Sunday, January 30, 2011


RIP to Bruce Gordon, best known for playing Frank Nitti on TV’s The Untouchables, passed on at 94. Until I read his obit I didn’t know, & wouldn’t have guessed, that his many Broadway credits included roles in Shakespeare & Euripides, as well as the original production of Arsenic and Old Lace.

RIP also to the ever-jittery Charlie Callas, passed on at 83.

Friday, January 28, 2011


Opening this weekend in the Valley:

Barney’s Version—The title suggests a response or rebuttal, & that is indeed the form that Mordecai Richler’s acclaimed final novel takes. The title character, neurotic Canadian Jewish TV producer Barney Panofsky, replies to an expose about him.

The new movie version, with Paul Giamatti as Barney, makes little more than a nod to this conceit. But it still gives us, in flashback, an expansive view of Barney’s adult life—how he bungles three marriages in a row, & what he has to do with the disappearance of his best friend, a priapic novelist. Directed by Richard J. Lewis from a script by Michael Konyves, this is one of those ambling, leisurely movies that gives the feel of reading a good novel, & if I had seen it before the end of last year it would have certainly been on my Top Ten list for 2010. The role of Barney gives Giamatti a perfect opportunity for his specialties—wearing a shattered heart on his face, & using his strangled voice to modulate his fury from comic to harrowing & back.

He’s superb, but so is everyone else in the large cast, including Dustin Hoffman as Barney’s anxious, eager-to-please father, Rachel LeFevre as the hopeless first wife, Minnie Driver, hilarious as the second Mrs. P, a Jewish Canadian Princess of really impressive shallowness, & Rosamund Pike as the goddessy love of Barney’s life, with whom he is thunderstruck at first sight at, alas, his own wedding reception. Scott Speedman plays the novelist friend, & there are also fine turns by Mark Addy, Bruce Greenwood, Saul Rubinek & Harvey Atkin, among others.

One other note: Barney’s Version didn’t get anything like the Oscar recognition it deserved, but the one nomination it did recieve pleased me: Best Makeup (who would have imagined this movie would share a category with The Wolfman?). Adrien Morot’s age makeup on Giamatti & the other actors is so convincing & so subtle that it unobtrusively adds to the sense that we’re seeing decades of these peoples’ lives. It’s understandable that fantastic, otherwordly makeup effects would dominate that category, but I’m always delighted by the acknowledgement of technique that hasn’t called attention to itself.

The Rite—A young mortician-turned-seminarian, struggling with his faith, is sent to Rome to take a course in exorcism. While there, he becomes the protégé of a Welsh Jesuit, assisting him in the exorcism of a teenage girl. Not only does this effort end disastrously, the old veteran ends up possessed himself, & it’s up to the newbie to evict the demonic squatter.

The young guy is played by Colin O’Donoghue, a thin Irish actor with a long, melancholy face. He looks great, but he comes across here as neither a bad actor nor a very interesting one. The true star, though he has far less screen time, is Anthony Hopkins, who as the old Jesuit lends his warmth & his abrupt, absentminded cadences to this slow, dull horror movie. It’s certainly true that once the padre is possessed, Hopkins simply re-uses his Hannibal Lecter tricks, but for me even that had entertainment value.

Not enough, though. The film, reportedly loosely based on true events, is too somber & sluggish to work as camp, & way too silly to be taken seriously. The usual theological perplexities toward this archaic ritual arise in the mind of a logical viewer—the movie asserts, for instance, that devils prefer to remain incognito in the human world, which makes one wonder why they can’t resist telling the exorcists things that the possessed person shouldn’t be able to know. Are they just showoffs?

There is one sterling gag in The Rite. Normally I wouldn’t give it away, but since I’m not recommending the movie, I will (stop reading now if you still stubbornly plan to go): In the middle of an exorcism, the old priest’s cell phone rings, &…you guessed it, he takes the call, & says he’s in the middle of something.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


This year’s Oscar nominations were announced this week—some good flicks on the list, but only one nomination for Ben Affleck’s The Town, albeit a deserved one: Jeremy Renner for Best Supporting Actor.


