decent down to his bones, is also overconfident, slightly smug & by no means unambitious—dismissive as he is of titles, he isn’t above dropping hints about knighthood when his patient’s in a grateful mood. He doesn’t milk his sympathy for Bertie; when the King discloses some unhappy memory, you see it register in Logue’s eyes, but he knows very well that obvious pity will get him nowhere. It’s one of Rush’s best performances.

That said, The King’s Speech is finally Firth’s movie. There’s no whisper of the technical acting exercise to the performance—the rage & sadness & bewilderment that blaze in the King’s eyes & bubble up into his buzzing, gargling voice are so palpable that at times it feels almost improper to watch. Yet he has tender moments, too, as when he impersonates a penguin for his daughters. Firth makes his wounded George VI both a convincing psychological study & a fairy-tale king, under a terrible enchantment.


The true story of Micky Ward & his older half-brother Dicky Eklund forms the basis for The Fighter, an engrossing boxing melodrama. Dicky (Christian Bale), once the pride of Lowell, Massachusetts for going the distance in 1978 with Sugar Ray Leonard in one of the very few fights in which Leonard even briefly hit the floor, is now a pathetic crackhead.

Quiet, sweet-natured Micky (Mark Wahlberg) nonetheless keeps Dicky as his trainer, & their dominating mother Alice (Melissa Leo), who favors Dicky, as his manager, even though it means screwy, uneven match-ups in which Micky must allow himself to be pummeled so that his family can get a payday. The parallel storylines detail Dicky’s struggles with drugs & Micky’s struggle to break away from his family’s crazy influence & start a stable life with his tough-but-loving new girlfriend (Amy Adams).

Without any obvious use of old-movie tropes, The Fighter, however true, has an old-Hollywood feel, in a good way. The director, David O. Russell (of Three Kings) works with a loose, effortless style—his footwork is fast & fancy but not flashy. I loved, for instance, how the subtitle announcing a bout appeared on screen a second or so before he cut to the fight—just a detail, but it’s one of several strategies Russell uses to give the movie a splendid forward momentum. At least some effort is made to present the boxing with technical authenticity, & Russell has a fine touch with the actors, too, letting us enjoy the company of these people even when they’re behaving despicably.

Bale & Leo—& maybe Amy Adams, who seems delighted at the chance to swear & brawl—are all highly entertaining, & their flamboyance may overshadow Mark Wahlberg’s quiet excellence. His Micky ironically belies the movie’s title—he may be a boxer, but he’s a lover, not a fighter. He just wants the people he loves to get along. When Micky at last begins to assert himself, both in & out of the ring, it’s immensely satisfying.

One other note [minor “spoiler alert” here]: At the beginning of The Fighter, we see a TV documentary crew following Dicky around. We’re led to believe that the film they’re making is about his dreams of a comeback, but eventually we learn it’s about his crack addiction. When it airs, Dicky & his family are suddenly confronted with the squalor & wretchedness of his life, & the contempt in which their neighbors hold him, & they’re horrified & humiliated.

This is the mid-‘90s, & it occurred to me that these scenes show the difference that nearly two decades of “Reality TV” as a dominant form of American entertainment has made—nowadays, I’m not sure this film would embarrass its subjects. They’d just be glad it got them on TV.



In 1982, a generation of nerds got their minds blown by Disney’s Tron. This film made the fantasy of disappearing into the world inside your computer seductive, & said nerds have spent the last three decades doing their best to make it a reality.

I saw it back then, but while I was a certainly a nerd, I wasn’t a computer nerd, & very little of it stayed with me. This, combined with my already minimal grasp of computer-ese, may be why I felt a little lost at times during, Tron: Legacy, the long-belated sequel.

In the new film, we learn that software designer hero Flynn (Jeff Bridges) disappeared for real years earlier, leaving behind his young son Sam (as an adult, Garrett Hedlund). Disney’s standard psychological template firmly in place—mother gone & barely mentioned, father absent & yearned for—the story takes Sam into “The Grid,” a Dante-esque virtual world of anthropomorphic “Programs” perpetually engaged in gladiatorial fights & races. The Grid is now tyrannically ruled by Clu, a doppelganger of the young Bridges (some impressive computer trickery here).

