Thursday, June 28, 2012

EIGHT TO THE BAR

RIP to Nora Ephron, departed too early at 71. Ephron penned many screenplays, including that of arguably the best-written of the modern “chick flicks,” When Harry Met Sally. But I hope she’s also remembered for her journalism and essays. Check out her early collections Crazy Salad (1975) and Scribble Scribble (1978) and you’ll see how good she was.

A previously undiscovered species of trapdoor spider has been noticed by science, after spending countless millennia right under the nose of civilization, in Alabama.

So…


Monster-of-the-Week: …in honor of Myrmekiaphila tigris, let’s give the nod to the titanic title character of Bert I. Gordon’s judicial-sounding 1958 opus Earth vs. The Spider, a denizen of a cave close to a small town.

This is one hip arthropod—thought dead and stored in a high school gym, he’s revived by the sound of a rehearsing rock band.

Friday, June 22, 2012

BRAVE REVIEW

The newest Disney princess, Merida, loves to ride her horse and shoot arrows, often at the same time. She has wild red curls and a puckish smirk, and she climbs cliffs in a way that I hope the young audience members of Disney/Pixar’s Brave don’t try to imitate.


Merida, voiced by Kelly MacDonald, takes after her father Fergus (Billy Connolly), a feudal lord in medieval Scotland. He’s a good-natured, boyish braggart who loves to retell the tale of how he lost his leg defending his family against the monstrous bear Mor’du. Merida gets along famously with him, and with her swashbucklingly mischievous triplet brothers, but not so much with her civilized mother Elinor (Emma Thompson), who’s trying to prepare her for a peace-making arranged marriage to one of three princes from neighboring kingdoms.

Said princes are not a very prepossessing lot, and Merida isn’t ready to get married in any case, so she and her mother clash. In despair, and led through the forest by Will-o’-the-wisps to a witch (Julie Walters), she bargains with the old lady for a spell to “change” her mother, and…

Well, you know how trusting witches usually goes, especially in medieval Scotland. The only thing that really irked me about Brave was that Merida seemed too easy a mark for the crone, but I guess she hadn’t read the same stories that I have. Things don’t work out nearly as grimly for Merida and her family as they do for the hero of Shakespeare’s Scottish Play, but they’re still in for plenty of trouble.

Merida’s gullibility aside, Brave seems to me very nearly an instant classic; almost, though not quite, the peer of the peerless Up. Like that film and all the Pixar efforts, it’s a dazzling piece of cinematic showmanship, and is, maybe, a little less antiseptic than the others.

I don’t mean by this that it’s remotely realistic—nobody could suggest that this well-swept environment reflects, either hygienically or in terms of life options, the real medieval world. It’s a modern, middle-class girl’s fantasy of medieval life. But there is, somehow, a richness, an earthiness of color and texture to Brave that the other Pixar films, by design, didn’t have.

The movie’s people seem pungently human as well. The men, with their gnarled, bushy mugs and irregular physiques, have a comic grandeur, and Merida’s round, mirthful face has a real-girl beauty that the other, more generic Disney princesses can’t claim.



The plot of Brave was concocted by veteran animation writer/director Brenda Chapman and fiddled with by several other hands, including director Mark Andrews. It eventually takes a fanciful supernatural turn, involving both Merida’s Mom and the triplets, that seems off-the-wall at first, but in the end is entirely coherent and emotionally satisfying.

It’s often been noted that the heroines (and heroes) of Disney films rarely have strong mothers, if they have mothers at all. But Brave hinges on a difficult, complicated mother-daughter relationship, with fault on both sides, and this conflict leads to a climactic stretch that’s both highly exciting and moving.

For all the skill of its narrative, however, what’s most remarkable about Brave is that Disney finally really did it—finally gave their audience a genuinely independent-minded Princess. Merida isn’t some cookie-cutter cutie who makes a lot of noise about wanting freedom or adventure while the plot hustles her toward some square-jawed Prince. Merida’s motivation is exactly the opposite: She’s trying to keep the Princes away, at least for a while.

