Monday, February 27, 2012


A couple of Oscar notes: The verdict online appears to be that last night’s show sucked, sucked, sucked, or at best that it was boring. This is the usual verdict any more, & I don’t think it has much to do with the quality of the show (except for last year’s, which got particularly venomous notices).

Over the last twenty years, the hosting duties have been given to a variety of comedic geniuses—Jon Stewart, Chris Rock, David Letterman, Whoopi Goldberg, Ellen DeGeneres, Steve Martin, Alec Baldwin—most of whom have been declared failures. I liked them all (I thought Martin was especially funny). All of them have been found wanting by comparison to Billy Crystal, who hosted the show for the 9th time last night. But when he’s hosted, he too has usually been found wanting by plenty of viewers.

I think that the petulant response that so many contemporary fans have to most Oscar telecasts in recent years has more to do with the show failing to give them the sense of giddy excitement that it did when they were kids. Last night’s show did kind of suck, & it was kind of boring, but my suspicion is that Oscar shows always have been—they’ve always represented the lamest of a species of self-consciously old-fashioned variety show, & that’s what we want. We want to hate the Oscars, & we’d hate them even more if they were somehow made “modern.” We’d probably hate them most of all in the unlikely event that they ever were a couple of tightly-paced hours of really first-rate entertainment.

I thought that Crystal, maybe the last of the comedians who sees doing a song-&-dance number as a routine part of his job rather than something for which he should get extra credit, managed his duties last night excellently, more relaxed & confident than he’s been in some past years. The Cirque de Soleil number was impressive, & I also loved this short sketch with Bob Balaban, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard, Christopher Guest & Jennifer Coolidge about a focus group for The Wizard of Oz, although I understand that it was poorly received...

When Crystal said “Weren’t they hilarious?” afterwards, many (likely similar) people online were quick to reply “No.”

The only remotely surprising win of the night, I thought, was Meryl Streep’s for The Iron Lady. It was a pleasant surprise—the movie was thin & weak apart from her, but that performance was sensational.

My gripe this year, as so often, was with the necrology. It was cool that George Kuchar was included, but here’s a list, compiled with the help of some friends, of those omitted: Harry Morgan, Charles Napier, Jeff Conaway, Sid Melton, Yvette Vickers, Tura Satana, Zina Bethune & Zalman King, among others.

You could quibble about some of these, maybe, but…no Harry Morgan? Really?

Friday, February 24, 2012


Happy Oscar weekend everybody!
As an aesthetic or meritocratic measure, the Oscars are a travesty of course, & always have been. Probably all contests based on subjective judgment of artistic work are travesties. Probably back at the City Dionysia in 442 BC, somebody was muttering “Look, Antigone was good, I just don’t think it was the play of the year. I think they just figure they owe Sophocles after he got hosed on Oedipus Rex.”

Travesty or not, the Oscars are usually good for a laugh or two, & they do often honor good movies. Last week a friend of mine mentioned on facebook that she & her husband were watching one of their favorite movies: “I lost my hand! I lost my bride! Johnny has his hand! Johnny has his bride!

Ah, Moonstruck.

The Wife & I count this movie, which turns 25 this year, as one of our favorites as well. Oscar liked it, too: It won for Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, & Best Screenplay.

In Moonstruck’s main plot, woman falls in love with her fiancĂ©’s estranged brother. In the subplot, an aging, successful businessman cheats on his wife. To someone who’d never seen the film, that description might sound more like the basis for a sordid, Arhur Miller-ish melodrama with a violent, tragic ending than a warm, eccentric romantic comedy.

Part of Moonstruck’s achievement is that it manages to be both romantic & fiercely honest about love. The fickleness, the brevity, the irrationality, & the wide streak of selfishness that characterize even the grandest amores are fully acknowledged, & cheerfully mocked, & yet somehow the movie convinces us of love’s transcendence. Plus, it’s one of the funniest films of the ‘80s.

The story centers on a Loretta Castorini (Cher), an Italian-American widow pushing 40. An accountant, she lives in a palatial house in Brooklyn, exquisitely shot by cinematographer David Watkin, with her gloomy father Cosmo (Vincent Gardenia), an affluent plumber, & her gloomier mother Rose (Olympia Dukakis). Gloomiest of all is her grandfather (Feodor Chalaipin), who moves around in a wake of small dogs—the only time joy registers on his face is when he gets them to howl at the moon.