Monster-of-the-Week: …one of this year’s nominees for Best Animated Short is The Gruffalo, from Julia Donaldson’s children’s book. So this week’s honoree is the horned, shaggy title terror, the threat of which the ingenious mouse hero uses to bluff his way out of peril from a series of predators…

You can see the trailer for the film here.

Monday, January 24, 2011


Health gurus sometimes do the honorably ironic thing & die young, but this was not the case with genial Jack LaLanne, departed four years shy of a century old. I well remember watching his TV show—not exercising along with it, alas—as a kid; there was something vaguely spooky about his silhouette doing jumping jacks alongside the credits.

The Police Commissioner of Baltimore has actually complained that the HBO series The Wire isn’t artificial & flattering, like the cop shows set in other cities! You can read his comments here, along with Wire creator David Simon’s stinging response.

Friday, January 21, 2011


At the beginning of Casino Jack, Jack Abramoff stands in front of a mirror & spews furious defiance at his own detractors, real or imagined. Abramoff is played by the great Kevin Spacey, who hammers out his lines in his usual grand style, precise yet fierce & fervent, & even if you know how particularly odious Abramoff’s shenanigans were, you can’t help but feel a little invigorated by Spacey’s readings. You may feel that you’ve always wanted to wither your own naysayers—real or imagined—in the same way.

Abramoff was the W. Bush-era lobbyist & Republican activist who pled guilty to a couple of fraud & tax felonies in 2006 after a really dizzying career of corruption, swindling, bribery & literal double-dealing, much of it aimed at Indian gaming interests, though he was also connected to the sale of a Florida-based casino-cruise operation that led to a gangland murder. The same set of scandals took down Congressmen Bob Ney of Ohio as well as various Bush-era White House & congressional staffers, & Abramoff’s partner & friend, Michael Scanlon.

Casino Jack was the final film of director George Hickenlooper, who died in October of last year (just before his cousin John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, was elected Governor of Colorado). Hickenlooper & screenwriter Norman Snider’s extremely compressed dramatization presents the revolting parasitism of Abramoff & his pals in an ironically brisk & breezy manner, like a screwball comedy. Thus the movie lets the title character off easy in its very style.

Really, one could argue that simply being played by Spacey is being let off easy, no matter who you are. Abramoff must have been an effective hustler, but it’s hard to imagine that he had the seductive charisma that Spacey gives the role anywhere but in his own mind. Snider’s dialogue is too often of the “Hey, remember how I used to be a movie producer after I was in college but before I moved here to D.C. & became a high-powered lobbyist…” school of exposition, but Spacey’s delivery, peppered with frequent movie-star impressions, gives it a charge.

Not that his is the only good acting in Casino Jack. Kelly Preston is surprisingly complex as his willfully ignorant wife. The versatile Barry Pepper, fresh from a marvelous supporting turn in True Grit, is likewise excellent here as fidgety, haunted Michael Scanlon. Jon Lovitz, as Abramoff’s stooge Adam Kidan, gives a full-fledged, & very funny, farcical performance, & in what must have been one of his last roles, the late, wonderful Maury Chaykin has a quiet, unforced menace as a mobster.

These actors make Casino Jack worth seeing, but somehow, perhaps in a (worthy) effort to avoid Oliver-Stone-style liberal harangue, it seems finally to evade its subject, & it doesn’t quite emerge the classic it could have been. Abramoff was so hyperactive & scattered in his greed & connivance, such an overachiever in sliminess, that organizing it all into a coherent movie narrative can’t have been easy. In real life, many of us found the exact nature of his crimes a bit vague & hard to grasp, to his advantage; he seemed like a creep, but we weren’t sure exactly why we should be mad at him. Casino Jack, though energetic & entertaining, is no more than a quick sketch of the answer to that question.