Sam is rescued from this peril by a cyber-cutie, Quorra (Olivia Wilde), who takes him into the wilderness Off the Grid. There he is reunited his Dad, now middle-aged & living pretty comfortably with Quorra as his protégée. The three of them must then brave Clu & his forces to get back to the real world.

That’s about as coherently as I can summarize the plot. I didn’t really “get” Tron: Legacy, but I can’t deny that the neon-on-black palette of the Grid scenes gives it a spooky visual beauty, & that the elder incarnation of Bridges, now robed & bearded like Obi-wan Kenobi, gives a fine, relaxed performance, despite the banal dialogue he’s stuck with. He brings the only heart to Tron: Legacy—otherwise, it’s like watching the world’s longest Super Bowl commercial. It’s made with craft & artistry & even visionary imagination, but the movie’s emotional core feels as simulated as the setting.

Director Blake Edwards, whose career spanned from Breakfast at Tiffany’s & The Great Race to the Pink Panther movies to Victor/Victoria & the underrated Hollywood satire S.O.B., has passed on at 88. RIP.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

PAINT SCREAM

To my bitter disappointment, I wasn’t able to make it to the screening last week of the new big-screen version of Yogi Bear. But the movie, opening Friday, has me thinking about Hanna-Barbera cartoons, & in particular one of the pleasures of the late-Boomer era, Jonny Quest. The great half-hour adventure show was a treasure trove of monsters—everything from pterodactyls to Yetis to deep-sea freaks to daddy-longlegs robots to plodding mummies to giant crabs. But…

Monster-of-the-Week: ..one of the most memorable of the worthy company that menaced Dr. Quest, Race, Bandit & the boys was this week’s honoree, the shapeless, cyclopean, electricity-craving banshee known as the Invisible Monster, even though it becomes visible (& slightly endearing) when it’s pelted with bags of paint…



You can watch the wailing horror’s Waterloo in the episode’s thrilling conclusion, here.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

NOMINEE GRITS

Phoenix Film Critics Society, of which I am a proud founding member, has announced its 2010 Award Nominations. You can read the whole list here, but here are the ten Best Picture nominees (in alphabetical order):

127 Hours

Inception

Never Let Me Go

Shutter Island

The Kids Are All Right

The King’s Speech

The Social Network

True Grit

Toy Story 3

Winter’s Bone

As usual, some of the nominees reflect my voting, & some don’t. I was disappointed, for instance, that Ben Affleck’s terrific The Town—out on DVD next week, by the way—didn’t receive a single nomination.

The winners will be announced on Tuesday, December 28.

Out on DVD this week is the startling documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. You can read my review of it here, on JabCat on Movies.

Monday, December 13, 2010

TIRED

Busy but fun weekend for Your Humble Narrator. Friday night The Wife & I went to Scottsdale Center for the Arts & saw A John Waters Christmas. A very funny show, if unexpectedly brief: About an hour of free-form stand-up—basically a dirtier version of his talk-show appearances & essays—followed by maybe ten minutes or so of Q&A.

I also picked up his Christmas compilation CD, which includes jaw-dropping holiday obscurities like Little Cindy’s “Happy Birthday Jesus,” “Sleigh Ride” by Alvin & the Chipmunks, & “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” by Tiny Tim.

Then Saturday, we were given a behind-the-scenes tour of Chase Field, as part of a season-ticket pitch. The Wife captured this pic of me, sitting in the very spot where the last-place team in the NL West sat this summer:


Quite a thrill. My favorite detail of the tour was in the hall just behind the dugout—there was a car tire mounted on the wall.

“That’s the Frustration Tire,” our excellent guide Matt explained. He then showed us all the dents in the pipes & doors caused by enraged players, abuse which the tire is now there to absorb. I couldn’t believe that they haven’t used it as a licensing opportunity for, say, Discount Tire: “The official tire of Diamondbacks frustration.

Then Sunday, with the help of The Wife & friends, I finally got some Christmas lights onto the house:

Friday, December 10, 2010

LIONS & TOURISTS & SNARES, OH MY!

Two opening here in the Valley today:
The Tourist: Angelina Jolie plays Elise, a mystery woman who, because of her romantic connection to a master criminal, is under the gaze of Scotland Yard & Interpol. She receives a note from the wanted man telling her to board a certain train from Paris to Venice & pick out a fellow passenger of his height & build.

