Wednesday, October 31, 2012

CHRISTMAS IN OCTOBER

Happy Halloween everybody!

Appropriate to the day, Your Humble Narrator would like to offer the great Kindle-reading public his new novel, The Night Before Christmas of the Living Dead; or, A Very Zombie Christmas


Like my first effort, Super Eight Days, it’s available on Amazon Kindle for just 99 cents. Unlike Super Eight, it’s a gruesome, raunchy, twisted horror tale crammed with gory violence, graphic sex, warped psychology and terrible language, all set against the backdrop of Holiday consumerism. It's not for kids, or for adults with decent sensibilities.

I’m hoping that a “dead tree” edition of the book will be available soon.

The art is by Vince LaRue.

Friday, October 26, 2012

CANDY LAND, PROMISED LAND

Two opening this weekend:


Fun Size: Wren, the teenage heroine of Fun Size, has been invited by the cutest boy at school to his Halloween party. Alas, at the last minute she learns that her recently widowed mother is planning to go to a party as well, and wants Wren to watch her weird little brother Albert, who’s been silent since his father’s death. While out trick-or-treating, Wren and Albert get separated; Albert has wacky adventures while wandering around lost, and Wren has wacky adventures while she frantically searches for him with her friends, including a nerdy boy who’s far better company than the hottie at the party, and who has a crush on her.

Understandably. Wren is played by Victoria Justice, an actress unknown to me but apparently already popular with the Nickelodeon crowd. I’m not saying she’s the next Meryl Streep, but she’s very pretty, with long dark hair and a reserved, somehow secretive smile, and she makes a charming center for this slight but pleasant John-Hughes-ish teen comedy, directed by Josh Shwartz from a script by Max Werner.

Oddly, though, the older set comes across even more strongly—Chelsea Handler is excellent as the pole-axed, walking-wounded Mom, and her scenes at the party manage to be both unpredictable and a little touching without asking for extra credit for it. There’s also a terrific performance by Thomas Middleditch as a scruffy, nattering convenience store clerk who befriends Albert, speaking to him without condescension, as one does to an instantly-recognized kindred spirit.

I think my favorite thing in Fun Size, however, was Albert’s costume: Spider-Man with a torn-off, bloody arm. He finds the stump effect at a costume store and insists on Wren buying it for him, despite her insistence on the nice wholesome Spidey costume, so the two end up combined. Not only is it right for the character—it suggests the extremity of poor Albert’s hurt—it’s a perfect depiction of a jumbled costume concept by any kid who wants to do too much with Halloween, which, irritatingly, only comes once a year.

And at Harkins Shea 14:



It Is No Dream: The Life of Theodore Herzl: In terms of style, It Is No Dream: The Life of Theodore Herzl is a flowing, highly accessible piece of filmmaking. A production of Moriah Films, the movie division of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Richard Trank’s documentary uses archive photos and a few talking-head interviews, along with a pretty, stately musical score by Lee Holdridge, and above all the voices of Ben Kinglsey (narration) and Christoph Waltz (Herzl’s words) to summarize the story of the Zionist visionary and, as context, of late-19th-Century anti-Semitism in western Europe.

The son of a banker, Theodor Herzl was born in Hungary in 1860 and raised in Austria, in a mostly non-observant, assimilated family. He studied law, but his real passion was literature, and he enjoyed some success early on as a playwright, and even more as a journalist, eventually becoming the Parisian correspondent for Neue Freie Presse, an important Viennese paper.

Though he had encountered anti-Semitism earlier, he claimed it was during his coverage of the Dreyfus Affair in 1894 that he became appalled by the rising tide of the sentiment in Europe. In 1896 he wrote Der Judenstaat, a short book outlining his belief that a Jewish State was the answer to this problem. He spent the rest of his relatively short life working to bring not only his own people but world leaders from Kaiser Wilhelm II to Pope Pius X to Sultan Abdulhamid II of the Ottoman Empire around to his point of view.

Herzl wouldn’t live to see the establishment of Israel, and if he had, of course, he still wouldn’t have seen the end of troubles for its residents. As a headline in one of The Onion’s history books put it: “War-Weary Jews Establish Homeland Between Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Eygpt.” (“‘In Israel, Our People Will Finally Have Safety and Peace,’ says Ben-Gurion.”)

