Thursday, August 30, 2012


RIP to Muppet performer Jerry Nelson, passed on late last week at 78. Since Nelson has already been rightly celebrated as the voice of Count Von Count…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s note one of his less-remembered characters, the fanged, scaly, amorous Scred, from the Land of Gorch…

…part of the cast of the Muppet’s short-lived tenure on the first season of Saturday Night Live. Here he is singing "I Got You, Babe" with Lily Tomlin.

RIP also to Steve Franken, aka Chatsworth Osborne Jr. from Dobie Gillis, among many other roles, passed on at 80.

Monday, August 27, 2012


An old acquaintance of mine, now a college professor, recently paid me the huge compliment of asking if I’d send his students some notes on how to write a movie review (obviously he’d heard of the staggering fame and fortune I’ve attained from that occupation). Here’s what I wrote:

"There’s no set method to writing a movie review. One approach is to see yourself as a consumer reporter on the movies, carefully recounting the film’s attributes and offering your guess as to how much the 'average viewer' will like it. I used to look down my nose at this approach when I was younger, but I don’t any more. The 'average viewer' is a myth, I think, but even so your reader should be able to locate his or her own tastes in relation to that myth.

The opposite approach is to make the review a personal essay, with the movie basically serving as source material for you to riff on—in other words, to make it all about you. This is a less 'useful' approach, certainly, but it can also be enjoyable if the reviewer is a good writer. But I think that most sensible writers instinctively try something in between these two extremes when attacking the task of writing a movie review. Any device or conceit that helps you structure your review comfortably may be worth a try. Don’t feel like you have to cram every point about the movie into some short review—if you can’t find a place to discuss the cinematography or the music, or you just don’t feel any compelling need to discuss them, don’t worry about it. Focus on whatever aspects of the movie made the most vibrant impression on you, for good or bad, and try to say why. Sometimes I imagine a sort of fictitious 'Gentle Reader,' a friend who has asked me about the movie over dinner, and my review is my organized attempt to 'answer' them.

It can also be helpful to ask yourself what the movie you’re reviewing is trying to be. If it’s a horror movie or action movie or lowbrow comedy, it’s not fair to knock it for not being high drama. It’s fine to note that a certain genre isn’t to your taste, but you should usually make a good faith effort to decide if the movie in question is good of its kind.

The central thing to remember is, first and foremost, to make the review itself worth reading, and easy and fun to read, whether the reader is interested in the movie or not. I once heard Roger Ebert (I think it was) quoted as saying something to the effect that 90 percent of people who read a movie review do so just for the experience of reading the review; that they would never think of going to the movie, regardless of the reviewer’s opinion of it. So that’s my advice: create a piece of writing that’s worth reading, no matter what the movie is or what you think of it."

Saturday, August 25, 2012


Tonight The Wife, The Kid and Your Humble Narrator went to Chase Field to watch our beloved Diamondbacks take on San Diego. Alas, despite the pleasure of seeing Justin Upton...

...hit a two-run inside-the-park homer—on his birthday, no less—we still had to witness the wretched Padres rout the hometown lads, 9-3.

The evening was salvaged, however, by Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers, who played a lively post-game concert on the field. Clyne’s splendid, driving, high-energy set, which included his King of the Hill theme and his Diamondbacks victory song, made the earlier disaster a little more beautiful.

RIP to moon man Neil Armstrong, passed on at 82…

Friday, August 24, 2012


What happens when the hit man you hire to murder your mother falls in love with your younger sister? That’s the major dramatic question of William Friedkin’s new film Killer Joe, opening in the Valley this weekend at Harkins Camelview. The answer isn’t pretty.

Chris (Emile Hirsch), a small-potatoes Texas drug dealer, lives with his mother. His slow-thinking father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) lives in a trailer park with his slatternly waitress wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) and Chris’ angelically pretty, otherworldly younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple). As the story begins, Chris, dangerously overdue to a loan shark, gets Ansel to agree to arranging the death of Chris and Dottie’s mother, to collect a life insurance policy. The idea is that, with Dottie as beneficiary, Ansel, Sharla, Chris and Dottie will be able to split it four ways—once they’ve paid the killer.

