Thursday, June 30, 2011


It’s the last day of June, thus…

Monster-of-the-Week: …our last day to do something bridal. How, therefore, can we not honor the greatest Bride in all Monster-dom, the title character in one of the greatest of all monster movies (& also one of the greatest of all sequels), 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein

Played by Elsa Lanchester (who also plays author Mary Shelley in the film’s opening scene), the Bride, fashioned by Drs. Frankenstein & Pretorius as a mate for the lonely monster (Boris Karloff), rejects her poignantly eager groom with piercing shrieks every time he approaches her. Not one for wheedling or “just being friends,” the monster pronounces “We belong dead” & blows up the laboratory, Pretorius, the Bride & himself. It’s possible he got off easy—something about The Bride’s quick, bird-like head movements, wide-eyed, wary stare & stand-offish manner suggest that as a wife, she would have been, to put it mildly, high-maintenance.

Friday, June 24, 2011


A little over ten years ago, mostly at the urging of a friend, I wrote my first novel. It took me about a year to finish it, including some lengthy interruptions of the work, & though it was challenging at times I greatly enjoyed the process.

When it was (more or less) done, I gave it to read to a few friends & family members, who told me they liked it, in some cases enthusiastically. & then…

…well, & then I did nothing with it.

Through some neurotic combination of laziness, fear of possible success & the general perverseness that has characterized too much of my adult life, I made almost no effort to market the manuscript to agents or publishers.

You’d think the hard part would be writing the book, not offering it. But not for me, apparently. Maybe I had received the gratification I was looking for simply from the warm response I got from the acquaintances that had read it, & felt no need for further affirmation. I’m not sure. All I know is, after a few years I had almost forgotten I wrote it. Now & then I’d remember, reread a few chapters, & decide that I really ought to do something with it. I thought sometimes of turning it into a screenplay. But then I’d get busy with something else, & neglect it for a couple more years.

My novel was called Super Eight Days, & it was about a group of teenage kids in small-town Pennsylvania of the late ‘70s making their own scary pictures with a Super 8mm movie camera. Well, earlier this year I became aware of the J.J. Abrams film Super 8, now in theaters, which is about a group of teenage kids in small-town Ohio of the late ‘70s making their own scary pictures with a Super 8mm movie camera.

As far as I can tell—I haven’t gotten to the movie yet, though the TV ads make it look like fun—that’s roughly where the similarities between the two works end. The Abrams movie turns into some sort of sci-fi thriller, as the kids encounter an alien menace, while the book was my attempt at a classic American form, the coming-of-age story, the Summer That Changed Everything.

I was a little dismayed at the news of Abrams movie, however, because I thought that if I ever did get around to actually doing something with Super Eight Days, I’d probably have to change the title, just to avoid confusion. But as Super 8’s release got closer, I thought, why? The titles aren’t identical, & in any case I loved my title, and I thought of it independently, & probably first.

I didn’t mean for this to become such a confessional on the follies of my psychology. I really just wanted to say that I decided to make Super Eight Days available as an e-book on Amazon Kindle.It costs just ninety-nine cents; less than even a matinee ticket to Super 8.

So that’s my big sales pitch, but here’s one more story from my past:

Nearly twenty years ago, when I first arrived in Arizona, I worked briefly as a security guard at the Biltmore Estates. My boss was a leathery, old-school sort of guy named Amos. One night Amos was extolling the virtues of a small plastic money-clip that he’d bought at (I think) Walgreen’s. He clinched the case for the item’s excellence by observing:

“It only costs a buck. I mean, you’d watch a monkey f**k, if it only cost a buck.”

I wondered at the time if this was some common expression that I’d never encountered. But I’ve never heard it since, & no one I’ve told the story to has recognized it, either. So I’m going to go ahead & attribute it to Amos. In any case, it struck me that he was right—I would. I would watch a monkey f**k, if it only cost a buck. If it cost $8.99, or even $4.99, I’d probably think twice, but if it only cost a buck…

Deciding on a price for my debut novel, The Amos Principle came back to me as a solid formula for success in American commerce: Find something at least as entertaining as watching a monkey f**k—admittedly no easy task—& then charge a buck or less for it. So I leave it to the great Kindle-reading public to tell me if I’ve succeeded.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


This week…

Monster-of-the-Week: …a classic: In honor of the recent departure of James Arness, let’s recognize one of the big SOB’s earliest movie roles, the title character in the 1951 favorite The Thing From Another World.

TTFAW is a blood-drinking humanoid vegetable from outer space who lays siege to a U.S. military/scientific outpost in the arctic. Being played by James Arness & all, he’s alarmingly big & Frankenstein-ish...

...& because the film, produced by Howard Hawks, barely gives you a glimpse of him, except in silhouette, he’s pretty creepy.

A 1983 remake by John Carpenter, titled simply The Thing, sticks much closer to the source material, John W. Campbell’s novella Who Goes There? It’s also pretty good—Rob Bottin’s shape-shifting special effects are hair-raising—but its tone is unpleasantly cynical compared to the original.