The film does make at least two trenchant observations, however: First, it points out the frequency with which neoconservatives, for all their supposed contempt for Hollywood, have skulls stuffed with cinematic fantasy. Abramoff & Scanlon can’t seem to go five minutes without a movie quote, & their favorite seems to be The Godfather.

Second, at the end of the movie Abramoff gets to unload yet another torrent of bitter high dudgeon at a different pack of hypocritical persecutors—his former clients & cronies, who, with the exception of some careless ones, remained (& remain) in power. Abramoff’s fall certainly didn’t put a dent in the problem—the crisis in American democracy, really—that he represents. That he was, perhaps, more flamboyant & brazen in his disgusting mischief than his current equivalents in Washington only makes him preferable to them.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


RIP to Don Kirshner, legendary music producer & perennially scared-kid-in-the-school-play host of Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, passed on at 76. In memoriam…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the distinction to this whatever-it-is…

…from the cover of Blue Oyster Cult’s 1980 album Cultosaurus Erectus (presumably a specimen of the title critter). Kirshner’s unmistakable droning voice may be heard about midpoint in the single “The Marshall Plan.”

Sunday, January 16, 2011


Just watched the Golden Globes—I was startled to learn, from watching Robert DeNiro accept his DeMille Award, that Rupert Pupkin from The King of Comedy was the role closest to his personality.

RIP to the beautiful Susannah York, passed on at 72, & to Romulus Linney, one of America’s more neglected playwrights (he’s far better known as Laura Linney’s dad), passed on at 80.

Friday, January 14, 2011


One of the signs that you’re a true movie star may be when you get cast in a classic role for which you seem completely wrong. Not many actors strike me as less obviously appropriate for the title role in The Green Hornet than Seth Rogen, the nerdy, laid-back, highly un-glamorous star of Knocked Up.

But then, casting Michael Keaton as Batman seemed crazy back in 1989, & he proved a revelation in the part.

Besides, I like Rogen. It bugged me to hear, repeatedly, the revulsion that so many viewers expressed toward his romantic pairing with Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up. Heigl played a promising TV entertainment journalist who finds herself pregnant after an impulsive & alcohol-fueled one-night stand with Rogen, as an amiable but aimless pothead. The disbelief & even distaste that many people had for the wary love affair that ensues seemed to me less about their different career aspirations & more about the visual: blond goddess in the clinch with bulky, broad-faced, frizzy-haired nebbish.

These commentators didn’t seem to notice Rogen’s sweetness, & the way he kept cracking the ravishing Heigl up, & breaking down her defenses—it was plausible that she’d fall for him. In the same way, I didn’t want to assume that a physically ordinary person couldn’t be convincing as a superhero; that only a pretty pan was fit to wear a mask. So I went to The Green Hornet with an open mind.

Also, I like The GH character. The gangbuster, who with his pal Kato is known to the police & the general public as a criminal himself, has always been sort of a cool, low-profile superhero. Created originally for radio in 1936 (it was established in the original series that he was the great-nephew of the Lone Ranger!) & featured in a couple of Universal serials in the ’40s, the masked, Fedora-lidded avenger, slightly similar in his minimalist costume to Will Eisner’s The Spirit, was never a really major presence in the comics.

He’s most remembered now for his short-lived but elegant incarnation as a TV series of 1966, which ran for just one 26-episode season. Produced by William Dozier of the ‘60s Batman series, it starred the ridiculously handsome Van Williams—about as different from Rogen as you could get—in the title role, & Bruce Lee as his sidekick Kato (reportedly, it was retitled The Kato Show for Hong Kong TV).

All this is by way of saying that I wish I could report more enthusiastically on the new Green Hornet movie. Alas, it’s not the left-field success I was hoping for. It isn’t a total disaster; it has a promising approach to the material & some very funny stretches. But it’s uneven & unsatisfying.

The approach of the script, by Rogen & Evan Goldberg, is that the GH’s alter-ego, newspaper heir Britt Reid, is a spoiled, strutting, hard-partying playboy with daddy issues whose personality swings constantly between likably exuberant & intolerably obnoxious. Kato, played here by the Taiwanese pop singer Jay Chou, is secretly both the brains & the brawn of the outfit—the mechanical genius behind their tricked-out ride The Black Beauty, & also a martial artist of nearly supernatural prowess. He even thinks up the Green Hornet moniker.

