Last month we honored Mavis, daughter of Dracula in the animated kidflick Hotel Transylvania, opening tomorrow, so…
Monster-of-the-Week: …this week let’s recognize the Count’s original distaff offspring, and unhappy heir to his vampirism, Countess Marya Zaleska, title character of Dracula’s Daughter (1936)…
Memorably played by Gloria Holden in this first sequel to Universal’s 1931 Dracula, the Countess yearns to be free of her sanguinary—and sometimes Sapphic—appetites, but as usual, conversion therapy doesn’t take. This moody, restrained melodrama, directed by Lambert Hillyer, is maybe one of the less popular of the Universal monster pictures, but shouldn’t be overlooked.
RIP to my pal Barry’s cat Jimmy, passed on at 16. The gregarious Jimmy had a habit, when I was sitting on Barry’s couch, of gripping my head and licking the very top of my bald pate. Barry would scold him for it, but he would ignore him and continue. I didn’t mind. Jimmy was one of the more seriously cool cats I’ve ever met.
Be seeing you, Jimmy. If you ever feel like blessing me with a cosmic head-lick from above, go for it.
Having thrown a curve himself last month at the Republican National Convention—your own politics will probably determine whether or not you think he threw it for a strike—Clint Eastwood stays in the stands in Trouble with the Curve. But this time, the stands are where the action is. Both the speech and the movie make the same point, however—that Clint isn’t a kid anymore.
Clint plays Gus Lobel, a scout for the Atlanta Braves, veteran of decades of sitting in the stands with a notebook at high school games. Never exactly a ray of sunshine, Gus has been turned by old age into a snarling coot. His anger is understandable—it’s hard to pee in the mornings, and he needs a magnifying glass to read the paper. He can’t use a computer or any of the new statistical methods for evaluating players. But his real problem, professionally speaking, is the macular degeneration that’s placed a blurry horizontal band across the middle of his vision—right through his view of the strike zone.
A longtime widower, Gus has an emotionally distant relationship with his daughter Mickey (Amy Adams), an overachieving lawyer. An odious young whippersnapper (Matthew Lillard) in the Braves front office wants the GM (Robert Patrick) to get rid of Gus, whose contract is nearly up anyway, so Mickey risks losing a partnership at her firm to join Gus in rural North Carolina, and be his eyes as he scouts a slugging prospect.
While she’s there, Mickey—she’s named for her father’s favorite player—meets a former pitcher (Justin Timberlake) trying to carve out a post-playing niche for himself in baseball after washing out early. Guess what happens between them.
Except for an odd bit of backstory involving a horse, there’s really nothing unpredictable in Trouble with the Curve, either dramatically or visually—the plot’s resolution has, almost, a fairy-tale inevitability. The director is Eastwood’s longtime producer and assistant director Robert Lorenz, making his feature debut, but the style is very much the same as Eastwood’s—straightforward, unadorned narrative, unfolded at a leisurely pace. The dialogue, by Randy Brown, is likewise functional.
The good news is that the picture is still enjoyable and relaxing, thanks to the acting. Eastwood’s Do Not Go Gentle act seems effortless. His timing and his iconic, narrow-eyed expression make his spitting anger funny, and he has a convincing rapport with Adams and Timberlake, and especially with John Goodman, excellent as his boss and defender.
The supporting cast is full of old pros—Ed Lauter, Bob Gunton, Jack Gilpin, George Wyner, Raymond Anthony Thomas and even Chelcie Ross, who’s become a sort of sports-movie good luck charm, having appeared in Major League, Hoosiers and Rudy. These guys reinforce the movie’s point that while getting old is a drag, it doesn’t necessarily make you useless.
I must warn you, from here on I’m going to unload all the baseball metaphors I want. So: unlike the elegant, quietly intriguing Moneyball, released around this time last year, Trouble with the Curve isn’t a grand slam, or even a homer. Eastwood and company play small ball; they methodically get on, get over, get home. And at the end of nine, Clint puts another one in his lengthy win column.
The other night my 10-year-old detonated a psychic land mine from my past. We were walking along when suddenly she groaned and said:
“Oh, I can’t get that song out my head.”
“What song is that, sweetie?”
My eyes got big. “’Chicken Fat?’” I immediately started to sing:
“Push-ups, ev’ry morning, ten times!/Not just now and then…”
And then her eyes got big. “How you know that song?”
So I told her how. I exercised to “Chicken Fat” too, in Mrs. Robasky’s second-grade gym class, back at dear old Clark Elementary in Harborcreek, Pennsylvania in 1970. If you went to grade school, or summer camp, after 1961, there’s a chance you did too.