The guy she settles on, & aggressively seduces, is played by Johnny Depp, here sporting, in lieu of some whimsical characterization, the flat American accent of a math teacher from Wisconsin, with bedraggled hair & beard & a water-vapor cigarette. He’s like a European’s idea of the perfect patsy—a nice, well-meaning but basically clueless American, down to his hilarious name: “Frank Tupelo.”

Before long Scotland Yard has intelligence on Frank: He lost his wife in a car accident three years earlier. He seems quite ready to get on with his life, though—he has no objection to Elise’s attentions, even though they result in him being chased around Venice both by the authorities, led by Paul Bettany, & by the thugs of a menacing Brit gangster (Steven Berkoff).

Something about the poster for The Tourist led me to expect a heavy existential drama of the Visconti sort, & I confess I wasn’t disappointed to find, instead, an international thriller of the kind that James Stewart or Cary Grant used to star in for Hitchcock in the ‘50s. The film, directed by impressively named Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck from a script he wrote with Christopher McQuarrie & Julian Fellowes (it’s a knockoff of a 2005 French thriller called Anthony Zimmer), is silly from the start, & grows sillier still in its later stretches—around the time that Elise meets Frank, decked out in white, at a fancy ball.

But as usual, Depp gives the movie interest, playing his regular-guy role to the hammy hilt. He’s played a Hitchcockian everyman-in-over-his-head before, in the slightly underrated 1995 thriller Nick of Time. But he puts on a much broader show here as Frank Tupelo—he drops malapropisms, he keeps speaking Spanish to Italians, & he can hold up his end of a bantering conversation with a beautiful woman on a train, but only with visible effort, which rather defeats the purpose. In the real world, he’d be a pretty bright, resourceful fellow, but by the standards of sophisticated romantic thrillers, he’s a bit of an oaf.


Four Lions: This English film is a comedy about Jihadism. It is, to be clear, a broad, knockabout farce concerning the efforts of a handful of self-styled Sheffield Jihadists to plan an act of terrorism. It’s freakin’ hilarious, too.

Directed & co-written by the acclaimed satirist Chris Morris, the film follows four numbskulls as they squabble & blunder their way toward a mission that they can’t quite agree on. Anglo convert Barry (Nigel Lindsay), who has the numbest skull and the biggest mouth, actually favors the idea of blowing up a mosque, in order to provoke an uprising of the faithful. This plan is not endorsed by Omar (Riz Ahmed) the group’s theoretical leader & least obviously imbecilic member. He eventually hatches a plot targeting the London Marathon.

Faisal (Adeel Akhtar) is trying to train crows to carry bombs on suicide missions. Barry’s recruit Hassan (Asher Ali) favors rap & public gestures which he calls “jihad of the mind.” The brainless Waj (Kayvan Novak) just wants to please his pal Omar.

Although the ineptitude & bluster of these men is often laugh-out-loud funny—or maybe because it is—Four Lions is also often highly unsettling, especially when it gives us a look at the mundane side of their lives. It’s chilling when Omar sits around discussing his upcoming martyrdom with his pretty, supportive wife (Preeya Kalidas) & adoring little son as if it was a small business opportunity, or when he tells the boy a bedtime story mixing his own bungled adventures with The Lion King.

Moments like these feel plausibly realistic, & indeed Morris notes that he & the other writers based the script on years of research into the everyday lives of his subjects. But as the movie heads into its homestretch, it grows grimmer & more gruesome, though no less antic. Morris allows the characters to be nagged by their consciences—it would be hard for us to take an interest in them if he didn’t—but he doesn’t let us off the hook by making these guys weekend warriors whose plots are just talk. The film doesn’t go easy on the police or the British government, either. The power of Four Lions is that it manages to be one of the funniest films of the year, & one of the saddest, at exactly the same time.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

BEETLEMANIA

Also out on DVD this week is the Criterion edition of Cronos, the Mexican horror film of 1993 directed by the young Guillermo del Toro, from whom Your Humble Narrator, with characteristic brilliant prescience, predicted great things at the time.


So…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week we give the nod to Jesus Gris, the hapless antiques dealer played by Federico Luppi, who gets stung by a metal scarab in his shop & becomes a particularly pitiable sort of vampire.