Said killer is Joe Cooper, a cop who commits the occasional homicide as a side business. Joe (Matthew McConaughey) almost calls off the deal when he learns that his prospective clients don’t have the money up front, but he’s gotten a good look at, and had a nice chat with, young Dottie, and he agrees to take the job if Ansel and Chris agree to “give” him Dottie “as a retainer.” Ansel and Chris agree to this outrage, and from there things all go downhill, with noir-style twists and turns culminating in a grueling—if also somewhat campy—scene of Grand Guignol humiliation that may change your relationship with fried chicken forever.

Killer Joe is based on an early play by Tracey Letts, the 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winner for August: Osage County, and while Friedkin gooses the action around to different locations with some good jagged transitions, the basic theatricality of the material is unmistakable. There’s really nothing essential in this dialogue-driven piece that couldn’t have been managed well enough on one set, and seeing it performed live would have had an even more shocking impact.

It’s plenty shocking on film, though. Rated NC-17, Killer Joe isn’t for everybody. It’s an excellent showcase of ensemble acting, however, from Church’s hilariously pre-defeated line readings to Gershon’s lewd smirks to Temple’s sweet, guileless amorality. Hirsch’s role is tough; constantly in terror and/or rage and haunted by both pure and Freudian devotion to Dottie, he gets less of a chance to play for laughs than the others, but he’s still effective.

The star role, unquestionably, is McConaughey’s terrifying yet compelling Joe. Soft-spoken and polite, even gallant, with a clear, observant stare, Joe’s a lethal psychopath and a helpless fetishist, yet something about his formal manner makes him seem less chaotic and ruinous than Chris and Ansel, and it’s clear enough why Dottie’s disassociative innocence would appeal to him.

The attitude that Killer Joe dramatizes is one of the basic positions of noir: that Women Are Trouble. While the film doesn’t try to debunk this view, it also suggests that men are so stupid, crooked, brutal and perverted that they deserve that trouble.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


Animated monster pictures for kids are quite the thing this year. In addition to ParaNorman, in theaters now—and worth seeing, by the way—there’s Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, opening October 5, and on September 28, Hotel Transylvania, with Adam Sandler providing the voice of Dracula and…

Monster-of-the-Week: …Selena Gomez providing the voice of this week’s honoree, Drac’s daughter Mavis…

Here’s an amusing trailer, set to the tune of an irritating song that The Kid loves.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


If you had asked me, at the age of ten, who my favorite actor was, I would have said “William Windom” without hesitation. I wanted to be an actor when I grew up, but I didn’t especially want Robert Redford’s or Paul Newman’s or Steve McQueen’s career. I wanted William Windom’s career.

He’s fondly remembered for his Emmy-winning role in 1969’s My World and Welcome To It, from James Thurber’s work. But a short selection of Windom’s other movie and TV credits would include To Kill a Mockingbird, The Twilight Zone, The Americanization of Emily, Hour of the Gun, The Wild Wild West, Star Trek, Mission: Impossible, Hawaii Five-O, Love, American Style, The Girl With Something Extra, Medical Center, The Man, All in the Family, The Streets of San Francisco, Escape From the Planet of the Apes, Insight, Night Gallery, Petrocelli, Barney Miller, The Bionic Woman, Murder, She Wrote, She’s Having a Baby and Ally McBeal, to name, truly, just a few.

He was equally adept at heart-wrenching drama or wry comedy. He could play villains, authority figures or suffering everymen. He worked on top-notch projects and on pop-culture kitsch, and he brought an endearing, commanding presence to both. Forty years later, I see no reason to revise my choice of favorite actor.

Windom—the great-grandson, by the way, of U.S. Senator and Secretary of the Treasury William Windom, for whom the town of Windom, Minnesota is named—passed on this week at 88. RIP to him, and also, at 95, to the legendary Phyllis Diller.

Monday, August 20, 2012


RIP to Tony Scott, passed on at 68 by suicide. I despised Top Gun but I really liked some of his other movies, including his last, Unstoppable.

