Friday, September 30, 2011

MOUTHS OF BABES

Saturday evening at The Royale in Mesa, The Midnite Movie Mamacita revives the sick-ass, unforgettable Tom Six film The Human Centipede (First Sequence), in preparation for the meta-sequel, The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence), out later this month. You can read my review of the first film here, & if you’re not squeamish, see the trailer for the new film here.

A pal directed me these remarkable clips of Linda Blair in The Exorcist, before the voice of Mercedes McCambridge was overdubbed. The finished clips are presented afterwards, for a compare & contrast. What do you think? For me, it truly shows how much McCambridge added to that film.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

GREEN BLUES

Since we’re on a baseball roll…

Monster-of-the-Week: …as a consolation prize to the Boston Red Sox, whose epic fail this week has shut them out of the postseason, let’s give the nod to The Green Monster, Fenway Park’s legendary left field bulwark…


Better luck next year, boys…

Monday, September 26, 2011

NODBALL

Speaking of baseball, as Your Humble Narrator just was—the Diamondbacks clinched the NL West Championship last Friday! The following evening, The Kid & I betook ourselves to Chase Field to watch the reptiles add insult to the Giants’ injury, routing them 15-2. It was Hispanic Heritage Night, & the lads were decked out in their “Los Dbacks” gear, & before the game we were transfixed by Ballet Folklorico & Capoeira performances. Then we watched the Dbacks drive the Giants’ starter, poor Eric Surkamp, out of the game in the first inning, after he had recorded just two outs.

It was a very long, peculiar game—there was even a power outage during the 7th Inning—& we left, thoroughly satisfied, long before it ended. The highlight of the evening, as far as The Kid was concerned, was getting her Ryan “Tatman” Roberts bobblehead...


Tatted-up arms, neck & all, Ryan now stands atop her bookcase, ready to nod in vigorous agreement with whatever she says: Just what every girl wants from a guy.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

IT'S NOT THAT EASY BEING BEANE

“It’s so hard not to be romantic about baseball,” says Billy Beane near the end of Moneyball. He’s right, it is. Indeed, it’s so hard not to be romantic about baseball that the makers of Moneyball just went right ahead & romanticized it. The result is that a sports movie set mostly in the front office & concerned with a purely quantitative approach to success turned out, improbably, as one of the more engrossing big-studio films of the year.


Billy Beane, played here by Brad Pitt, had a mostly forgettable career as a player in the Major Leagues—stints with the Mets, Twins, Tigers & Athletics. He found his niche in management: he’s been the GM in Oakland for more than a decade. During this time he is credited with making the franchise as cost-efficiently successful as any team in the Majors, through his application of analytical principles of the sort pioneered by the maniacal baseball writer & statistician Bill James, of Baseball Abstract fame.

Beane’s story was told in the 2003 Michael Lewis book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. Steven Soderbergh was at one time slated to direct the film adaptation, but his approach was reportedly too unconventional, & he was replaced by Capote’s Bennett Miller. The script was also reworked—the finished product is credited to Steve Zaillian & Aaron Sorkin.

Interesting though it might have been to see Soderbergh’s take on this material, it’s hard to argue with the quiet tension & wit of Miller’s elegant, leisurely-paced work here, or with the lively, idiosyncratic dialogue. Miller is somehow able to use just the sort of romantic & sentimental notions that run counter to Beane’s management style—superstition, jinxes, crazy longshots—without violating the cool, dryly humorous tone he’s established. There’s even a tingly sports-movie climax, though the film ambles on for quite a while afterwards.

It’s hard to argue with the performances, either. Fresh from intense work in The Tree of Life, & looking almost laughably beautiful, Pitt turns in another gem here. His Beane is laconic yet tightly-wound, in the vein of his scary, overlooked performance as Jesse James in that Jesse James movie with the cumbersome title—the same bullying aggression under the bonhomie, the same sense that he’s nagged by melancholia.

Wide-eyed under the weight of Beane’s imposing presence is Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a fictionalized version of A’s assistant GM Paul DePodesta. An Ivy-Leaguer with a degree in Economics, Brand schools Beane in anxious, intimidated blurts, & their relationship is the movie’s core. There are other fine performances—by Steven Bishop, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Arliss Howard, & especially by Chris Pratt as catcher-turned-first-baseman Scott Hatteberg & Kerris Dorsey as Beane’s daughter—but they’re basically glorified cameos; the godlike Pitt, & Hill as his nebbishy Sancho Panza, carry the movie.