Here’s me on Cronos, from 1994.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

LIFE DURING WARTIME

The remarkable war documentary Restrepo is out this week on DVD; you can read my review of it here, on JabCat on Movies.

Monday, December 6, 2010

NEW LEAF

It was an artsy sort of weekend for Your Humble Narrator: Friday evening I stopped by Willo North Gallery for the opening of Grace and Gravitas, a show of buoyantly joyous work by the great sculptor (& great guy) Lawrence McLaughlin (seen here with Moi):


…as well as intriguing work by the young sculptor Eric Cox.

Then The Wife & I spent Sunday wandering around the Tempe Festival of the Arts. While I was there, I got the chance to test-drive the Nissan Leaf, their upcoming all-electric car—the Fest was a stop on the Leaf’s “Drive Electric Tour” (it’s in Tucson next week; you can register to drive it here).


It was basically just like...well, driving a car, except that it was seriously quiet, to the point where, we were told, an artificial motor sound effect is going to be added to the actual production vehicles (these were pre-production) so that people will hear it coming!

Aaargh! The Diamondbacks have traded third baseman & slugger Mark Reynolds to the Orioles, presumably on the petty, unimaginative grounds that he led the team—and the Majors—in strike-outs. Admittedly, he rarely hit the ball, but when he did it looked like it was headed for orbit, & he had some panache on defense, too. I will miss his Godzilla-high homers, & The Wife may just boycott.

Friday, December 3, 2010

STATUARY GAPE

Phoenix-area gallery rats & other such sophisticated types: You may wish to check out Grace and Gravitas, a show of work by major sculptors Lawrence McLaughlin & Eric Cox, & curated by my old New Times pal Robrt Pela.

It opens today at Willo North Gallery on 7th Avenue, as part of this month’s First Friday festivities, & continues through the end of January.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

LIMITED VISIBILITY

Once again in honor of the glorious & lamented Ingrid Pitt...



Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s acknowledge the horror that makes the sound in 1964’s The Sound of Horror (El Sonido de la Muerte). Pitt’s first film, a Spanish production shot in Greece, concerns an encounter between a party of treasure hunters—the lovely young Ms. Pitt is one of them—& a ferocious dinosaur, accidentally loosed by an explosion in a cave.

But this is not just any dinosaur. No, this is an invisible dinosaur.



Which is why, presumably, the title isn’t The Sight of Horror.

What the phantom fossil lacks visually, it overcompensates for vocally. Turns out The Sound of Horror is a slightly louder & more drawn-out version of the sound that a cat makes while having sex outside your house at 4 a.m.

You can hear it for yourself—here is a clip of perhaps the funniest scene in the film, & here is a trailer, narrated by another distinctive sound, that of the great Paul Frees, who provided the voices of characters ranging from Boris Badenov to the Pillsbury Doughboy.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

MORNING/MOURNING

Over the last few weeks Barry & I have caught up with some high-testosterone fare, including Ben Affleck’s smashing melodrama The Town, out on DVD in December, & Tony Scott’s fine Unstoppable. This weekend The Wife & I went back to chick-flick land with Morning Glory, in which Rachel McAdams, as a workaholic executive producer, drags an ailing network morning show back from the brink of cancellation with the reluctant help of washed-up, curmudgeonly news anchor Harrison Ford.


McAdams is good company, even if her role, as written, is a bit too traditionally perky, Ford is quite funny as the epically miserable has-been, & there are other lively performances. But if they went to the trouble & expense to hire the great Diane Keaton to play Ford’s prickly co-host, it’s baffling that they didn’t make more generous use of her.

RIP to two major directors: Italian master Mario Monicello, best known for Big Deal on Madonna Street, has departed in haste at 95, & Irvin Kershner, who made easily the best Star Wars movie in The Empire Strikes Back, has passed on at 87. Kershner also had a nice onscreen role as Zebedee in one of the best scenes in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.

Monday, November 29, 2010

SHIRLEY, HE JESTED

It occurs me that, if you could travel back in time to say, 1975, & tell people that in 2010 a black man would be President of the United States, & that most American homes would be equipped with computers, & that Leslie Nielsen's death would be mourned as the passing of a fairly major comedy star, your listeners might be most incredulous about that last item.