I won’t be the first to note this, but I was reminded that he changed the end of Quentin Tarantino’s script for True Romance—probably his best film—from tragic to happy simply, he said, because he liked the characters and wanted them to live. I love and honor the sloppy humanity of that cowardly artistic decision, and last night I felt infuriated at the man who made it then choosing to end his own life. But this morning we learn that Scott may have been afflicted with inoperable brain cancer, and I feel rather ashamed of my judgmental conclusion-jumping.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


ParaNorman, a zombie movie for kids—who’d’ve thunk it?—opens tomorrow, so…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to this handsome fellow, from the TV spots aired during the Olympics…

RIP to the hilarious Ron Palillo, passed on at 63, the same year as his fellow “Sweathog” Robert Hegyes.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


In the title The Odd Life of Timothy Green, the word “odd” is a bit of an understatement. Timothy is a little boy who grows, in a matter of hours, out of a vegetable garden after it’s been seeded with the wishes of his parents.

Cindy Green (Jennifer Garner) and her husband Jim (Joel Edgerton) live in the small town of Stanleyville, where Jim works in the failing pencil factory and Cindy gives tours in the pencil museum. As the movie begins they’re devastated by the news that they can’t conceive. That evening, with the help of some wine, they attempt to move on with their lives by collaborating on “making” an idealized kid, scribbling what they think he’d be like on scraps of notepaper and stuffing them into a little wooden box, which they then bury in Cindy’s garden.

From this sweet, poignant session of self-therapy, the movie swings into the truly odd. Later that night there’s a freak rainstorm which seems only to fall on the Green’s home, after which Jim and Cindy find a mud-covered boy (CJ Adams) of about ten, calling himself Timothy and referring to them as Mom and Dad, has slipped into the house. Timothy is fully formed, articulate, affectionate, funny. His only peculiarity—well, his major peculiarity—are the leaves that grow out of his ankles. He also has a tendency, when the sun emerges from behind the clouds, to respond by turning and opening his arms to bask in its rays.

What follows is a string of episodes in which Timothy’s apparently magical presence revitalizes his parents and their families, as well as the town. He makes a connection with a beautiful older girl, Joni (Odeya Rush), who acts as a sort of bike-borne guardian angel. Each time Timothy suffers a loss or has a growth experience, he notices one of his leaves going autumnal and falling off.

In other words, this is one of those self-consciously whimsical fantasies in which vague supernatural forces intercede positively in people’s lives; Field of Dreams, Phenomenon, Mr. Destiny and The Family Man are all examples. On the whole it’s a genre to which I’m resistant, not because I dislike fantasy (I love it) but because this particular sort so often seems tinged with middle-class self-congratulation.

That said, it should be admitted that some films of this kind are better than others—less shameless, less mushy—and that Odd Life is at the high end of the spectrum. The director is Peter Hedges, who wrote the script from a story by producer Ahmet Zappa. One can only guess what Ahmet’s late and still-lamented dad Frank would think of the film, but I’d be lying if I tried to claim that I got through without a misty eye.

It’s prettily produced, and the acting is strong. Jennifer Garner gave an excellent performance—the best of her career, maybe—in Juno as a similarly earnest, yearning wannabe-Mom. She’s very good again, and Edgerton, a ringer for the young Tom Skerritt, is pleasant company. The supporting cast is full of pros like David Morse as Jim’s distant Dad, Rosemarie DeWitt as Cindy’s pushy sister, Lois Smith and the great M. Emmet Walsh as a jolly aunt and uncle, Shoreh Aghdashloo as an adoption authority, and Dianne Wiest, Ron Livingston and James Rebhorn as representatives of the “Crudstaff” clan behind the pencil factory (by the way, not since Eraserhead, also about a strange parenting experience, has a movie been this interested in the composition of pencils).

These performers and others give Odd Life texture and vitality and a sense of the messiness of real life, which is the point of the story: The difference between parenting as theory and as scary, scrambling, humbling reality. Jim and Cindy are allowed to concoct a child out of their own best qualities, and they still find themselves using him as a pawn in their own agendas. At one point Cindy says “We didn’t want him to be perfect…we wanted it to be perfect…” “it” being Timothy’s childhood. She doesn’t seem to realize that this is possibly an even more insanely control-freak goal, and that even if it could be attained, the perfection would theirs, not the kid’s.