Monday, June 20, 2011


Hope everybody had a great Father’s Day. The Kid spent the afternoon with a pal, while The Wife took me to UltraStar Cinema in Scottsdale to see a special video presentation of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, with the New York Philharmonic & a cast of celebrities: Neil Patrick Harris as Bobby, the sweet-natured single New York guy with a bunch of wacky married friends, played by the likes of Patti LuPone, Jon Cryer, Stephen Colbert, Jim Walton, Martha Plimpton, Craig Bierko & others, as well as Christina Hendricks & Anika Noni Rose among Bobby’s girlfriends.

It was a fine staging of a classic score. Everyone acquitted themselves well, but the surprises were Colbert & Plimpton, both of whom sang surprisingly well, LuPone, who let it rip with “The Ladies Who Lunch,” & Katie Finneran, who delivered a splendidly panicked rendition of “Getting Married Today.” Harris, who last weekend hit a grand slam with his hosting duties on the Tony Awards, was just about as good here—he’s grown up into a true, old-school showman.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


In my account of the gathering of mascots at the D-bax game we went to two Sunday ago, I neglected to mention that among the costumed brethren was Scottsdale Community College's Artie the Artichoke…

A serious omission—Artie might be the greatest sports mascot ever.

Friday, June 17, 2011


The main character’s name is Mr. Popper, & he has penguins. That, if memory serves, is about the extent to which the new film Mr. Popper’s Penguins is “based on” Florence & Richard Atwater’s 1938 children’s-book classic of the same name.

In the movie, Popper (Jim Carrey) is a high-powered New York businessman who lives in a sleek, spotless Manhattan apartment. He’s a divorced dad, insufficiently attentive to his ex (Carla Gugino) & two kids, an adolescent daughter & a preadolescent son. He himself had a literally distant relationship with his own father, a globetrotting fortune-hunter who kept in touch with him as a kid via a short-wave radio in his bedroom.

The old man’s legacy arrives, in crates: six smelly, rambunctious, destructive penguins. Popper is desperate to get rid of them, until his kids come over to visit & fall in love with them, & Popper sees that the birds can help him heal the rift with his family…

You get the idea. Popper gives the penguins names like Stinky, Loudy and Bitey (in the book, they were named for famous explorers), & wackiness & warm-hearted family bonding ensue. Even if this kids-movie template weren’t numbingly over-familiar, & even if, in real life, keeping penguins as permanent residents in a luxury high-rise apartment weren’t a horribly unwise & cruel idea, Mr. Popper’s Penguins curiously doubles down on lousy, ill-advised plot devices, like making a zookeeper (Clark Gregg) the calculating bad guy.

That said, it’s a rather agreeable movie. The 8-year-old who joined me for the screening found the antics of the penguins, a mixture of real & computer-generated birds, to be sophisticated high comedy, & I must say that I thought Carrey was in good form here—he’s poised & elegantly costumed, & keeps the manic stuff a bit more restrained than usual, to his & the movie’s benefit. I also liked the black & white animated end titles, in which penguins cavort to “Ice Ice Baby.”

The company includes such vets as Angela Lansbury, Jeffery Tambor, Dominic Chianese, David Krumholtz & Philip Baker Hall, all game in perfectly superfluous roles. My own favorite member of the cast, however, was Ophelia Lovibond as Pippi, Popper’s loyal assistant who speaks alliteratively in “P” words, simply because she looks exactly like an English actress named “Ophelia Lovibond” should look.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


After a few months’ hiatus, it seems like time to bring back…

Monster-of-the-Week: So, what with the release this Friday of Mr. Popper’s Penguins, let’s give the honor this time around to the “electric penguin, 20 feet high, with long, green tentacles that sting people…” from Monty Python’s great “Scott of the Antarctic/Scott of the Sahara” sketch…

You can view this classic here.

Friday, June 10, 2011


The specific subject of Terrence Malick’s new film The Tree of Life is a mid-century, middle-class, middle-American family—dysfunction & tragedy played out in Norman Rockwell light. Malick isn’t big on specificity, though, & it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that what he’s really taking on with this movie is no less than the Meaning of Life, the inscrutable Fruit & Root of the title Tree.

Malick’s story concerns the O’Briens, of Boomer-era Waco, Texas: Dad (Brad Pitt), who gave up his dream to be a classical pianist for a career as an industrial engineer, the radiant & saintly Mom (Jessica Chastain), and three boys. The eldest of these, Jack (played by Sean Penn as an adult & by the terrific Hunter McCracken as a preteen), is our point of view for most of the film.

It’s an iconic American motif; what makes The Tree of Life different from innumerable other treatments is, first of all, Malick’s narrative style. The story is given to us in elliptical fragments, mostly brief, often enigmatic, seemingly meant to suggest snatches of memory. In its broader organization, it’s also suggestive of a piece of symphonic music, with movements: a light & joyous passage devoted to the mother, a brooding one for the father, a turbulent one for the boy’s sexual awakening, and so forth (the powerful score is by Alexander Desplat).