RIP to the Canadian-born movie & TV fixture, who has passed on at 84. Nielsen spent decades playing handsome, stolid authority figures in films like Forbidden Planet, Tammy and the Bachelor & The Poseidon Adventure, as well as occasional villains. He was known by friends & coworkers to have a silly sense of humor, but it wasn't until his role in 1980's Airplane! that he really got to show it onscreen. Once it was clear that he was he was a straightfaced goofball, he jumped onto the new career track & rode it to comedy stardom.

But he didn't completely abandon dramatic acting: In the '90s my pal Dave & I were lucky enough to see him perform a one-man show as Clarence Darrow at the Orpheum in Phoenix.  He was first-rate, overcoming the audience's scattered giggles in a matter of minutes.

Friday, November 26, 2010

BIRD, WATCHING

Hope everybody had a great Thanksgiving.

For the (I think) third year in a row, The Wife & I spent the day at Farrelli’s Cinema Supper Club, where they do a traditional dinner with a movie. Our movie this year was It’s Kind of a Funny Story, from a novel by Ned Vizzini.


Keir Gilchrist plays a rich Manhattan high school kid who thinks he’s suicidal because he’s depressed over school worries & a crush on his best friend’s girlfriend. He goes to the emergency room in hopes of a quick fix, manages to get himself admitted to the psych unit for five days, & quickly realizes that he’s not really crazy, these people are crazy. One of his new, legitimately crazy pals (Zach Galifianakis) becomes his mentor. He also finds a new love interest: a young “cutter” (Emma Roberts) with some elegant scars on one of her beautiful cheeks.

I couldn’t decide if setting a standard coming-of-age story in a mental ward was offensive or not. In any case, the movie was charming on its own terms, with inventive direction by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, & fine performances from a cast that includes Viola Davis, Jim Gaffigan, Lauren Graham, Jeremy Davies & Zoe Kravitz. Young Gilchrist is good company, but Galifianakis is the standout, entirely convincing as this intelligent, likable wreck.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

THE SORROW & THE PITT

Happy Thanksgiving everybody! Among the many, many people for which I am thankful today is one, alas, I must thank posthumously: Deep gratitude (especially on behalf of my adolescent self) to the supremely sultry & statuesque Ingrid Pitt, passed on at 73.



Born Ingoushka Petrov in Poland, the iconic vamp of British horror flicks is most remembered for The Vampire Lovers, Countess Dracula & The House That Dripped Blood. Her career, though not prolific, included Shakespeare, Dr. Who, Where Eagles Dare & the original, unforgettable version of The Wicker Man.

So…

Monster-of-the-Week: …she certainly gets the nod this week, but for which movie? The Vampire Lovers is probably her most memorable outing...


...but I’ve always had a soft spot for her vampiress in The House That Dripped Blood, on the basis of the scene at the end when she levitates &…her high-heeled shoes drop off her feet to the floor. I don’t know why, but that detail remains one of the most deliriously sexy moments in movies for me.


RIP, Creature of the Night…

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

THE CLAW OF SUPPLY & DEMAND

An editor took me to lunch at Sandstone Café in Chandler, where I enjoyed a really delicious burger & fries. By the entrance was something I never saw before:


Not sure if my photography skills convey what this is—it’s one of those claw-grabbing machines, with live lobsters as the prizes. If you succeed in snatching one, Sandstone will cook it for you on the spot. A guy gave it a try while we were there, & though the handsome crustacean he grabbed for easily fended off his attack, he told us that it’s successfully been done. It's two dollars a try, & while two dollars for a Maine lobster would be an incredible deal, getting one in one try seems like a major long shot.

There was also something I found decadent, somehow, about making a game of catching a living creature to eat, though I guess I can’t make a rational argument as to why it’s any different, morally speaking, than recreational fishing.

This evening at the supermarket I came across another animal-related product that didn’t seem quite right somehow: Old Yeller Dog Food…


What’s next? Bambi’s Mother Salt Licks?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

KARLOFF DAY

Happy Birthday to William Henry Pratt, aka Boris Karloff, aka Karloff the Uncanny!