Monday, August 13, 2012


The Wife, The Kid and Your Humble Narrator are back, from a very hectic and way-too-short but extremely fun couple of days in Erie. We enjoyed:

Food: Filet at Ricardo’s, perch and shrimp at Smuggler’s, Chinese buffet at the Imperial (with a huge pack of siblings, in-laws, cousins, etc), chicken with kluski soup, ox roast, tongue, ham and salami at Gerry’s 8th Street Deli, walleye and fat, buttery clams at Joe Root’s Grill, Steffanelli’s chocolate, Mighty Fine donuts, Smith’s hot dogs, popcorn and Dippin’ Dots at a Seawolves game.

Other major highlights: We saw the Flagship Niagara sailing majestically into port, The Kid got to meet my pal Ronnie and his parrot Kiko, we went bowling with my pal Stan and his son Nathan at Greengarden Lanes. We fed gulls, ducks, geese and other Bayfront scroungers, and took in the view from the tower at Dobbins Landing.

Waldameer Park: The Kid and I rode The Whacky Shack...

...and The Comet—the smaller of the vintage amusement park’s two wooden rollercoasters—together, The Kid and my sister rode the Swinger, The Kid and The Wife rode The Paratrooper, The Kid and Deb’s pal Emma rode The Pirate’s Cove, and various combinations of the above rode The Tilt-A-Whirl and The Ferris Wheel. A blast.

The Zoo: We had a superb time at the Erie Zoo, where we saw Samantha, the sweet, heartbreakingly arthritic 48-year-old gorilla pat her companion bunny, Panda (introduced after the passing of her male companion Rudy a couple of years back). We also saw a baby orangutan, kangaroos, two red pandas, capybaras, Patagonian cavies, a sloth, and many many other cool creatures. On the whole I’d say it was a better experience than we’ve had at the Phoenix, D.C., or Guangzhou zoos.

Seawolves: As aforementioned, we saw the Seawolves get squalidly pummeled, 8-3, by the New Hampshire Fisher Cats (a Toronto Blue Jays affiliate). But Emma and Al took The Kid to the dugout, where Jerry Martin, an MLB warhorse now working as the Seawolves’ first-base coach, made a small fuss over her and gave her a game ball. She later got the ball signed by a ridiculously good-looking young player named Danny Fields, and also by mascot C. Wolf.

RIPs from while we were gone: to critic Judith Crist—an early influence, if I may be so presumptuous, on Your Humble Narrator—passed on at 90; to composer/conductor Marvin Hamlisch, startlingly passed on at 68; to Carlo Rambaldi, the special effects genius behind E.T. and Alien, among many others, departed at 86; and, at 78, actor Al Freeman, Jr., brilliant as Elijah Muhammad in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X.

Thursday, August 9, 2012


Again in honor of the London Olympics…

Monster-of-the-Week: …here’s another beast that made his name running amok in that town: The title character from Konga, producer Herman Cohen’s side-splitting saga of 1961…

…an ape made gargantuan by the particularly heartless and lecherous mad scientist Michael Gough. I bet the growth shots poor Konga gets throughout would have gotten him disqualified from Olympic competition.

Monday, August 6, 2012


When H. P. Lovecraft died, impoverished, in 1937, he wasn’t a famous writer. The scores of deeply messed-up horror stories he had published in Weird Tales and other pulp magazines during the ‘teens, ‘20s and ‘30s had won him a dedicated but small readership, some of whom had also become his friends by correspondence. After his passing, these devotees kept his work alive, but it was decades before he became widely known—the first movie versions of his stories didn’t appear until the ‘60s.

Most of these earlier movies—Die Monster Die! (1965), The Dunwich Horror (1970)—were pretty terrible, too, though often entertainingly so, and a short version of Pickman’s Model for the ‘70s TV anthology Night Gallery was respectable. 1985’s Re-Animator, from Lovecraft’s avowed 1922 potboiler Herbert West—Re-Animator, was a wildly funny sicko comedy, but it can’t really be said to capture the typical Lovecraft atmosphere, and neither have most other attempts.