Loretta agrees to marry her dull, pleasant boyfriend Johnny (Danny Aiello), who by her own admission she likes but doesn’t love, before he leaves for Italy & the deathbed of his vociferous, energetic mother. While he’s away, Loretta goes to invite his brother Ronnie (Nicolas Cage) to the wedding, & the two fall immediately in love. Meanwhile, Rose struggles with the awareness that Cosmo is cheating on her.

That’s the plot, but it does no justice to the richness of the movie, which works on a surprisingly broad canvas, with minor characters ranging from Loretta’s customers to Cosmo’s, Ronnie’s coworkers, the waiters at the restaurants, or random passersby like the vitriolic old crone with whom Loretta has an odd exchange at the airport. In formal terms, the resolution of the plot is a bit of an anticlimax, really, but while you’re watching the movie it’s comedic bliss, & utterly satisfying.

Indeed, this is one of those rare & precious movies where everything somehow went improbably right. Cher did her best work as an actress in Moonstruck, & Cage probably had his finest hour here, too. But the supporting actors & bit players are sublime without exception—in particular Louis Guss & Julie Bovasso as Loretta’s Aunt & Uncle, & John Mahoney as a coed-loving college professor who happens into dinner with Rose & wistfully discovers the pleasure of a mature woman’s company.

The director, Norman Jewison, did fine work before & after this film, but nowhere else showed this flawless a touch. John Patrick Shanley, who wrote the Oscar-winning, highly quotable script, has never topped it—most of his subsequent work has been brilliant in flashes but badly uneven. But Moonstruck’s dialogue, for all its idiosyncratic poetry, still sounds blunt & natural in the mouths of these actors. The happy irony is that this celebration of love’s glorious imperfection is, in itself, pretty much a perfect movie.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


If for no other reason than that it’s celebrating its 40th anniversary…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to the title character in Dracula A.D. 1972, released by the UK’s Hammer Films in the title year.

This was Hammer’s attempt to give a “mod” spin to their Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing Dracula series. It opens in 1872 (long before the 1897 date of the Stoker novel) with Van Helsing (Cushing) & Dracula (Lee) fighting it out again on an out-of-control carriage. It ends badly for both of them—the Count meets the business end of a broken wheel spoke.

But a century later, after the opening credits, a Drac disciple with the rock-star-like name of Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame, looking insufferably pouty & Byronic) leads a group of thrill-seeking Chelsea hippies in an unholy ceremony in the ruin of a church, & succeeds in re-integrating the vampire prince, who is particularly ungrateful & entitled about it: When his young benefactor says “I summoned you,” he snaps “It was my will.” Typical freakin’ aristocrat.

I watched this for the first time in decades this past weekend, & was struck by how very little Lee was given to do in the film—with the title, one might hope for psychedelic party scenes of the Count mingling with the Mods, but except for the fight in the prologue, Lee, who’s top-billed, spends all of his brief footage in the wrecked church—to which Johnny A. dutifully delivers him such delectable snacks as Caroline Munro, Marsha Hunt & Stephanie Beacham, in return for an equal lack of gratitude—& speaks only a handful of lines. Cushing, as a modern Van Helsing, does the expository heavy lifting.

All that being said, the film is fun early-‘70s artifact, & it features an appearance by the American rock ensemble Stoneground. They perform, in an hilarious scene early on, at an upper-crust party that’s been crashed by decadent hippies, to the elaborate scandalized horror of the guests.

Friday, February 17, 2012


Even if, like me, you’re not an especially big fan of the Japanese anime style, don’t miss The Secret World of Arrietty. We’re only in February, but I would have to have an outstanding year at the movies indeed for this 2-D animated feature from Japan’s Studio Ghibli not to be somewhere on my 2012 top ten list.

The film is a loose adaptation, & perhaps a deepening, of Mary Norton’s 1952 British children’s book The Borrowers, by Hayao Miyazaki, the genius behind the 2001 masterpiece Spirited Away & other extraordinary Studio Ghibli works. On Arrietty, Miyazaki is credited as screenwriter & “planner”; the director, making his feature debut, is Hiromasa Yonebayashi.