To the degree that I understand it—never a profound degree, where statistics are concerned—Bill James-style baseball analysis is intended to replace conventional wisdom with empiricism. It challenges, most famously, the reliability of batting average as an indicator of a player’s value to a team, especially by comparison to on-base percentage. In other words, it’s an attempt to apply hard rationalism to an activity that makes a great show of valuing the traditional, the intangible, the ineffable.

Somehow, though, even those of us for whom baseball has almost the quality of an orthodox religion—a set of grandly absurd ceremonial flourishes that seem, against reason, to add up to metaphysical significance—may not find this approach offensively reductive, maybe because the mad-scientist number-crunching of James & his disciples is so clearly born of a love of the game. Or maybe it’s because it points to a democratizing effect—it means that the rich teams won’t always win.

In any case, in professional baseball, what owners & managers actually value is money, & what paying fans generally value is winning. It was likely that any formula that promised to deliver the latter for a minimum expenditure of the former would sooner or later be given a try.

The question, of course, is—why should we care if it succeeded? Even if we love baseball, why should we care? At one low point Beane reassures his sweet, worried daughter that “I’ve got uptown problems, which aren’t really problems at all.” Again, he’s right (more coarsely, these are sometimes called “white people problems”). In human terms, Beane’s career fortunes matter even less than, say, the King’s stutter in The King’s Speech, & since the movie is about taking mushy-brained poetic thinking out of baseball, we really shouldn’t even grant this story metaphorical importance.

Skillful filmmaking can get you to care about almost anything, but when you think over the wistful tone of Moneyball’s final act, you may laugh out loud that you sat still for it: In a season in which he set a landmark record & revolutionized sports management, Beane is saddened because he didn’t win the World Series. He still hasn’t, & problems don’t come much more uptown than that.

Friday, September 23, 2011

REPORPOISING

“From the studio and producers of The Blind Side.” That’s how Dolphin Tale is being marketed. This may strike you as a tenuous aesthetic connection, but it’s savvy advertising—Dolphin Tale, loosely based on true events, is another story of a wounded foundling becoming a star.


The young dolphin in question is injured when she runs afoul of a crab trap. She’s rescued & taken in by Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida, & her damaged tail is amputated soon after. Given the name Winter, the creature learns to swim by moving her rear stump left-right instead of up-down, & it turns out that this technique endangers her life by improperly building up the muscles around her spine.


How Winter got her groove back is, in a highly fictionalized form, the subject of Dolphin Tale. In the movie’s account, a lonely fatherless boy, Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), ditches summer school to hang out at the Aquarium with Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), daughter of the widowed Dr. Haskell (Harry Connick, Jr.) the vet in charge of Winter’s case. When Sawyer’s Mom (Ashley Judd) finds out about the ditching, she’s furious at first, but the charm of the aquarium & her son’s passion for his newfound interest breaks her down.

There’s talk of putting both Winter & the cash-strapped aquarium to sleep. But while visiting his war-wounded cousin at a Vet’s hospital, Sawyer meets Dr. McCarthy (Morgan Freeman), a designer of prosthetic limbs, & somehow talks him into attempting to craft a new stern for Winter. Getting the mammal (who Dr. McCarthy persists in referring to as a “fish”) to accept the uncomfortable appliance is a struggle.


Directed by character actor Charles Martin Smith, Dolphin Tale is a brightly-colored, slick piece of moviemaking, with corny humor & carefully engineered moments of uplift. The cast is big-name & talented—along with Judd, Freeman & Connick are Kris Kristofferson, Frances Sternhagen, Ray McKinnon & even Richard Libertini in a bit—but overall, the actors seem to be on autopilot. Freeman has a line or two that seems meant to suggest that the Doc is an eccentric curmudgeon, but you’d never know it from the performance. He just smiles amiably & cruises on through. He’s always pleasant company, but this isn’t a rich character.

It’s a shame that the filmmakers didn’t try to dramatize, beyond the most general terms, the technical challenges of the tail-making project—Apollo 13 showed that such details can be absorbing. But the thing is, Dolphin Tale is about the attempt to build an amputee dolphin a working tail. If you can’t emotionally invest a little in a quixotic effort like that, regardless of the movie’s gravitas or even, really, of its implications, you’re tougher than I.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

EQUAL TIME

Tomorrow is the Autumnal Equinox, so…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week’s honoree is this guy…




…one of several excellent monsters from Equinox, a low-budget oddity which began as a 1967 student short directed by future multi-Oscar-winning special effects master Dennis Muren, & was later expanded with new footage & released commercially in 1970. Frank Bonner, beloved as Herb Tarlek on WKRP in Cincinnati, had one of his earliest roles in the film, & his sideburn length changes dramatically between the old & the new footage.


