Thursday, December 29, 2011


RIP to—& apparently this isn’t a joke—Cheetah the Chimp, believed to be Johnny Weismuller’s costar in the Tarzan movies of the ‘30s, passed on at—again, this is supposedly true—80 years old.

[Update: The more one reads about this, the more suspicious the claims about this chimp seem. Obviously I’m no primatologist, but I believe that a chimp reaching the age of 80 would be equivalent to a human living well over 100, & apparently this isn’t even the first time that this claim has been made about an aged chimp in a sanctuary.]

In memory of actor & accent coach Robert Easton, also passed on last week…

Monster-of-the-Week: …the nod goes to the largest and most formidable of the title invaders in The Giant Spider Invasion, Bill Rebane’s Wisconsin-made (& thus, perhaps not coincidentally, very cheesy) drive-in fave of 1975.

This arachnid, who devours Easton as a lecherous farmer, was played by a Volkswagen in a spider suit,  driven backwards—the taillights served as its red glowing eyes.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


The Phoenix Film Critics Society has announced our 2011 Award winners; you can check them out here. As with the nominees, several of these reflect my voting, others don’t, but there are lots of worthwhile movies represented here.

My own Top Ten List will be posted shortly after the New Year.

Saturday, December 24, 2011


It’s an unusually crowded Christmas week for movie releases; here, very briefly, are two that I caught up with:

The Adventures of Tintin—Steven Spielberg directed this animation of the Belgian comic books by Hergé. The title character, voiced by Jamie Bell, is a Poil de Carotte boy reporter who gets caught up in an intrigue involving a ship in a bottle, car & motorcycle chases, hidden treasure, pirates, pickpockets, mirages, a glass-cracking opera singer, etc. etc. Working from a script by Stephen Moffat, Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish, Spielberg is in masterly form here, even if the most vivid character in the film—by far, really—is Tintin’s dog Snowy ("Milou"), always way ahead of the action & saving the day.

We Bought a Zoo—The title is the answer to a question: What did you do because of your grief over your wife’s untimely death? Desperate to reconnect with his kids, Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) buys a rundown rural California animal park that comes handily equipped with Scarlett Johansson as head keeper. The script, very loosely adapted from Mee’s memoir by Aline Brosh McKenna & director Cameron Crowe, freely mixes broad comedy & teen romance with pretty somber bereavement drama. The result isn’t quite the lightweight entertainment that it's being marketed as, & it’s a little overlong, but on the whole it’s an agreeable picture, well-acted & beautifully shot, & though Crowe doesn’t allow them to upstage the humans, the animals are lovely.

RIP to Robert Easton, passed on at 81. A veteran character actor whose credits ranged from The Red Badge of Courage to Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea to The Giant Spider Invasion, he’s most famous as one of Hollywood’s busiest dialect & accent coaches.

Finally, a wistful note: My pal the Midnite Movie Mamacita has announced that her venue The Royale in downtown Mesa will be closing permanently at the end of business Christmas Eve, after just six lively & memorable months. This comes two months after the closing of Farrelli’s on Scottsdale Road; Barry Graham suspects here that FilmBar downtown could be the next to go.

Best of luck to the Mamacita on whatever her next venture may be. The Royale’s final selection is, appropriately, both seasonal & deeply f**ked-up: Black Christmas, a Canadian horror picture of 1974 (the French-Canadian version was known as Un Noel Tragique). Employing techniques that John Carpenter would popularize four years later in Halloween, this influential film offers us the POV of a panting, slavering maniac stalking a sorority house just before Christmas break, ogling such residents as Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder and Andrea Martin. John Saxon plays the cop, and Keir Dullea is on hand as a creepy pianist.

Though it's no more realistic than any other slasher movie, this one has a pervasive luridness that makes it a really queasy, unsettling piece of work, and somehow the queasiness is magnified by the fact that it shares a director, the late Bob Clark, with that warmest, funniest, most beloved of Christmas movies, 1983's A Christmas Story. It might be called The Anti-Christmas Story.

Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays to all, & to all of us, a lifetime of Christmases infinitely merrier than the one depicted in that film.

Thursday, December 22, 2011


In acknowledgment of the passing this week of Kim Jong Il…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to Pulgasari, the title character of a 1985 North Korean—that’s right, North Korean—giant-monster movie, a sort of gigantic, scaly, bipedal, fanged ox that eats metal…

Pulgie is the creation of a poor blacksmith in 14th Century Korea. Imprisoned by an evil warlord for refusing to make weapons, the man gives his daughter a tiny horned figure shaped from rice. Soon after, the girl pricks her finger while sewing & accidently drips some blood on this figurine, which comes to life & starts eating—first the needle, then the door latch, then bigger & bigger items, including the weapons of the warlord’s forces.