The Borrowers of the original title are a race of insect-sized people who reside inside the walls or under the floorboards of human houses & survive by making sorties into the house proper to “borrow” tiny, unnoticeable amounts of whatever they need—a sugar cube, maybe, or a pin—from their human hosts, to whom they refer as “beans.” Our adolescent heroine Arrietty lives in bourgeois comfort with her taciturn father Pod & her hysteria-prone mother Homily beneath a closet in a lovely home in the Tokyo suburbs.

Arrietty (voiced, in the U.S. version, by Disney Channel star Bridgit Mendler) has a taste for adventure that outstrips her caution with regard to a cardinal rule of the Borrower lifestyle: Never being seen by humans. Shawn (David Henrie, another Disney Channel favorite), a sensitive human boy who’s been sent to stay with relatives in the house while he waits to have heart surgery, becomes aware almost at once of Arrietty’s existence, & thus of her family’s. The ensuing tale hinges on the guarded bond that develops between them.

The Secret World of Arrietty doesn’t have the epic, preternatural grandeur of Spirited Away or some of the other Ghibli stunners, but I think that for this very reason it may please Western audiences even more, in some ways, than those films. The scale of the story makes Arrietty less ambitious & more delicate, but also more direct & focused, & perhaps more conventionally charming (& also, for younger kids, less scary).

Still, Miyazaki & Yonebayashi fill the movie with dazzling touches—the enormity of the teardrops that form in Borrower eyes, or the tea drops that fill their miniscule cups, the insects that routinely cross Arrietty’s path or the pillbug that rolls up when she idly picks it up, the way the sound of a rustling shirt is used to give a sense of Shawn’s colossal size—that leave us wide-eyed. Arrietty is richly imagined, funny, high-spirited, exciting, suspenseful & touching, yet also blessedly quiet. It’s pure fantasy, yet intensely in tune with the natural world. It’s deeply refreshing.

RIP to dancer & actress Zina Bethune, killed at 66 in a horrifying traffic accident in Los Angeles (possibly a hit-&-run; the initial police reports are uncertain), & to Mets & Expos great Gary Carter, departed at just 57.

Cancel your Saturday night plans—Your Humble Narrator is slated to be a guest at 7 p.m. tomorrow on 9.23 KTAR's The Jay Lawrence Show, along with my pal & Phoenix Film Critics Society colleague David Ramsey, to talk movies with the redoubtable Jay.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


“Monster” is often a relative term—a perfectly ordinary creature can become a monster depending on your perspective. The inches-high heroine of The Secret World of Arietty, the animated Japanese film opening in the U.S. tomorrow, is confronted by a normal-sized cat who, to her, is a terrifying gargantuan (though her ultimate relationship to the animal is more complex).


Monster-of-the-Week: …the titular protagonist of Jack Arnold’s superb 1957 sci-fi classic The Incredible Shrinking Man sees his pet turn from an ordinary housecat into, well, this week’s honoree…

You can watch our hero’s encounter with the titanic tabby, here.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012



A dozen Februarys come and gone
Beneath a bright September-mocking sun,
A dozen times the smirking archer's drawn,
And in those dozen shots, he's missed on none.
No other piercing of my hapless heart,
No dark and jealous pet, no sultry toy,
No cauterizing wealth, no salve of art,
Can bleed from it my surging, stinging joy.
This earth, by definition, is mundane,
And doles out wonders sip by stingy sip,
And from this liquor, sobers us with pain—
But I live in my wonder's constant grip.
These February wounds I yearly feel
Apparently take thirteen months to heal.

Sunday, February 12, 2012


Your Humble Narrator missed the screening of Anonymous last October, & didn’t catch up with the film during its brief theatrical run. I wrote a column summarizing my thoughts about the premise it dramatizes—that the works attributed to Shakespeare were secretly written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, with Shakespeare as a front, & that this was covered up for various political & personal reasons.

Ludicrous as I think this idea to be, I was nonetheless very curious to see if Anonymous might be a fun movie on its own terms. Last week it came out on DVD & PPV, & I got my chance to find out.