I have the ridiculously lavish Criterion Collection boxed set of Equinox, with both versions & endless behind-the-scenes explications; it’s a fascinating dissection of a trivial but amusing film. A few years ago The Wife & a friend betook themselves to San Francisco for a weekend of fun, leaving me to batch it on my own. What did I do?


I called up my pal James, who drove down from Prescott, & we sat up & watched the Criterion Equinox DVDs until about 5 a.m. A blast, but it made me feel both adolescent & old at the same time.

Friday, September 16, 2011

ALLIGATIONS OF WRONGDOING

The creature in Creature is Grimley, a human-alligator hybrid revered by a clan of inbred Louisiana swamp rats. Six extremely attractive, extremely idiotic young road trippers decide to camp out in Grimley’s traditional stomping grounds & soon find out that he’s more than just legendary.


Creature is a jaw-droppingly wretched movie—the director, Fred M. Andrews, doesn’t seem to have the first clue how build an authentic scare, or even an effective jolt—but for about half its length, it’s sort of amusingly tawdry in its badness. Much of the fun is provided by the sly-eyed, smirking redhead Lauren Schneider, who can claim the impressive distinction of having the most unintelligible diction in the cast, but who’s so energetically trashy & cute that it doesn’t matter.


About halfway in, though, as the gang falls into the clutches of Grimley &/or the rednecks, Creature stopped being fun. The tropes that have become de rigueur in the horror genre begin to assert themselves—young women in tank tops or camisoles, mewling for their lives as they’re tied down to chairs or otherwise menaced & abused. This crap, the artless legacy of Tobe Hooper’s harsh but superbly made Texas Chainsaw Massacre, is disgusting & tedious, but it’s not, for me, harrowing, in the aesthetically valid sense.

The antipathy to female sexuality to which these movies cater is clear, but I’m not sure it’s ever occurred to me what a broad streak of bourgeois class hatred—fear & loathing of the rural poor—that they also carry. There are some terrific actors, such as Sid Haig & Pruitt Taylor Vince, among the grinning, gibbering, incestuous hayseeds in Creature, & they’re entertaining as usual. But this stereotype could also be put on the shelf for a good long while, all the same.

One final note: The soundtrack of Creature includes—with what the filmmakers no doubt regard as withering irony—some fine roots music, including, over the end titles, “Keep on the Sunny Side of Life” & “That Old Time Religion” by New Jersey folk-rock duo Chasing June. Though I can’t say that Chasing June made Creature worth sitting through, I’m still grateful to this dreadful flick for showcasing them. Check them out here.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

POLEMIC

The sun sets in the North Pole next week—a cheerful sign for those of us who dwell in the desert—so…

Monster-of-the-Week: …the honor this week goes to the Ice Giant…


...from the brief 1912 epic Conquest of the Pole, by pioneering film fantasist Georges Melies, about a race to the Arctic by airships. The winners encounter the pipe-smoking titan, who has a taste for French food...

You can watch the film here.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

CLIFF NOTE

RIP to Cliff Robertson, departed at 88, acclaimed for his Oscar-winning turn in the title role in Charly, as JFK in PT-109, & as a variety of characters, often unlikable or even villainous, in many other notable films including The Best Man, Picnic, 3 Days of the Condor, Obsession, Brainstorm, Star 80 & Wind. All the same, he’s probably now best known as Uncle Ben in the Spider-Man movies.


Turner Classic Movies, by the way, will change their schedule to devote next Monday, September 19, to Robertson’s work.

RIP also to producer & studio head John Calley, passed on at 81.

One more RIP, alas: to the Scottsdale 6 Drive-In, one of only two remaining drive-in theater complexes in the Valley. It has reportedly closed down, though the management holds out some hope for a resurrection.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

ON THE TENTH ANNIVERSARY...

…of a really bad day, here’s an essay I wrote about five weeks after the attacks. It original appeared in the Tribune:

Surreal.