When we got home I consulted the inexhaustible pop-culture attic known as YouTube, and quickly found what I was looking for: “Chicken Fat,” aka “The Youth Fitness Song,” written in ‘61 by Meredith Willson, the genius behind possibly the greatest of American musical comedies, The Music Man, and rousingly sung by the great Robert Preston. With its catchy—indeed unshakeable—march-tempo tune, its typically witty, complex Willson lyric, and its rich orchestral and choral accompaniment, it really sounds like a discarded song from The Music Man, but it was written for the Kennedy-era President’s Council on Physical Fitness, in an attempt to encourage daily exercise.
Nine years after its release they were still using it at my grade school. And fifty-one years after its release, according to The Kid, her 5th-grade class—taught by a woman in her twenties, early thirties at the oldest—works out to that same Boomer-era relic every morning. Not just now and then.
I was amazed. I hadn’t thought about it in decades, but I had a very clear early memory associated with that record. At lunch one day I mentioned liking it to my friend Lonnie:
“That ‘Chicken Fat’ is a good song, huh?”
Lonnie’s face darkened.
“No,” he said. “I don’t like that song.”
This perplexed me. A lively tune like that—how could anyone not like it? I was too dense to grasp why Lonnie, who was what used to be called “big-boned,” might take offense at the song. But I do now, and I was startled to learn that, in this age of official sensitivity—and with even more chubby kids around now than there were in the ‘60s and ‘70s—a contemporary teacher would consider a song with lyrics like “…Once more on the rise/Nuts to the flabby guys/Go, you chicken fat, go away/Go you chicken fat go…” appropriate for classroom use. It’s hard to imagine Mrs. Obama approving of it, at any rate.
I’m not saying I object to its use, mind you—the continuity of it pleases me, really. But having developed over the decades into one of the “flabby guys” that Willson and Preston say “nuts” to, I must also wonder if the overweight aren’t one of those few groups outside the umbrella of political correctness, unprotected from disparagement.
Anyway, a few days later I was listening to “Chicken Fat” again, in my office, when The Kid came in and demanded that I get up and try the exercises. So I did—grunting and wheezing, while she looked on, convulsed with hilarity, and egging me on when she thought I was slacking. I only got through seven of the ten push-ups.
After this depressing debacle, I staggered into the kitchen, sweaty and panting. The Wife, ever terrified of finding herself a single mom, glowered at me.
“If the heart attack doesn’t kill you, I will,” she promised.
But I have to admit, once my heart rate stabilized, I felt pretty invigorated. No doubt about it, if my generation had worked out with Robert Preston every morning for the last half-century, we’d be a far healthier nation.
In his proud anthem “Smut,” the great Tom Lehrer celebrates his love of:
“Smut! Give me smut And nothing but A dirty novel I can’t shut If it’s uncut And unsubt- -tle.”
Tom, have I got a book for you. There are many adjectives that might be applied to Steve Shadow’s debut tomeSin-ema, but “subtle” isn’t likely to be one of them.
This book is like a lost work by Henry Miller, if Henry Miller was a grammatically challenged 13-year-old trying to impress his friends at a sleepover. It’s really, really dirty; if the public were to take notice of it, it could set relations between the sexes back 50 years, and American literature back 200 years.
And yet…it’s kind of a good book.
It was given to me by a friend, with a request from the author for a review. I was flattered, because even though I myself, badly in need of money, once wrote a porn novel—it was serialized, under a pseudonym, in Playtime magazine many years ago—I’m no expert on the genre. I’m not a porn consumer, partly because I don’t need help to get distractingly turned on, and partly because…well, because at heart I’m a repressed, uptight Protestant, and porn embarrasses me.
But Shadow’s Sin-ema, though it certainly embarrassed me, also entertained me. It’s written with such adolescent exuberance that I couldn’t keep a smile off my face while reading it, and about once a page it cracked me up.
The story couldn’t be much simpler. The narrator gets a job managing an adult movie theater in Chicago in the early ‘70s. This leads to him having sex with lots of different people, in lots of different combinations. Things get out of hand. The end. Sorry I didn’t give you a spoiler alert.
Sin-ema’s sexual politics are decidedly and unapologetically from another generation, though it should be noted that at times the narrator seems to show at least some, well, personal growth in that regard. The prose style is a train wreck, or rather, a series of train wrecks—each one caused by the runaway locomotive of the author’s headlong narrative gusto.
And Shadow sure does like the word “sure.” Every two or three pages, at most, somebody “sure looked well rehearsed and hot to trot” or “sure had a nice body for an older woman” or “had sure come out her shell.” There’s an absurd boyish charm to this tic. But for pure literary magic, I don’t think that Shadow ever tops a turn of phrase in the very first paragraph, when the narrator describes one of his appendages being “knee-deep in her mouth.”