The film, directed by Roland Emmerich from a script by John Orloff, is a really crazy Renaissance fever-dream. Though the class & academic snobberies from which I believe the Oxfordian “theory” arises are the tale’s unmistakable subtext, it’s hard for me to imagine even a staunch Oxfordian thinking much of the case it makes, since Emmerich & Orloff ignore history at every turn.

Rather than offering even a partial list of its nonsense, suffice to say that, even aside from any speculation about Shakespeare’s authorship, the film shows no more interest in historical accuracy about the Tudor period than, say, Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds showed toward the history of WWII. Taking such liberties is, of course, a perfectly acceptable convention in period drama—for the most obvious example, it was Shakespeare’s own method in his history plays. But it seems an odd approach for a movie that claims setting the historical record straight as its mission.

Aside from any issue of accuracy, the plot, built on the idea that Oxford & Elizabeth I were longtime lovers, is overlong & overcomplicated. But for all that, I quite enjoyed Anonymous. This shouldn’t be mistaken for a recommendation, except to other fanatical (& thick-skinned) Shakespeare geeks for whom even a curio like this has its appeal. It’s a pretty bad movie, I suppose, but it’s a well-made movie, with an absurdly distinguished cast.

Rhys Ifans, with his handsome high forehead & his troubled eyes, is effective as Oxford, wisely not trying to make him likable—the Earl is an imperious & bitter sort, but with a quick, observant mind. Vanessa Redgrave & Joely Richardson are both beguiling as different vintages of Elizabeth, Sebastian Armesto makes an improbably self-effacing Ben Jonson, & Mark Rylance actually gets to do a bit of classical stage acting as Henry Condell.

But these are only a few examples of the fine work done by the huge cast. The actors skulk around the loving recreation of late-Elizabethan London in doublets & tights, murmuring exposition at each other, & if you’re a sucker for this sort of thing, as I am, there’s a decent chance you’ll be amused. Also, laborious as the plot may be, its final twist, though silly & unsavory, is at least a juicy humdinger.

What I most enjoyed about Anonymous, however, was, oddly, its depiction of the “real” Shakespeare. Played rather likably by Rafe Spall, this version of ol’ Will is a Dickensian knave, not just a fraud but a drunken, whoring lout, a vain buffoon, a blackmailer, & even a thuggish cutthroat—it’s implied he murders Christopher Marlowe for threatening to reveal his secret (some six years after poor Marlowe had already died in a barfight).

I couldn’t help but find something perversely endearing in this very posthumous & ineffectual attempt at character assassination. I think it reveals the psychological heart of the Authorship Controversy: The envious resentment that we mediocrities may feel when confronted by an unassailably superior talent—especially a talent who had the nerve not to go to college.

The urge to paint Shakespeare as this movie does isn’t very different, perhaps, than the urge of an underachieving student to doodle obscenely on the face of the valedictorian in the yearbook. It’s outrageous, of course, but—especially at this historical distance—it’s too human to be truly offensive. Shakespeare can take it.

Saturday, February 11, 2012


My pal Barry Graham has started a new Tumblr, Desert Noir, featuring very very short noir stories. I’m proud to be his first guest contributor, you can read my story “Haircut,” all three sentences of it, here.

RIP to Peter Breck of The Big Valley, among many other credits, departed at 82, & to Whitney Houston, passed on way too young at 48. I was no particular fan, but thinking of the radiantly lovely young woman with the air-raid siren voice that she was in her heyday in the ‘80s, & then of the sick old lady she turned into before she was fifty, makes me bitterly sad.

Friday, February 10, 2012


The sequel to 2008’s Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D is titled Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. The pun built into the title is the whole of the movie’s verbal cleverness—it’s been a while since you’ve seen a movie, even a kids’ movie, with dialogue this corny & insipid. Fortunately, there are visual pleasures to make up for it.

Big, beefy Brendan Fraser being unavailable this time, the big beefy duties went to Dwayne Johnson, here the stepfather of the sullen kid (Josh Hutcherson), from the first film. The two of them end up stranded, along with a comic-relief helicopter pilot (Luis Guzman) & his cute daughter (Vanessa Hudgens), on an island of wonders somewhere near Palau, hidden behind a permanent waterspout. The boy’s adventurous grandfather is already there, played by Michael Caine—or, to put it more accurately, Michael Caine was paid to smile good-naturedly & speak the role’s lines.