To celebrate the career of arguably the greatest horror star of all time, certainly one of the two or three greatest, TCM offers a small marathon of his movies today: The Lost Patrol, The Walking Dead, West of Shanghai, You’ll Find Out, Isle of the Dead, The Body Snatcher, Bedlam, Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome & The Terror.

Bedlam, a period melodrama with Karloff as the vile head honcho at the notorious London madhouse, is a particular gem.

Also, a belated RIP to old-school producer Dino de Laurentiis, whose amazing career spanned films from Fellini to David Lynch, but who will nonetheless probably be most remembered for his cheesy 1976 version of King Kong.

Friday, November 19, 2010

SHAKER CHAIRS

Alas, Your Humble Narrator was unable to make it to the screening of Harry Potter and the Receding Hairline, or whatever this one is called. But I did get to attend a demonstration, earlier this week, of the latest technological marvel by which that film will be experienced—by 26 people in Scottsdale, anyway.


The new UltraStar Cinema opens today, in the shell of the old UA Pavilions at Indian Bend & the 101. It’s an all-digital multiplex with certain reserved-seating auditoriums limited to audiences 21 & older, VIP lounges for private parties, gourmet concessions & other such amenities.

In one of the auditoriums (not one of the age-exclusive ones), 26 seats feature “D-BOX enhanced motion chair technology.” Available for an upgrade fee, these seats, put simply, move you around in sync with the movie—tilt & rock & rise & fall during chase scenes, register the impact of punches during fistfights, & so on. A control on one arm of the seats allows the intensity of the motion to be adjusted, or turned off, by the moviegoer.


By way of demonstration, we were shown a clip from The Polar Express, in which the train goes hurtling up & down a stretch of roller-coaster-like track, first with the motion seats on, & then with them off, to show how much is missing. I’m terrified by roller-coasters, & thought I might dislike this effect, but I liked it, & I can’t deny that the second time through, the experience seemed a little tame & sterile.

But UltraStar VP of Operations Damon Rubio, who introduced the system, was at pains to assure us that D-BOX wasn’t intended to turns movies into two-hour thrill rides. He noted that the “Motion Artists” who create these tracks also work to create small, subtle effects—like the “hiccup” at the end of an elevator ride—that contribute to immersion in a moviegoing experience.

This was borne out by the second part of the demo: We were then shown the first ten minutes or so of The Expendables, the Sylvester Stallone actioner. The chairs shook at the gunshots & pummelings, of course, but cooler still was the moment when Stallone & pals, in a speedboat, pull up alongside a ship they’re raiding, & we faintly feel the rocking of the waves. Later, as they ride to their next adventure on an airplane, we feel the vibration of the droning engines.

The new Harry Potter flick opening this weekend is the first to offer the D-BOX experience at Scottsdale's UltraStar. But there are also demonstration seats in the lobby which allow visitors to try it on for size. Obviously not everybody will like this, nor is it appropriate for every movie. But it strikes me as more than a gimmick, like William Castle’s notorious “Percepto” & “Emergo.” Or, if it is a gimmick, it’s a good gimmick.

I’m inclined to think that these non-visual, non-aural environmental enhancements could become a seriously-taken aspect of cinema art. I remember getting my mind blown when I went to Disneyworld in Florida as a ten-year-old, & took the rocket-ship ride, in which the seats sank to simulate the g-forces, & later drifted to simulate weightlessness.

More than ten years later, during a visit to Epcot Center with my then-girlfriend in the mid-80s, I saw the short film Captain EO. I can remember almost nothing about it, except how intensely it generated a sense of “being there” when Michael Jackson opened the hatch of his spaceship, & we in the audience felt a draft of cold clammy air from outside come right through the screen. It’s very clear to me that, if you can afford them, such techniques could be powerful additions to the cinematic bag of tricks.

At a grand opening party for UltraStar this week, I heard Diamondbacks great Luis Gonzales give a short speech of welcome to the place, which is just minutes from the new Diamondbacks/Rockies Spring Training Stadium. With startling candor, the slugger remarked: “…Don’t confuse D-BOX with D-backs…If you’ve tried those seats, and if you’ve seen the D-backs the last couple of years…You’re going to want to be in the D-BOX seats.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

LIVER LET DIE

An Arizona man has been denied a liver transplant, even though a liver had been donated to him by a dying friend, because Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System wouldn’t cover it. Read more here, but don’t read the comments if you don’t want to feel sick yourself.