Most of us have probably heard that word more frequently in the last month and a half than we have in the rest of our lives. Once the term for a school of aesthetics, it’s now the word that people keep using to describe the sight of airplanes flying into buildings and New Yorkers fleeing as clouds of dust and rubble flood the streets behind them. We call such images surreal not because we haven’t seen them before but because we have, faked in countless movies—we call them surreal because, this time, they’re real.

But there’s another kind of surreal. There’s the kind in which medievel kinghts ride invisible horses to the clacking of coconuts, or get frisked by 20th-Century police. There’s the kind that fills a working class British diner with Vikings singing the praises of canned meat, or pits an extraterrestrial pudding against a Scotsman at Wimbledon.

As has been repeatedly noted, where we were and what we were doing when word of the terrorist attacks reached us is something we’ll always remember. I’ve got a story that I doubt anyone else can claim: When I heard, I was watching the opening credits of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. And after I heard, I sat there and kept watching...and once again, Monty Python came to my rescue. People have been psychologically coping with the current crisis in many different ways. My way has been to watch Monty Python.

Let me explain. There was a critic’s screening of the recent theatrical release of the special edition of Holy Grail scheduled for the morning of September 11 (the DVD of this version came out on October 23 from Columbia Tristar). My wife gets to sleep in on Tuesdays, so when I got up to go to the screening that morning, I showered and dressed quietly, and didn’t turn on radio or TV. Driving to Harkins Centerpoint, with a CD playing instead of the radio, I vaguely noticed that the streets seemed quiet for a weekday morning, but even when I saw the electric sign on the Squaw Peak Parkway—“AIRPORT OPEN; NO FLIGHTS; ESSENTIAL TRAFFIC ONLY”—it somehow still didn’t register that something big had happened. Nor did I observe, until I thought about it later, how stricken and scared the kids working at the theatre looked as they let me in.

Only one other person was in the theatre, a friend of mine. As I sat down, he asked me “Have you heard any updates?” He quickly saw that I had no idea what he was talking about, and as the lights went down, he told me: The World Trade Center was gone, the Pentagon had been attacked as well, thousands were almost certainly dead.

I sat there stunned, staring at the movie’s opening scene, as Graham Chapman’s long-suffering King Arthur endures the sentry’s endless speculation on whether African or European swallows could carry coconuts to England. I briefly thought that it was inappropriate that I stay and watch one of my favorite movies—a wacky comedy no less—at a time like this. But something made me stay in my seat.

It was no longer the same movie, of course. The scene of Eric Idle dragging a cartload of corpses and calling “Bring out your dead!” wasn’t the same anymore. Watching knights on mission from God lop off the limbs of their enemies or employ the Holy Hand Grenade to destroy a lethal white bunny—none of it felt the same. But it didn’t feel trivial or cheaply cynical. It felt unsentimental, but warm and profound.

That weekend I bought my first DVD box set—the entire run of Monty Python’s Flying Circus on the BBC. I’ve been watching the half-hour shows obsessively ever since. Seen in its entirety, the series really seems like an amazing, almost Chaucerian achievement, among the finest things ever made for TV.

The violent, often gory slapstick doesn’t seem so blithe anymore, nor does the fierce awareness of the capacity of human beings to commit atrocities. Pythonesque organizations like the Ministry of Silly Walks and the Royal Society for Putting Things On Top Of Other Things now carry the echo of psychotic Taliban agencies like the Department of the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. And it’s jolting, now, to hear a candy in the “Crunchy Frog” sketch referred to as “Anthrax Ripple.”

As I’ve watched, though, it’s come to me: They’re showing us they world as it is. The violent, chaotic comic vision of the Pythons isn’t insanity, it’s clear-eyed sanity. It’s the real world that’s crazy; all the Pythons do is enable us to see it, and to see that it’s possible, maybe even necessary, to laugh at it. This, perhaps, is the true function of surrealism. And its true blessing.

On the other hand, here’s a quote from somebody not known to have been a Pollyana:

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.

What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending his spinning top of a world in a different direction.

And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”—Howard Zinn

Thursday, September 8, 2011

A 'SHROOM OF ONE'S OWN

This weekend we enjoyed excellent pizza at Mellow Mushroom at Norterra, so...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...let's grant the honor to the title character of 1963's Matango, one of the strangest & best of the Toho shockers...

Matango is a variety of fungus found by a shipwrecked party on a remote island. It's temptingly tasty, but it has some distressing long-term side effects if you eat too much...