Two final notes: First, Mor’du the Bear was a little scary for both the nine-year-old and the ten-year-old in whose company I saw Brave. These scenes didn’t seem at all as harsh as the witch stuff in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to me, but parents be forewarned.

Second, don’t be late, as Brave is preceded by a short called La Luna that you don’t want to miss.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

TURTLE RECALL

In honor of these admirable prehistoric turtles…


…fossilized in the act of having sex…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s pay homage to that colossal chelonian, that towering testudine, that really big freakin’ turtle, Gamera…



Developed in the mid-60s by Japan’s Daiei studios as a Godzilla knockoff, Gamera is an enormous, tusked, oddly endearing turtle who can fly, courtesy of his own rocket propulsion. My own favorite of the many Gamera movies is 1970’s Gamera vs. Jiger, released in the U.S. as Gamera vs. Monster X, in which the Gamster defends Expo ’70 in Osaka from this beast…


It’s amazing how much of the dialogue in the later stretch of that film consists of children yelling the name “Gamera” again and again.

RIP to uber-auteurist critic Andrew Sarris, departed at 82, and to the creepy, ever-reptilian TV and movie actor Richard Lynch, a perpetual heavy owing in part to a mug...


...he’d supposedly scarred by setting himself on fire under the influence of LSD, departed at 76.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

MOLOKAN-DO ATTITUDE

Check out the July issue of Phoenix Magazine


…for my article about the history of the “Molokan” (Russian sectarian) community in Glendale. It’s on pages 42-43 of the magazine, or you can read it here. It’s on page 18, however, that you can behold the handsome contributor photo of Your Humble Narrator, taken by none other than The Kid, thereby making her debut as a published photographer before reaching ten years of age.


Welsh character actor Victor Spinetti, familiar in films ranging from A Hard Day’s Night and Help! to Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew, has passed on at 82; RIP to him and to character actress Susan Tyrell, memorable in such films as Fat City, for her performance in which she was Oscar-nominated, Big Top Pee-Wee, Cry-Baby and Masked and Anonymous, passed on at 67.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

POP CULTURE

If Dad’s the sort who would prefer staying home and a watching a movie over putting on his new tie and going out to dinner, here are a few suggestions for a Father’s Day film festival. All are on DVD:


To Kill a Mockingbird—The signature role of Gregory Peck’s career was Atticus Finch, the small-town lawyer and single father who parented by example, eschewing violence while displaying quiet courage, and keeping vigil over those he cared about. Many people probably got their prototype for the ideal father from Robert Mulligan’s 1962 adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—It’s easy now to dismiss as dated this topical comedy about a father—an upper-middle-class white liberal—caught off-guard by his daughter’s black fiancĂ© (Sidney Poitier). But it wasn’t such a little thing for a mainstream, big-studio movie to take on in 1967. Besides, the movie contains the final performance of the original Father of the Bride, the great Spencer Tracy, who died less than three weeks after it was completed, and a beautiful, direct piece of acting it is.


Nobody’s Fool—In this 1994 adaptation of Richard Russo’s novel, Paul Newman had the triumph of his late career as, in a sense, the anti-Atticus: Donald “Sully” Sullivan, a handyman in a small town in upstate New York, an absentee father trying to make things up to his own son by being a presence in his grandson’s life. This comedy-drama, directed by Robert Benton, is rich in eccentric characters and lively, touching dialogue, and in addition to one of Newman’s best creations, it contains a wonderful swansong performance by Jessica Tandy.

The Rookie—This easygoing 2002 inspirational drama is about high school science teacher and baseball coach Jimmy Morris, who made his debut as a relief pitcher in the Majors at the age of 35. But much of the film is focused on Morris as a father, schlepping his adoring little son (Angus T. Jones) and baby daughter around with him, and surrogate-fathering the kids on his baseball team. We’re also shown Morris’s attempts to connect with his own distant father, played by the always-superb Brian Cox.

The Godfather—In this 1972 film and its 1974 sequel, The Godfather, Part II, we’re carefully and persuasively shown how Vito Corleone’s criminal empire grows out of his attempts to be a good father; we’re also shown how these pure intentions become corrupted, especially in his son Michael (Al Pacino). These are American masterpieces.


Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back—“No Luke, I am your father…” In this, the 1980 pinnacle of the Star Wars series, Darth Vader was established as arguably the most mythic father figure in all movies, and one of the darkest. Over the course of the six films, the character passes from youthful innocence to the depths of evil to a last-minute redemption, and reminds us that fathers are human, and that sometimes they teach us by showing us what not to do, and who not to be.

Friday, June 15, 2012

LET'S DO THE TIME WARP

Source material for film has ranged from, at the prestigious end, masterpieces of world literature and drama and momentous historical events, down the slide to pulp fiction and comic books to, in recent years, old TV shows and video games and even theme park rides. I suppose it was inevitable that sooner or later somebody would make a movie based on a classified ad.


Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke…You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.

This ad ran in Backwoods Home Magazine in 1997. Perhaps through its combination of mysterious content and matter-of-fact language, it gained attention online, even though, as it turned out, it was indeed a joke, penned by an editor as a space-filler. Now it’s been made into Safety Not Guaranteed, Colin Trevorrow’s sweetly amusing hybrid of slacker romantic comedy and science fiction.

The heroine is Darius (Aubrey Plaza), a woebegone, vaguely snarky nerd-girl intern at Portland Magazine. She and another intern, a lovelorn young Indian named Arnau (Karan Soni) are detailed to assist Jeff (Jake Johnson) a snide, obnoxious reporter for the magazine, to travel to an Oregon seaside town and investigate the ad. It quickly becomes clear that Jeff only pitched the story as an excuse to go to the town and reconnect with an old summer flame from his teen years, so Darius and Arnau end up doing most of the legwork.


Darius soon finds that the ad was placed by Kenneth (Mark Duplass), a strange but scruffily attractive stock clerk at a supermarket. She presents herself as a respondent to the ad. He’s mistrustful, but the two gradually bond, and begin to fall in love as they prepare for the trip back—but to what time period, and why?

If this all sounds a little on the too-cute-by-half side to you, I can only tell you that I went into Safety Not Guaranteed bracing myself for the worst in urban-hipster adorableness, and was won over. The script, by Derek Connolly, has some witty dialogue, and maybe more importantly a terrific structure that’s generous to all the characters, almost like that of a Shakespearean pastoral. The movie’s brevity helps, too. I might have preferred a lighter, more ambiguous touch to the movie’s final few minutes, but that’s just a personal taste.

Better still are the performances. I regret to say I’m not strong enough, in my dotage, to resist the charms of young Plaza, with her upturned, skeptical glower that shifts occasionally into an unexpected smile.


Just about everyone else in the cast brings something to the party as well. Indeed, the subplot involving Johnson—sort of a leaner, less virile Mark Ruffalo—was for me almost more successful than the main plot, in part because of the mature, grounded sexiness of Jenica Bergere as the old girlfriend Jeff’s there to see. He reconnected with her on Facebook, of course—a much more common way, these days, of going back in time.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

WAR ON CATERPILLARS

Friday evening the single greatest TV channel of all time, Turner Classic Movies, presents a tribute to director Ishiro Honda. It starts at 5 p.m. (Phoenix time) with Gojira (1954), followed at 6:45 p.m. by Rodan (1957) and then at 8:15 p.m. with...


Monster-of-the-Week:Mothra (Mosura, 1962), the title character of which is this week’s honoree (note that she’s “ravishing a universe for love”; I might have thought that she was “ravaging” it). She’s a gigantic insect god who in the course of the story goes from egg to caterpillar to cocoon to full-grown moth, all while single-mindedly working to rescue two diminutive captive maidens (played by singing twins Emi and Yumi Ito, aka The Peanuts) who are being exploited by a greedy businessman.

This one’s worth catching, if you’ve never seen it. It’s one of the most beguiling of the Japanese monster flicks.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

MALAGACHE TROIS

The Kid and I caught up with Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted.


The zoo animals—Ben Stiller as a lion, Chris Rock as a zebra, David Schwimmer as a giraffe, Jada Pinkett Smith as the hippo, etc.—are still trying to get back from Africa to New York, to re-take their places at the Central Park Zoo. This time, by wacky circumstance, they’re going by way of Europe, traveling with animals from a washed-up circus.