A couple of movie notes:

Tonight at 7 & 9 p.m. Tempe’s MadCap Theater shows 1990’s Longtime Companion, one of the first high-profile features to explore the AIDS crisis of the time.


As I recall—I only saw it once, when it first came out—it had the feel of a well-made, well-acted TV movie. But it has an unforgettable scene in which Bruce Davison, who got an Oscar nomination for his trouble, talks to his dying husband (Mark Lamos)...


...& the heavenly final minutes, set to the Zane Campbell song “Post-Mortem Bar,” are soul-stirringly poignant.

Then Friday night, Farrelli’s Cinema Supper Club hosts a rather wonderfully random showing of the ‘70s epic Terror of Godzilla at 10 p.m. This one features The Big G facing off against one of his most notorious enemies…

Monster-of-the-Week: …Mechagodzilla, a robot knockoff designed by aliens to help them, well, you know, the usual—take over the world.

Mechagodzilla was introduced in the previous film in the series, which I saw in 1977 under its original American title, Godzilla vs. the Bionic Monster, a shameless attempt by the Yank distributors to capitalize on the massive popularity of the TV shows The Six Million Dollar Man & The Bionic Woman. Universal Studios, the show’s producers, sued, & the distributors capitulated—ridiculously, since Universal certainly hadn’t invented the word “bionic.” The movie was hastily retitled Godzilla vs. the Cosmic Monster.

By any other name, Mechagodzilla strikes terror into the hearts of Luddites everywhere. We prefer our monsters organic.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

THE BOYS OF AUTUMN

Now & then, in recent months especially, Your Humble Narrator feels slightly cranky about his adopted home state. When I do, I find it helpful to remember that Arizona, for all its undoubted faults, is still a place where you can go to a baseball game in mid-November.
This past Saturday evening The Wife & I went to the lovely newish ballpark at Camelback Ranch—the shared spring training home of the Dodgers & the White Sox—& watched the Phoenix Desert Dogs defeat the Peoria Saguaros, 8-1, in the MLB-sponsored league made up of promising prospects. It was jacket weather, but very tolerable, & the concession stand sold hot chocolate. Then this afternoon I went to Phoenix Municipal Stadium & watched while, in the most flawless baseball weather ever, the Dogs defeated the Scottsdale Scorpions, 2-1.

Both games were inexpensive ($6 maximum for the general-seating tickets), sparsely attended seven-innings affairs—they even featured a “Fifth Inning Stretch” with an even more halfhearted rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” than usual. It’s hard to imagine a more relaxed, less nerve-wracking professional sporting event to go to. I recommend them.

I do, however, have a suggestion for the Fall League. Most of the teams are named after desert fauna or flora: the Phoenix Desert Dogs, Scottsdale Scorpions, Peoria Saguaros, Peoria Javelinas. The only exceptions are the Mesa Solar Sox, which is a very cool name, & the Surprise Rafters.

Which is not a cool name.

Since this…
 
 …is the Rafter logo, I gather it refers to some sort of recreational river rafting, & not, as I supposed when I first saw it, to large heavy beams of wood. But somehow the name just doesn’t sing to me. I tried to think of what desert critter or shrub that hasn’t already been taken would be better—Surprise Tarantulas? Surprise Ocotillos? Surprise Chuckwallas? Surprise Chollas? Surprise Side-Blotched Lizards? Surprise Harris Antelope Squirrels?

Then it came to me: The Surprise Snowbirds. Think about it—the logo could be a bird, barreling down the baseline in a powerchair, carrying an oxygen tank…

Friday, November 12, 2010

HERE COMES THE TRAIN AGAIN

Runaway locomotives have a long & noble history in movies, & I've been a fan at least since the TV movie Runaway! back in 1973. Since then, I've enjoyed the premise in films ranging from Silver Streak to Speed to Andrey Konchalovsky's bizarre 1985 thriller titled, simply, Runaway Train.