I found myself wondering by what scale of knee this was being measured—the narrator’s, or the appendage’s, if it had knees? This mental image alone was enough to make me glad I cracked Sin-ema.
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal,” or so T. S. Eliot famously quipped. Maybe, but some writers have a hard time being so flippant on the subject of artistic theft (Eliot, it should be noted, was talking about inspiration and innovation, not true plagiarism). Even those of us who would never think of trying to pass off another’s work as our own on purpose—even if you didn’t get caught, there would be no pleasure in whatever success you attained—still live in terror of unconsciously appropriating a sentence, or a joke, or simply a turn of phrase from something we’ve read.
Thus the theme of The Words—the theft, by a writer, of someone else’s words—is troubling. It’s also potentially compelling, and while I’m still unable to tune into the star appeal that leading man Bradley Cooper clearly holds for many people, the movie, by the writing-directing team of Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, has a terrific supporting cast, and I went into it intrigued. The result, alas, is a good-looking movie that’s so banal and artificial, so enthralled by musty clichés about what an author’s life is supposed to look like, that the cautionary horror in the idea never takes hold.
Cooper plays Rory, an aspiring young writer living in Brooklyn who’s told by agents that his work is too subtle and “interior” to be published (really? I didn’t think there was any other kind of “literary” fiction). While they’re honeymooning in Paris—just like all struggling young writers get to do—Rory’s beautiful new wife (Zoe Saldana) buys him a beat-up leather portfolio in an antique shop.
One day while rummaging through it, he finds an old, yellowed typewritten manuscript of a novel tucked away in a hidden pocket—the novel, it turns out, he’d always wanted to write. He feels compelled to retype it, his wife reads it on his computer while he’s out and looks at him with new wonder, and before he knows it he’s handed it to an agent. It’s a smash, of course, wows the critics, wins awards, gets the book he actually did write sold. But pretty soon he’s confronted by an old man (Jeremy Irons) who lost a manuscript decades ago in Paris…
Though his lines aren’t any less forgettable and uninspired than anyone else’s, Irons gives them a muttering, ironic bite, like the sound of a damaged cello, that brings The Words whatever fun it has. The movie could have used a lot more of him. What really hurts, however, is the frame story through which it’s told: Yet another writer (Dennis Quaid) reading from his new novel The Words, and later telling the end to a sultry grad student (Olivia Wilde). This outer layer feels precious and evasive, and it leads the movie to an unsatisfying, anticlimactic finish—The Words ends not with a bang but with a whimper.
Um, I mean, not with a loud noise but with a soft, plaintive cry.
According to this AP story, a woman here in the Valley was stung by a scorpion, went to Chandler Regional Medical Center, then found that her part of the bill was about $25,000—her insurer having paid about $57,000. The hospital charges $40,000 per dose for the anti-venom, but the woman says she was never told this in the ER. So…
Monster-of-the-Week: ..this week’s honoree is the title character of 1957’s The Black Scorpion…
…the largest and most badass of the many giant scorpions, creations of stop-motion great Willis O’Brien, in that film. Scary though the huge arachnid is, he’s probably less terrifying than the prospect of a trip to the hospital for a minor injury.
RIP to the brilliant Hal David, passed on at 91, of the Bacharach-David songwriting team, whose finely-crafted, elegantly rhymed lyrics put to shame most contemporary pop lyrics—and, for that matter, most pop lyrics of David’s own time. Here is the excellent Gene Pitney singing perhaps my favorite Bacharach-David song, “(The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance.”
RIP also to the ebullient character actor Michael Clarke Duncan, departed way too young at 54. Duncan is best-known for his role in The Green Mile, for which he received an Oscar nomination, but I always remember him for his final scene in 2005’s The Island, in which he brought a sudden shock of horrifying pathos to that otherwise not very good movie.
I'm an award-winning movie critic, playwright, actor and director.
My work has appeared in publications ranging from the New Times weeklies (where I was a staff writer for several years) to USA Today, from Phoenix Magazine and Wrangler News and the East Valley Tribune to the Erie Times-News, Seattle Times and Detroit Metro Times to Rewind Magazine.
I'm that rare example of a living poet who has had a sonnet published in Weird Tales, and my poems have also appeared in Elysian Fields Quarterly.
I've acted in theatre productions in six states and the District of Columbia, and appear for about six seconds as an extra (a prison guard) in the John Waters film Cry-Baby.
I directed Shakespeare's Measure for Measure at Southwest Shakespeare Festival, and a short film called Holding Back the Dawn, based on a short story by my friend Barry Graham.
I was host of Another Saturday Night, a pop culture and film review show on KTAR radio.
I have produced, directed and acted in radio plays for NPR, KTAR and the Sun Sounds Radio service.