The movie’s no classic, but it’s kind of cute, in the frenetic, overproduced way of so many contemporary kids’ movies. It does contain two pretty splendid characters, however: One is Sonya, a mournfully deadpan dancing bear with whom an exuberant lemur falls in love—interspecies romance is rampant in these movies.


The other is the movie’s villainess, DuBois, a relentless, Vespa-borne juggernaut of an animal control officer from Monaco who chases our heroes across the continent, sometimes resorting to all fours herself to sniff their spoor—she covets the lion’s head for her trophy wall.


A terrific visual creation, DuBois is also well-voiced by Frances McDormand, who even gets to sing “Non, je ne regrette rien.”

RIP to Ann Rutherford, a prolific actress now best known for her small role as one of Scarlett’s sisters in Gone With the Wind, passed on at 94. I saw her a couple of years ago in Palm Springs, and even in her early ‘90s, she was quite the Hollywood vision in pink pantsuit and glam shades.


RIP also to Frank Cady, passed on at 96, best known for playing general store owner Sam Drucker in the Paul Henning universe—Petticoat Junction, Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies—and similar characters in dozens of TV shows and movies ranging from Rear Window to When Worlds Collide to The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. Like a lot of people, I was startled to learn that he hadn’t passed on years ago.

Friday, June 8, 2012

THE MOON ALSO RISES

As much as any Tolkien geek or Star Trek nut, Wes Anderson delights in invented worlds of immersive detail. At times he’s like a little kid, showing you the pictures he’s drawn in a spiral-bound notebook. The difference is that his invented worlds aren’t fairy-tale domains or distant planets, they’re embellishments on twee upper-middle-class Boomer-era culture, especially as experienced by adolescents, and by the eternal adolescents that this culture produced.

The conceit of Anderson’s Royal Tenenbaums (2001) was that we were seeing enacted a Salinger-esque midcentury Manhattan novel. In The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004) he went so far as to invent marine species, like the “Sugar Crab” or the “Jaguar Shark” (charmingly stop-motion animated by Henry Selick), for his titular TV star/explorer hero to chronicle.


His latest, co-written with Roman Coppola, is Moonrise Kingdom, a pubescent star-crossed love story set on fictitious New England coastal islands in 1965, and it’s as obsessively imagined as the rest. Anderson gives us maps, fake meteorological history delivered by an authoritative-sounding Chorus (Bob Balaban), a warren-like house with an intricate floor-plan, a made-up scouting organization for boys called the “Khaki Scouts”—with its own magazine, Indian Corn—and a series of “young reader” novels pored over by the heroine that truly look like the sort of thing you’d have found on a Bookmobile in that era. The movie is a ‘60s childhood as it should have been, but also, specifics aside, as it sort of was.

Said heroine is twelve-year-old Suzy (Kara Hayward), whose cold-fish Dad (Bill Murray) and repressed Mom (Frances McDormand) are both lawyers. At first the stonefaced Suzy is a little creepy, peering through binoculars out the windows of her handsome home, but even though she’s capable of violent outbursts she’s no bad seed. She’s a romantic, keeping vigil for her beloved.

He arrives in the form of Sam (Jared Gilman) a runaway from a Khaki Scout camp on the island. A year earlier, he saw her as The Raven in a local production of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde, and knew immediately he’d found the meaning of life. They talked only once, but she invited him to correspond, and he did not shirk.

The two of them run away together. Sam, an orphaned foster child, tries to impress her with his woodcraft, unaware that his ardor has already won her heart. They camp out, and she reads to him from her favorite books as he smokes a corn-cob pipe. Needless to say, their idyll drives the rest of the island into a tizzy.


Besides Suzy’s parents, the worriers include the earnest Khaki Scoutmaster (Edward Norton) and the slow-spoken, sad-sack Police Captain (Bruce Willis). The other Khaki Scouts treat the operation not as a search for two missing children but as a manhunt for potentially dangerous fugitives; they fan out, armed to the teeth.