Long known on American late-night TV as Attack of the Mushroom People, the film has a more unsettling atmosphere than one might expect, & it even struggles a bit with the question of how much difference there is between a modern city dweller & a mushroom person.

It's based, by the way, on the 1907 story "A Voice in the Night" by William Hope Hodgson. You can & should read it here; it's creepy.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

STALKED PLAYER

RIP to theatre critic, novelist & occasional actor Leonard Harris, best known as the handsome Senator Palantine in Scorcese's Taxi Driver, passed on at 81.

Friday, September 2, 2011

GRUE MOON & BLOCK PARTY

As Barry Graham points out, this month marks the 109th anniversary of the premiere of A Trip to the Moon, the pioneering sci-fi film from the great Georges Melies (Turner Classic Movies shows a collection of Melies shorts Monday at 7:45 am Phoenix time). September also marks the release of Apollo 18, a less charming lunar excursion.



Apollo 18, like Cloverfield & Trollhunter, uses the Blair Witch conceit: The premise is that we’re seeing classified footage of an Apollo mission, supposedly scrubbed for budgetary reasons but actually conducted in secret under the auspices of the Department of Defense. The stolid astronauts who land at the lunar south pole soon discover that—gulp—they aren’t alone…

Apollo 18’s opening was rescheduled several times, & Dimension didn’t screen the film for critics (in Phoenix, anyway), so I confess I wasn’t expecting much. The studio’s caution was understandable. I’d be surprised if it became a hit with a wide audience—even at less than an hour and a half, it’s too claustrophobic, oppressive & one-note. But on its own narrow terms, it works, for me at least. The two lead actors (Lloyd Owen & Warren Christie) even though they’re Welsh & Irish, respectively, flawlessly capture the aw-shucks machismo of American astronaut cadences, & the look of ‘70s-era film & video footage is lovingly recreated.

There’s nothing remotely new about the film in terms of sci-fi content, but the director, Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego, generates a strong atmosphere of desolation & dread, & there are some pretty well-timed jolts. There’s even a whisper of political disillusionment worked in.

On the other hand, maybe you’d prefer an earthbound alien invasion…


“Pardon my French,” says the nice middle-aged lady, “but they’re fucking monsters.” She’s speaking of her neighbors, the teenage street punks who haunt the title block in Attack the Block. “Fucking monsters,” echoes the young nurse (Jodie Whittaker) who’s just been mugged by the misunderstood lads in question.

The judgment may seem fair enough, but when literal monsters—shaggy, ferocious quadrupeds from outer space, with blue luminescent fangs—unwisely choose this same block of council flats in South London to drop onto out of the sky, the street kids turn out to be the planet’s first & possibly most effective line of defense. That’s the joke of this headlong, highly exciting sci-fi/horror comedy, written & directed by Joe Cornish.

The alien landing takes place in the middle of Bonfire Night, & goes unnoticed among the fireworks, except by the kids, who arm themselves with ninja swords & bottle rockets & the like, & take to their bikes. The nurse is eventually drawn into a truce with her muggers to fight the common enemy.

Whittaker gives a fine performance, as do Nick Frost as a weed dealer & Nick Treadaway as an upper-crust stoner, but the movie really belongs to the young ne’er-do-wells. Once their faces are out of their hoodies, they’re an engaging, even endearing rabble, & the most glowery of them, Moses (John Boyega), is a born leader. The actors are terrific, but Cornish doesn’t sentimentalize the little sods too much; he even lets them indulge in maudlin sociological self-pity when the nurse challenges them on their criminality. Their fast chatter—unsubtitled & sometimes unintelligible but comprehensible by context—& their swiftly-formed alliances give Attack the Block some of the quality of The Thing From Another World.

The creature effects, though extensive, have a minimalist quality that’s spookily effective—you haven’t seen these aliens before—& the musical score, by Steven Price, Felix Buxton & Simon Ratcliffe, is wonderfully old-school. With Attack the Block, Brit cinema does for the alien movie what Shaun of the Dead did for the zombie movie: Take an American form back to basics &, in a lighthearted but by no means unemotional way, reinvent it.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

SWOOP THERE IT IS

From Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California, comes…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week’s honoree, a pterodactyl…


…which swooped down last month upon the Cardiff Kook, a bronze statue of a surfer that is reportedly much-loathed by the surfing community & often the target of pranks. As pranks go, this one is pretty spectacular—the prankster even provided a prehistoric backdrop.