Essentially, this turns the story into a buddy comedy, almost in the Hope/Crosby vein, & there’s no reason this couldn’t have worked—without mugging or pushing, Rogen & Chou show a solid onscreen rapport. Even more strikingly, both Britt & Kato take a shine to the same love interest (Cameron Diaz). The idea of a woman caught in a love triangle with a superhero & his sidekick had possibilities, but this is one of several strands that are set up & then neglected in favor of lengthy, tedious car-crash sequences.

Rogen wins genuine laughs early on, but his performance is unvaried & pushy; he doesn’t show enough of his Knocked Up sweetness, & he starts to grate by the second half. The movie isn’t any more generous to its curiously thin-skinned gangster villain, Christoph Waltz—despite a few ripely-written scenes, he doesn’t really get to let it rip.

Perhaps Rogen, Goldberg & director Michel Gondry let this Green Hornet get too conceptually convoluted—it is, after all, about a guy faking it as a superhero who is, in turn, faking it as a criminal. Even so, the movie didn’t lose me until a scene about midpoint when Britt & Kato quarrel, & then have a long, idiotic, pointless brawl.

Aside from the brawl’s implausibility under the terms of the movie, it was also queasily similar to the equally ugly fight scene last year between Robert Downey Jr. & Don Cheadle in the otherwise enjoyable Iron Man 2. It made me wonder if the superhero genre was belching up some unsavory resentment on the part of rich Hollywood nerds, over the reluctance of attractive nonwhites to play the sidekicks any more.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


RIP to David Nelson, the last member of the iconic Ozzie & Harriet American nuclear family, passed on at 74. RIP also to Peter Yates, director of the splendid Breaking Away & other notable films, passed on at 81.

In honor of Yates…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to this cool stop-motion giant spider…

…guardian of the “Widow of the Web” from Krull, his 1983 fantasy. The oversized arachnid, superbly animated by Steven Archer, may be seen starting at about the five minute and twenty-six-second mark of this clip.

Sunday, January 9, 2011


Against the outrage over yesterday’s horror two hours south of here, my pal Barry recommends these good lines by Lawrence Ferlinghetti as comfort. I do, too.

Saturday, January 8, 2011


Need more monster action this weekend? Well, here’s a bonus monster for you: The title character of The Being, a 1983 laugh-riot from Idaho with a cast featuring Martin Landau, Ruth Buzzi & Kinky Friedman.

 Check out the trailer here.

My pal The Midnite Movie Mamacita screens the pic Saturday at 8 p.m. at Black Box Theatre in Casa Grande, presented in MuVChat, in which “patrons text their comments to the MuVChat number and the comments are displayed on the screen along with the movie. Think of MST3K but crowd sourced from the audience.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


With the passing of Anne Francis earlier this week, she joined a very exclusive club in Pop-Culture Valhalla, along with Michael Rennie, Claude Rains, Fay Wray, Leo G. Carroll, Dana Andrews & George Pal: Non-fictional People Who Are Mentioned By Name In The Opening Song of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. That means that lovely Janette Scott (“…I really got hot/When I saw Janette Scott/Fight a Triffid that spits poison and kills…”) is the last person standing in this earthly realm from this category.