The more he eats, the larger he grows. Before long the Pulgster is Godzilla-sized, & a Golem-like champion of the peasants against the oppressive warlord.

It’s really a rather charming fantasy—with obvious communist allegorical subtext—but the movie is less famous for its story than for its bizarre backstory: The producer-director, Shin Sang-ok, was a South Korean cinema bigwig who claimed he had been kidnapped in Hong Kong in 1978 by agents of Kim—like many dictators, a fanatical movie buff—& held in North Korea to build up the North Korean movie industry.

After making several films including Pulgasari for Kim, Shin managed to escape, along with his actress wife, to the U.S. Embassy in Vienna while on a business trip in 1986. He ended up in Hollywood, where he directed and/or produced stuff like 3 Ninjas Knuckle Up under the name Simon Sheen, before returning in 1994 to South Korea, where he died in 2006.

Years ago I went to some trouble & expense to obtain a bootleg copy of Pulgasari, but you, if you wish, may watch the movie in its entirety on Youtube, starting here.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


RIP to the great Vaclav Havel, dissident playwright &, in one of the coolest twists in 20th century international politics, President of the Czech Republic, passed on at 75. I had the honor to appear in the U.S. premiere (so we were told, anyway) of Havel’s play Mistake at the Scena Theatre in Washington, D.C. in the mid-‘80s. My favorite of his works, however, is his wonderful, self-deprecating comedy Audience (1975), maybe the most generous-hearted political play of the 20th Century.

On the other end of the political spectrum, RIP also—since my ultimate hope for all beings is eternal peace—to the mad & murderous Kim Jong Il of North Korea, departed at 69.

Finally, RIP to former child actress Susan Gordon of the Twilight Zone episode “The Fugitive” & other TV & films, passed on at 62.

Friday, December 16, 2011


To the list that includes The Tempest & Robinson Crusoe & Swiss Family Robinson & Lord of the Flies & The Blue Lagoon & Castaway & all the other tales of maroonings on desert islands we may now add a new title: Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked. There’s a twist this time, though. The others are about mankind struggling to survive against the primal forces of nature, while Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked is about chipmunks struggling to survive against the primal forces of nature.
The title cheats a little for the sake of a pun: There’s no shipwreck. Carnival Cruise Lines, aboard whose opulent vessel the singing rodent trio are vacationing, would likely have been less forthcoming with the product-placement dough if there was. Instead, Alvin, Simon & Theodore are swept overboard due to Alvin’s hijinx, along with their distaff counterparts the Chipettes, Brittany, Jeanette & Eleanor.
Their manager/adoptive father Dave Seville gives chase, along with comic villain Ian Hawke (David Cross), & all of them end up marooned on a tropical island. There they encounter a wacky young castaway woman (Jenny Slate), a spider whose bite radically changes Simon’s personality, a treasure, a volcano, & many of the other standard tropes of the genre.
For the unitiated: The Chipmunks were created in 1958 by a struggling songwriter named Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. Bagdasarian’s earlier claim to fame was co-writing (with William Saroyan!) the Rosemary Clooney hit “Come On-a My House.” In ’58 he concocted “The Witch Doctor,” which employed his own voice, sped up to give it a high-pitched, cartoony sound. The same year, Bagdasarian used the same technique on “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late),” providing the voices for all three rodents—wiseguy Alvin, cerebral Simon & sweet Theodore—as well as that of Dave. The record’s wild success led to dozens more albums, as well as TV shows & animated movies.
The elder Bagdasarian died in 1972, after which his son Ross Jr. took over the family business, including the singing duties for all four characters. He was replaced in the 2007 feature & its 2009 “Squeakquel,” however, by the voices of Justin Long, Matthew Gray Gubler & Jesse McCartney as Alvin, Simon & Theodore, respectively, & by Jason Lee (of My Name is Earl) as Dave.
The first two films were big box-office, so this third outing was probably inevitable. How is it? Well, you know, it’s a Chipmunk movie. They sing, they dance, they do wacky stuff. There are throwaway gag references to everything from Lord of the Rings to Sarah Palin, & they made me chuckle here and there, but what’s important is that my nine-year-old sat stock-still & watched the whole thing & seemed well satisfied by the investment of her time & attention. So I guess it’s a good movie.
RIP to Christopher Hitchens, departed at 62, & also to two comic-book giants: Jerry Robinson, creator of Robin the Boy Wonder & probably of the Joker as well, at 89, & Joe Simon, creator of Captain America, at 98.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


That great movie star Kirk Douglas celebrated his 95th birthday this month. So…

Monster-of-the-Week: …in his honor this week let’s give the nod to one of his less celebrated outings, as both title roles in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—a musical TV version from 1972 (no relation to Frank Wildhorn’s cult-favorite 1997 musical Jekyll & Hyde).