The island was an inspiration, we are told, not only for Verne’s The Mysterious Island but also for Stevenson’s Treasure Island & apparently both Lilliput & Brobdingnag in Gulliver’s Travels—its residents include elephants the size of terriers & bees the size of ponies. Dumb as all this is, Journey 2 is perfectly watchable.

The CGI effects have a garish appeal, the 3D flourishes better than usual, the action all but nonstop. About the only time things slow down is for Johnson to sing “What a Wonderful World,” pleasantly enough, accompanying himself on the ukulele. There’s also a dreamy slow-motion shot of Hudgens falling through the air toward the jungle that verges on real, as opposed to kitschy, beauty.

So sure, take your kids, but also do them a favor: Before or after, show them (& yourself) the 1961 movie adaptation of Mysterious Island, with added Ray Harryhausen monsters. Beside it, this new film is punier than a Lilliputian elephant.

In theaters, by the way, Journey 2 is preceded by a Warner cartoon, Daffy’s Rhapsody, in which the manic-depressive waterfowl sings to Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, all while dodging Elmer Fudd’s bloodlust. Classical music has been good to the Looney Tunes—three of the best Bugs Bunny shorts, The Rabbit of Seville (1949), What’s Opera, Doc? (1957) & Long-Haired Hare (1948), are operatic send-ups—& this new film is probably the best of Warner’s post-Mel Blanc efforts, in no small part because…Blanc actually provides Daffy’s voice! The animation is a setting of a ‘50s-era children’s record by the peerless voice actor, & it’s quite wonderful to hear his irreplaceable tones filling the multiplexes.

Thursday, February 9, 2012


Yesterday was Jules Verne’s birthday, & tomorrow is opening day of Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, so…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week the nod goes to this cranky crustacean...

...from the splendid 1961 version of Mysterious Island—a real crab shell, articulated & animated by the great Ray Harryhausen, to a wonderful, halting musical accompaniment by the at least equally great Bernard Herrmann. Melt some butter!

Monday, February 6, 2012


A friend recently mentioned to me that the writing on the walls of the lavatory stalls at his workplace had grown disappointingly barren, both in volume & in its invention & wit. A possible explanation struck me at once: competition. After all, isn’t the bathroom stall the original—& less censorious—Facebook?

RIP to Bill Hinzman, the zombie shuffling through the cemetery at the very beginning of the original 1968 Night of the Living Dead, passed on at 75—he was Zombie Zero in the movies. He was also on the camera crew of that film, & he went on to appear in and/or work on several other George A. Romero productions & eventually became a low-budget horror auteur himself. But his true cinematic legacy is as the face—the lean, hungry, haunted face—of a new franchise, & a new genre.

RIP also to the commanding Ben Gazzara, departed at 81, & to Zalman King, at 70. King’s career was fascinating: After a period as an offbeat leading man—he starred in the TV series The Young Lawyers, played Jesus in the film version of Hugh Schonfield’s The Passover Plot, & was the hero of the strange 1978 thriller Blue Sunshine—King found his real niche writing, producing & directing glossy erotica. He wore one or more of those hats for such familiar lonely-guy late-night premium-cable favorites as Two Moon Junction, Wild Orchid, 9 ½ Weeks & The Red Shoe Diaries.

Friday, February 3, 2012


Last week, in The Grey, humans lost in the Alaskan wilderness were turned into wolf chow. This week, in Big Miracle, humans struggle to save three whales trapped under the Alaskan ice. If you got all your information from the movies, you might conclude that humans were the put-upon species in the Alaskan ecosystem.

Veterans of the late ‘80s may recall that Big Miracle is based on a true story, at least in its broad outlines. In October of 1988, news media began to fret about a trio of California gray whales at Point Barrow, Alaska, one a juvenile, who had waited too long to begin migrating south & were separated from open water by several miles of ice; they had only a small hole through which they could surface to breathe.