Monster-of-the-Week: …this week let’s recognize the predatory plant that menaces Ms. Scott in the 1962 British film version of John Wyndham’s classic novel:

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


In case anybody cares—& I certainly don’t blame you if you don’t—here’s my Top Ten movie list for 2010:

The Secret in Their Eyes


The Town

The King’s Speech

Four Lions

The Fighter

Shutter Island

True Grit

The Kids Are All Right

The Social Network

I’m not sure if The Secret in Their Eyes really counts for 2010, since it won the Foreign Language Film Oscar last year (it was nominated by Phoenix Film Critics Society this year, however). It was, in any case, the best movie I saw in 2010. Other movies I sort of enjoyed this past year included Best Worst Movie, Cropsey, Despicable Me, Machete, Please Give, La Mission, The Switch, Piranha 3D, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, City Island, Black Swan, Casino Jack, Strongman, The Human Centipede (First Sequence), It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Easy A, Fair Game, Inception, Greenberg, Devil, Morning Glory, The Karate Kid, Unstoppable, Cyrus, Iron Man 2, Get Low, Splice, Alice in Wonderland & even Jonah Hex, a little.

This year, for the first time, I for some reason also kept track of the books I read; here is that list, in the order I read them (not including magazine & newspaper articles, reviews, essays, blogs, short stories, comic books etc. etc):

The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore

Cryptozoic! by Brian Aldiss

Louis Lambert by Honore de Balzac

The Spy Who Loved Me by Ian Fleming

Maps & Legends by Michael Chabon

Mr. Majestyk by Elmore Leonard

November by David Mamet

The Snake by Mickey Spillane

Letters of a Peruvian Lady by Francoise de Graffigny

Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel

Maximum Bob by Elmore Leonard

Blockade Billy by Stephen King

That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

LaBrava by Elmore Leonard

Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

Of All the Bloody Cheek by Frank McAuliffe

Curtain by Agatha Christie

Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

If I Were You by L. Ron Hubbard

A Diet of Treacle by Lawrence Block

The Sebastopol Sketches by Leo Tolstoy

I feel the urge to add that the L. Ron Hubbard book is NOT a Scientology text; it’s one of his innumerable pulp tales from before his religious-leader days. It was fairly entertaining, too, though Hubbard’s style is appalling (the slim volume is padded out with a short story called “The Last Drop” which Hubbard wrote in collaboration with L. Sprague De Camp; it’s slightly better-written, perhaps through De Camp’s input).

Unlike the movies, the booklist is offered with no qualitative judgment, beyond my having finished the books.

Monday, January 3, 2011


Happy New Year everybody! Hope everybody had a great weekend.

The Wife & I celebrated New Year’s Eve at Farrelli’s Cinema Supper Club, where we caught up with Burlesque.

It’s the story of small-town girl Chrsitina Aguilera, who runs off to make it big in L.A., & finds herself performing at a glitzy but financially struggling burlesque club downtown. Cher is the owner & manager, abetted by gay BFF Stanley Tucci, playing almost exactly the same character he did in The Devil Wears Prada.

A standard backstage-musical template ensues. The first number that Aguilera sees at the club, performed by Cher, is called “Welcome to Burlesque,”& it’s highly promising. But most of the other numbers belong to Aguilera, & while there’s no denying her vocal power, her Star-Search/air-raid-siren singing style isn’t really my cup of tea.

Even so, I liked this corny, unabashedly derivative movie. The staging of the numbers, by writer-director Steven Antin, is playfully ridiculous, Aguilera is good, friendly company, & so are Tucci, Cam Gigandet, Kristen Bell, Eric Dane & Peter Gallagher. So, briefly, is Alan Cumming, who, like Tucci, has seemingly been called upon to recreate an earlier triumph—in Cumming’s case, a thinly-veiled retread of his Master of Ceremonies in the 1998 Sam Mendes staging of Cabaret.

Above all, I liked Burlesque because Cher is in it. The movie could use more of her—she only performs two numbers—but the strange sensibility she projects, equal parts wry cynicism & heartfelt passion, is amusing here just as it was in her masterpiece Moonstruck.

RIPs to beautiful Anne Francis, passed on at 80 just a month after her Forbidden Planet costar Leslie Nielsen, & to the superb Pete Postlewaite, passed on way too young at 64. Postlewaite should have given us decades more performances; he just recently cast an evil spell with his small but key role in The Town.

By the way, The Hollywood Reporter initially noted that, for her role in Honey West, Francis received a “Golden Glove.” Well, she certainly was a knockout…