I vividly remember watching this curio as a kid & finding it embarrassing even then. But it has a terrific cast; in addition to Douglas, there’s Donald Pleasance, Susan George, Susan Hampshire, Stanley Holloway and Sir Michael freakin’ Redgrave. If you have an hour and eighteen minutes to kill, you can judge for yourself; it’s viewable in its entirety here.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Phoenix Film Critics Society, of which Your Humble Narrator is a proud founding member, has announced its 2011 Award Nominees; you can check them out here.

Some of them reflect my nominations, some don’t, but there are a lot of movies & performances on this list worth seeing. The winners will be announced December 27.

Monday, December 12, 2011


The Wife happened upon this nice blog post about my late pal, KPHO-TV film critic & host Bill Rocz. The post links, at the end, to this article I wrote for New Times about Bill just after his passing.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


RIP to Henry “Harry” Morgan, departed at 96. Famous for Dragnet & the later seasons of M*A*S*H—though his best work on M*A*S*H was a hilarious guest-shot, as an unhinged & racist general, in the earlier seasons—Morgan was one of those actors that are so familiar that it’s easy not to notice how genuinely good & skillful & quietly real they were. This shows up at times even in the many mostly dreary late-vintage M*A*S*H episodes, but abundantly among his many film roles—notably, as Henry Fonda’s partner in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943). A friend also pointed out to me that he & Jack Webb were the bad guys in the 1951 noir Appointment With Danger.
RIP also to actor Bill McKinney, who despite a long & varied career is best remembered by far as one of the rapists... Deliverance (1972)—a terrifying performance which immortalized the phrase “squeal like a pig”—departed at 80, to disco (& also porn) veteran Andrea True, departed at 68, & to Dobie Gray of “Drift Away” fame, who has drifted away at 71.

RIP, also, to my love affair with Chick-fil-A. I’m not proud of this, but I really, really loved those freakin’ sandwiches. They’re probably my all-time favorite fast food. Until this changes, however, they’ve sold me my last bird, & in the meantime they can kiss my ass.

So, in recognition of Chick-fil-A’s rottenness…

Monster-of-the-Week: …how about this Brobdingnagian broiler, this ponderous piece of poultry, from the cover of a 1961 Classics Illustrated adaptation of Food of the Gods by H.G. Wells:

Saturday, December 3, 2011


Playing through Thursday at the Harkins Shea 14 in Scottsdale is The Women on the 6th Floor (Les Femmes du 6eme Etage), Philippe le Guay’s mild social comedy about a persnickety stockbroker (Fabrice Luchini) who bonds with his ravishing, unflappable new maid (Natalia Verbeke), & through her with the other Spanish domestics in the servants quarters in his building in early ‘60s Paris.

It’s a sweet, sly spin on class relations, well worth seeing for the deeply funny performances of every member of the cast. Along with Luchini & the breathtaking Verbeke, I especially liked Lola Duenas as the Communist maid, smiling with unoffended incredulity at everyone’s naïvete. Lord knows what this character would have to say, however, about this sentimental tale, which seems to hinge on the same “enormous platitude” that Orwell ascribes to Dickens: “If men would behave decently the world would be decent.

My brother made me aware of this story, about the chapel in the cemetery near Evans City, Pennsylvania that appears at the beginning of Night of the Living Dead, & of a fundraising attempt to save it. You can donate here, & here is a New Times story I wrote about a peculiar experience I had at that cemetery.

RIP to the truly hilarious Alan Sues of Laugh-In, passed on at 85, & to the truly hilarious Patrice O’Neal, passed on at just 41.

Thursday, December 1, 2011


In memory of Ken Russell, departed this week…

Monster-of-the-Week: …the honor goes to Lady Sylvia Marsh, the seductive but lethal snake-woman played by Amanda Donohoe in Lair of the White Worm, Russell’s 1988 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s fevered final novel of 1911 (based, in turn, on the legend of the Lambton Worm):

This lightweight but genuinely witty little film is maybe my favorite of Russell’s works, formidable though The Devils (1971) is. White Worm’s imagery is sexy in a marvelously adolescent way, Donohoe is unforgettable, & there’s a charming early performance by Hugh Grant, posh & self-deprecating as ever, as one of the young heroes.

By far the best thing in the movie, however, is this song.