Various groups pooled their resources to cut a path to safety for the enormous mammals, & the heightened media coverage broadened & intensified the effort. It was a highly improbable coalition—Reagan administration officials, oil company officials, the Alaska National Guard, the Soviet Navy, local Eskimos, and Greenpeace, among others. It’s almost unthinkable that equivalent groups would set aside their differences in today’s climate, for anything, let alone a mission this quixotic.

Directed by Ken Kwapis from a script by Jack Amiel & Michael Begler, Big Miracle shapes the material something in the manner of, say, a broad-canvas Preston Sturges comedy, with lots of eccentric types bouncing off each other. The central character is an Anchorage-based TV reporter (John Krasinski) who longs to make the big time but is stuck sending human-interest dispatches from Barrow. His ex-girlfriend (Drew Barrymore) is the frazzled Greenpeace operative, & Kristen Bell is the cute reporter from LA who shows up to distract him.

The cast is high-powered—it includes Ted Danson as the oil company honcho, Dermot Mulroney as the National Guard pilot, Vinessa Shaw as the White House rep, Tim Blake Nelson as a cetologist, & Rob Riggle & James LeGros as stereotypical Minnesotans who ride to the rescue. Kathy Baker, Stephen Root & John Michael Higgins also contribute amusing bits.

I liked Big Miracle a good deal more than I expected to. It’s unabashedly a sentimental family film, with warmhearted performances, but it isn’t dumb, & it neither soft-soaps the sad side of the material nor milks it for pathos. In short, it doesn’t pander. Kwapis & the screenwriters fully embrace the whale-sized irony at the heart of the story: That everybody was there for the free PR.

This was obvious in the case of the Reagan & oil industry folks, who were trying to soften appalling environmental records, but it was just as true of Greenpeace, who acknowledged that the plight of the whales, though heartbreaking, was natural; humans weren’t to blame. Even the Eskimos, who were sanctioned whale-hunters, were hoping to improve their image to outsiders.

The movie is by no stretch a satire, however. What keeps it from cynicism is the suggestion that whatever their motives, when these people looked down the long-jawed faces of the whales, with their sweet, somehow pessimistic frowns, all that mattered was setting them free.

This leads, however, to another irony of human psychology upon which the film touches only briefly—Barrymore’s character summarizes it in a TV interview. Of course humans are more likely to feel compassion for animals that we find cute or beautiful, but I think that large animals fall into this category as well.

I was once walking with my then-boss along a wide tract of desert in North Phoenix—long since paved over—& he spotted the nest of a large bird, a hawk or other raptor, at the top of a tall tree. The area was due to be cleared for construction, & my boss seemed really upset at the probable fate of the nest’s residents. He anxiously asked me if I thought that the birds would be moved.

I felt so bad for him that I almost made up some fake agency in charge of relocating large birds, but instead I pointed out that most trees have small birds’ nests, & no trouble is taken about moving them. This didn’t seem to bother him especially.

This incident came back to me after I saw Big Miracle, which from its title on suggests that when it comes to interspecies empathy, size does matter.

RIP to Angelo Dundee, passed on at 90, & to Soul Train producer/host Don Cornelius, passed on at 75, alas apparently by his own hand. Obviously & inevitably, as always in parting we wish him love, peace & soul…

Thursday, February 2, 2012


Happy Groundhog Day!

At this writing Punxsutawney Phil’s prophecy remains unrecorded, so I’ll simply note, again, what my beloved departed mother always said about the day. Mom was from Mississippi, & she always observed that only having to put up with six more weeks of a Northwestern Pennsylvania winter was cause enough for celebration.

In Arizona, of course, we greet a short winter more glumly.

Anyway, I’m not aware of any monster groundhogs, so…

Monster-of-the-Week: Phil’s honor I thought we could, at least, give the nod to a fellow rodent, such as…

…any of the giant rats in the 1982 Canadian horror picture Deadly Eyes.

It’s a terrible movie—even the presence of the great Scatman Crothers does little to help it—but there is a detail of the production that fills me with envy toward those who got to work on it: The monster rats infesting the Toronto subway were played by dachshunds. That’s right, when Crothers & the other actors were frantically fleeing the horrifying giant vermin, they were actually being pursued by wiener dogs!

What a great gig.