Past and present, the dramatic & the trivial, are freely mixed with scenes of the characters wandering in expressionistic landscapes. It’s disorienting at first, and some of the questions that arise about exactly what’s happened to the family remain ambiguous. But the wisps & glimpses of story accrue emotional force, & most of what’s onscreen is superbly done—it includes, among other merits, one of Brad Pitt’s best performances, a turn of almost Brando-like vibrancy. Still, what we aren’t shown can be exasperating.

Secondly, The Tree of Life is remarkable for Malick’s ambitiousness of scope: In addition to emotional conflicts—career and personal disappointments turn Dad from a stern & hard-assed but by no means unloving father to a repressive tyrant—& coming-of-age drama, the family is also visited by heartbreak & loss. They cry out to the Almighty, as people do in such times, with the Eternal Questions: “Who are You? What are we to You?” And Malick takes his unironic best shot at giving them, & us, an answer, in visual terms.

The oddest branch on The Tree of Life is a lengthy, epic special-effects sequence depicting the formation of the Cosmos, and the development of life on Earth, from slimy blobs & worms to plesiosaurs & dinosaurs. It’s a majestic free-standing episode, inevitably reminiscent, in atmosphere, of Kubrick’s 2001 (Kubrick crony Douglas Trumbull reportedly worked on the effects), but what, you might well ask, does this titanic spectacle have to do with the O’Briens of Waco, Texas?

The question could be answered in more than one way. It could be that Malick is saying to the bereaved questioner, in the manner of a rationalist-era Voice of God to Job: In light of this magnificent, terrible, pitiless, glorious pageant, how dare you ask for an explanation for your sufferings?

I don’t think, so, though. I think he’s trying to put personal & family travails into a cosmic context—to suggest that our lives are every bit as important, in the grand scheme of things, as exploding suns & volcanoes & primordial monsters. The film seems in some sense theistic in outlook, though not simplemindedly so, & the point seems to be that human life & our interpersonal connections do have metaphysical or transcendental significance, even if we can’t quite understand it.

Of course, Malick’s depiction of The Grand Scheme of Things is just that—a depiction. Your own sensibility will have a lot to do with whether it repels you or thrills you, whether it seems pretentious & presumptuous or an audacious & visionary use of the medium.

For me, it was the latter. Malick, now 67, has made only five features as a director. His marvelous debut, 1973’s Badlands, holds up as a classic; I’ve found most of his subsequent work interesting but diffuse. But The Tree of Life, for all its loose ends & ramblings, strikes me as another that may still look like a classic four decades from now.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


RIP to actor & cowboy prop comic Wally Boag, departed at 90.

Though he made minor appearances in a handful of movies & TV shows, Boag’s true life’s work was as the star of the Golden Horseshoe Revue at Disneyland, regarded by the Guinness Book of World Records as having the most prolific live run of any production in the history of show business, continuing from 1955 to 1986 & topping out in the neighborhood of 40,000 performances. Steve Martin, while working at Disneyland as a kid, saw Boag’s act enough times to memorize it, & has acknowledged him as a major influence.

Incredibly, Boag’s longtime co-star Betty Taylor, aka “Slue Foot Sue,” passed on the following day, at 91. RIP to her as well.

Monday, June 6, 2011


Yesterday The Wife, The Kid & I ventured once again to Chase Field, this time to see the Diamondbacks take on the Washington Nationals.

Not such a great game this time. A series of hit batters & ejections—including Nationals starter Jason Marquis, for hitting D-bax slugger Justin Upton, the fourth time in the series that Upton had been drilled—was about the only excitement the game itself provided until the 8th, when the unusually lackluster D-bax, who had languished scoreless up to that point, finally started a fine rally, tied the game…& promptly squandered a couple of juicy chances to win it. A grand slam in the 11th by Mike Morse of the Nationals left the score 9-4.

It was D-bax mascot D. Baxter the Bobcat’s “birthday” yesterday, however, & The Kid seemed amused by the many other costumed mascots who stopped by to party, including Big Red from the Cardinals, Sparky, the leering incubus of ASU, Louie T. Lumberjack from NAU, Scorch, the Phoenix Mercury’s perplexing purple kangaroo-like creature, Thunder the Antelope from Grand Canyon University, Globie from the Harlem Globetrotters, & the venerable Suns Gorilla, among others...

Especially from the distance of our second-tier seats, seeing these huge anthropomorphic figures circulating among the crowd gave me a weird, Tolkien-esque sense of being in a world where giants & pagan deities walked among humankind.

RIP to James Arness, passed on at 88, immortal as Matt Dillon in the TV version of Gunsmoke, but also fondly remembered by monster-movie buffs as the hero in 1954’s peerless Them! & in the title role of 1951’s The Thing From Another World.