It’s intriguing to speculate what a great director of the silent or early sound era, a Murnau or a Paul Leni or a James Whale or Tod Browning or Edgar Ulmer or Karl Freund, might have done with Lovecraft’s stuff. A few years ago, a group of maniacs calling themselves the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society set to work to find out—they produced a short, visually beautiful faux-silent adaptation of one of Lovecraft’s most accomplished tales, 1928’s The Call of Cthulu.

Now they’ve followed it up with a feature-length effort, out this past week on DVD, from 1931’s The Whisperer in Darkness. Shot in black-and-white, this one is a “talkie”—appropriately, since the yarn’s climactic effect hinges on the sound of a voice.

The story concerns the correspondence between Albert Wilmarth, a college professor, and Henry Akeley, an elderly, unwell man living in the wilds of Vermont, who claims that the local folklore about the Mi-Go, a race of sentient fungus monsters said to haunt the local forests, isn’t so farfetched. Wilmarth finally makes the journey to Akeley’s farm, and confronts the truth about the Mi-Go and their human allies.

The original Whisperer is vintage Lovecraft; this film is less successful than the Society’s Cthulu—despite the ‘30s-style trappings, it’s mostly unconvincing as a period-era movie, and it greatly expands upon the plot with (deliberately) campy embellishments, dissipating its macabre effect. I fear Lovecraft would have been appalled by the liberties taken with his material.

But then, why should he be luckier than any other author? Taken on its own terms, this Whisperer is still a highly enjoyable curio, full of startlingly images and bizarre humor, and empathetic performances by Matt Foyer and Barry Lynch as Wilmarth and Akeley. It isn’t really Lovecraft, but it’s cool.

Friday, August 3, 2012


There’s a central problem to Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, the third film adaptation of Jeff Kinney’s popular kids’ books. The movie is actually a conflation, combining episodes from the third book, DOAWK: The Last Straw, and the fourth, Dog Days.

The books, hand-lettered (or presented in a font that looks hand-lettered) and illuminated with Kinney’s riotous drawings, chronicle the adventures of Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon), an unathletic, video-game-obsessed preteen. Greg isn’t always a likable kid—he’s often a self-centered, wary, calculating little crud, and in this the books are similar to the TV series The Wonder Years, though without the nostalgic element they have a less reflective, more urgent edge. They’re also funnier.

The movie adaptations—of the first book in 2010 and the sequel DOAWK: Rodrick Rules last year—mix in animated versions of Kinney’s drawings, often introducing a figure as he or she looks in the books, then shifting to the live-action actor. More literal, they’re almost inevitably less edgy and funny. Without Greg’s tough-minded, unsentimental narration, a lot of the incident is really just low-comedy shtick. But as low-comedy shtick for kids goes, they’re quite agreeable.

Same goes for Dog Days, in which Greg struggles to construct a summer free of outdoor activities while staving off the threat that he might be sent to military school. He ends up accompanying his sweet-natured friend Rowley (Robert Capron) to a country club, also attended by the girl he likes, Holly (Peyton List), and claiming to have gotten a job there to impress his parents (Steve Zahn and Rachael Harris). Eventually Greg’s odious, rock-star-wannabe brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick) gets wise to him, and wackiness ensues. The comedic high point, probably, is Rodrick’s attempt to impress a girl he likes with his rendition of Justin Bieber’s “Baby Baby.”

The amusingly obvious problem—almost certainly the reason for hastily making two books into one—has to do with the differing rates at which humans grow. Gordon, the bright, lively young actor who plays the title role…well, he’s not a very wimpy-looking kid anymore. He seems, really, to be becoming what in Yiddish would be called a shtarker—thick-bodied, heavy-featured, substantial.

Thus director David Bowers can’t find enough low angles from which to shoot Devon Bostick to make it look like Greg would need to find Rodrick intimidating. Greg looks like he might even be able to take Steve Zahn, really. If he got sent to military school, he’d be running the place in a couple weeks.

Thursday, August 2, 2012


RIP to the brilliant Gore Vidal, passed on at 86.

In appreciation of the Olympic host city, not to mention all those countless long-suffering Moms of the athletes …

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week the honor goes to the title character in 1961’s Gorgo

This titanic sea monster is captured by the Brits and put on display in London...

…until his even more titanic Mum shows up in town…

You can check out some highlights here.