More complications arise, including a Deus ex machina storm, and eventually a Social Services representative (Tilda Swinton in striking blue) and a Khaki Scout bigwig (Harvey Keitel) enter the action as well. Willis gives one of those performances that he’ll be remembered for after most of his action roles are likely forgotten, Norton is touching, the kids are excellent, and Murray and McDormand are effective even if they get less than usual to do here. Robert Yeoman’s water-color-ish cinematography is ravishing—there’s a shot of Willis crossing a church roof that has the austere devotional beauty of an image from Dreyer—and so is the music, by composers ranging from Alexander Desplat to Mark Mothersbaugh to Britten.

For me, Anderson has never topped his first two features, Bottle Rocket and especially Rushmore—one of my favorite movies—but Moonrise Kingdom, despite some clunky missteps toward the end, falls only a little short of these. Some parents may be uncomfortable with the (non-graphic) scenes of Suzy and Sam’s physical intimacy, and with the period-realistic tobacco habits of both Sam and the Scoutmaster, and in the course of the story an animal meets a jarringly awful (and gratuitous) fate that might be a deal-breaker for some kids (and some adults). But with these caveats duly noted, Moonrise Kingdom borders on the sublime.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

THE ILLUSTRIOUS MAN

A fond RIP to the great Ray Bradbury, creator of tales both ingenious and, at their best, achingly lyrical, passed on at 91.



Some of his many words of wisdom:

If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories — science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.

And...

"Stuff your eyes with wonder," he said, "live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal. And if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away. To hell with that," he said, "shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass.

You can watch/listen to my favorite tribute to Bradbury—for adults ONLY—here.



RIP also to professional limey-among-us Richard Dawson, veteran of Hogan’s Heroes, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and, of course, years of gratifying Yank women’s anglophilic fantasies as the host of Family Feud, departed at 79, as well as to Pedro Borbon, the mad Dominican middle reliever of the Cincinnati Reds, departed at 65. Borbon was immortalized in a throwaway gag in Airplane!: “Pinch hitting for Pedro Borbon…Manny Mota…

Still more RIPs: to actress Kathryn Joosten—Mrs. Landingham on The West Wingat 72, and to Russian singer Eduard Khil, of “Trololo” fame, at 77.

Finally, RIP to Tempe Improv partner Mark Anderson, found dead in a Buckeye hotel room. Here is an interview I did with Anderson for New Times in 2000, not too long before I went to work as a publicist for the Improv myself. I never got to know him well, but my boss there, Dan Mer, credited Anderson with helping to launch his own comedy-club management career at the time.

In honor of this week’s historic transit of Venus…



Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to the title character, a three-eyed bat-person with a morel for a head, of Zontar: The Thing From Venus, Larry Buchanan’s riotous ultra-low-budgeter from 1966.



The movie is actually a remake of Roger Corman’s It Conquered the World, and by comparison it makes It Conquered the World look like Citizen Kane, but if you have time to squander, you can watch Zontar in its entirety here.

Wasn’t “Transit of Venus” a book by Henry Miller?

Friday, June 1, 2012

SUPER-DUPER EIGHT

Almost a year ago, I offered my first novel, Super Eight Days, as an e-book on Amazon Kindle, for a mere 99 cents.

You can read about the circumstances that led to this literary landmark here if you like, but the short version is that I wanted to get the book up on Kindle before the release of the (unrelated) movie Super 8. Thus I hastily used a draft that had never been properly edited, or copy-edited, and I didn’t take the time to give it even a cursory proof.

It turned out this version was a lot rougher and more typo-riddled than I had realized, much to my embarrassment, and I heard about it from a couple of readers, who were a lot nicer and more polite about it than they needed to be. Then came an astounding offer from my cousin Natalie Nichols, an accomplished music journalist and editor on the LA scene who certainly has better things to do with her time: She would edit/copy-edit/format the book.

This she did, brilliantly and sensitively, and it’s that infinitely less slovenly version of Super Eight Days that you can now get on your Kindle, still for only 99 cents.

A thousand, thousand thanks, Cuz. You’ve saved the family honor.

RIP to actor Dick Beals, the eternal prepube falsetto who provided the original voices of Gumby and Speedy Alka-Seltzer, among countless others, passed on at 85...