Along with being lost in the wilderness, or finding yourself untrained as a pilot at the stick of an airplane, or getting yourself back to earth in a damaged spaceship after an abortive moonshot, runaway trains are in that class of adventure-story perils that are blessedly apolitical—or, at least, only a little bit political. They’re much closer to allegorical—all of us, it could be argued, are always figuratively either riding on a runaway train or in one's path. Or both. Or several of each. Human greed or arrogance may be part of what the hero has to struggle against, but the true enemy from which the drama derives is simply Momentum.

A little belabored? Sorry, but I just find the runaway train motif—which, after all, goes back in pop culture at least as far as “The Ballad of Casey Jones” & “The Wreck of the Old 97”—really compelling. So you can imagine my childish glee over the humdinger opening this weekend, marvelously titled Unstoppable, & very dimly based, like “Casey Jones”& “Old 97,” on a true incident, in this case from Ohio in 2001.


A bit of carelessness by a rail-yard worker sends an enormous train loaded with hazardous chemicals hurtling south across the central Pennsylvania countryside toward a densely populated area. Meanwhile, veteran engineer Denzel Washington & still-wet-behind-the-ears conductor Chris Pine are ambling northward up the same tracks. The two men met just that morning, & aren’t getting along smoothly. Both have troubled backstories, although the movie wisely doesn’t explain them until near the end. When they realize that only they can stop a major catastrophe, & that they can do so only by insane risk, they bond fast.

To what extent the film is technically accurate, I certainly can’t say—I found myself wondering if even the most obtrusive of broadcast helicopters would fly so low over a speeding train, & if the authorities would allow mobs of bystanders & media to stand just yards from the track to watch the beast go thundering by. But as an exercise in corny, larger-than-life folklore, Unstoppable is pretty close to perfect.

It’s understandable if it gives you pause to learn that Tony Scott directed Unstoppable. While he’s made some fun movies—True Romance, notably—his touch with action can be highly off-putting. His hyperedited car chases & shootouts can dissolve into Bruckheimer-ish incoherence.

But he was the right man for this job. The action is quite literally on the straight & narrow—we’re never in doubt as to where everyone is, so Scott’s swooping, oscillating camera adds dynamism rather than taking away clarity. With the help of rumbling music by Harry Gregson-Williams, Scott gives the trains ponderousness & menacing character, almost like Japanese monsters. Plus, he isn’t embarrassed by whole-hog, grand-scale sentimentality, so stuff like the bonding between Pine & the relaxed Washington, or the adolescent-male fantasy of winning back your woman’s affections through feats of heroic derring-do, aren’t handled ironically.


The two leads manage their archetypical relationship with warmth; it’s not hard to picture John Wayne & Ricky Nelson in the roles fifty years ago. It was also nice (if maybe a little disingenuous at the corporate level) to see a big-studio movie that was pro-union & comfortable with the working class. Mark Bomback’s dialogue is pretty feverish—I love the moment where Pine snarls “We’re gonna run this bitch down!”—but it became, for me, unintentionally funny only once, when Washington, seeing Pine reach between the two trains to attempt to couple them, offers this advice: “Be careful.”

Thursday, November 11, 2010

UNPOPULARITY CONTEST

It was one of George Orwell’s superb essays—which you can read here—that pointed me to two wonderful vintage English crime novels, E.W. Hornung’s Raffles, The Amateur Cracksman & No Orchids for Miss Blandish by James Hadley Chase. By chance, or possibly due to some Orwell enthusiast on the station’s programming staff, TCM offers movie versions of both this month: the 1930 version of Raffles, with Ronald Colman, is on this Friday evening, while the rarely-shown 1948 version of No Orchids plays November 28.

Monster-of-the-Week: This week we turn to this Onion statshot:


They’re all popular with me, but I’m giving it to Frankenwowski, The Polish Frankenstein…

Sunday, November 7, 2010

JILL TIDINGS

RIP to the charming Jill Clayburgh, best known for the 1978 Women’s Lib classic An Unmarried Woman, passed on at 66 after a twenty-plus-year struggle against leukemia.

The Wife & I had just watched Clayburgh the other night, opposite Walter Matthau in the stodgy, corny civics-lesson comedy First Monday in October, from 1981. As a conservative first female Supreme Court Justice—a fiction at the time, though about to come true with startling near-accuracy that same year—who locks rhetorical horns with the liberal Matthau, she seemed oddly miscast; too young, to begin with. But she has a self-conscious primness in the role that is very beguiling just the same.