This agonizing irony hangs over Herzl’s fascinating story. He was right about what must, at the time, have seemed a fanciful notion—a Jewish State, it turned out, really was no dream. But whether the goal behind its conception—a world free of Anti-Semitism and other obsessive, recurrent bigotries—is an attainable dream seems, more than a century after Herzl’s death, as uncertain as ever.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

UNTRUE BLOOD

Happy Halloween next Wednesday! That evening, Turner Classic Movies will be showing their ingenious 45-minute still-photo reconstruction, by restorer Rick Schmidlin, of Tod Browning’s 1927 lost silent London After Midnight, featuring…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week’s honoree, “The Man in the Beaver Hat,” with buggy eyes and a grin of nasty big pointy teeth...

This iconic vampire visage was created and played by the famed Lon Chaney, Sr., and [spoiler alert!]…



…it turns out that he’s fictitious even within the context of the movie: a policeman in bloodsucker disguise, part of an elaborate charade to get a murderer to crack and confess. It’s somehow more implausible than the idea that vampires are real.

Browning remade the film, entertainingly but with the same hard-to-swallow twist, as Mark of the Vampire in 1935, with Lionel Barrymore, Bela Lugosi and Jean Hersholt.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

IT'S ALWAYS FAIRY WEATHER

Out on DVD today, from Disney, is Tinker Bell: Secret of the Wings, the latest in a series of computer-animated adventures for junior-league pantheists and Wiccans, featuring Peter Pan’s fairy pal and her cronies. It’s set in Pixie Hollow, a magic land devoted to keeping the seasons running smoothly, and it concerns an illegal border crossing by Tink—a warm-weather fairy—into the realm of winter, where the fairies wear warmer clothes (though many of them still sport bare shoulders).


There Tink learns that she has a sister, Periwinkle, born of the same child’s laugh but separated at birth. The reunion, however, results in an upset of the natural balance, and the denizens of Pixie Hollow must struggle to stave off climate change.

It was screened for critics last weekend, and I can report that if you were cringing at the prospect of sitting through this one with your kids…don’t worry, it’s pretty good. While a little self-consciously girly and cutesy, these Tinker Bell flicks aren’t just direct-to-DVD junk; some true craft and heart has been expended on them. This one is colorful and exciting, and the superb, driving score by the underrated Joel McNeely kept me from nodding off.

Senator Arlen Specter, from my beloved home state of Pennsylvania, has passed on at 82. More than ten years ago I opened my front door one Saturday evening to see a hamster, apparently banished or escaped from some neighbor kid, on my front walk. I caught him, ran out and bought a cage and some food, and he was a part of our family for a couple of years, until he died, seemingly of a sudden attack of old age. His name was Arlen, because to me, his face resembled Arlen Specter’s.



(That isn’t actually a photo of Arlen the Hamster; I’m not sure any survive. But it’s pretty close.)

Plenty though there is for which to hold Specter in scorn, it must be admitted that he did something few people in America, regardless of their politics, have the courage to do—change his party affiliation when the party of which they’re a member goes, well, batshit crazy.

RIP, Senator. If you happen to see your little namesake over there, tell him I said hi.

RIP also to George McGovern, departed at 90. McGovern wasn’t the first candidate I can remember rooting for—that would have been Hubert Humphrey, in 1968—but he is the first I ever actively stumped for: I gave the speech for him to my (heavily pro-Nixon) 4th grade class.

RIP also to actor and activist Russell Means, passed on at 72.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

MY SCARE LADY

Since Turner Classic Movies is featuring a Hammer horror line-up this Saturday…  

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to a creature from one of the evening’s features: The woman (Susan Denberg) revived by Frankenstein, but infused with a vengeful male soul, in 1967’s Frankenstein Created Woman


Martin Scorcese admires this movie (try to hear the following in his rat-a-tat voice): “I like all Hammer films. If I singled this one out, it’s not because I like it the best—it’s a sadistic film, very difficult to watch—but because, here, they actually isolate the soul: a bright blue shining translucent ball. The implied metaphysic is close to something sublime.

Friday, October 12, 2012

LOM FACE

With his passing week before last, I’ve been thinking a lot about Herbert Lom, and I wanted to share another unforgettable Lom moment...


Last year The Kid and I were watching a lot of my old favorite monster and sci-fi movies together: Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, King Kong, Them!, Creature from the Black Lagoon and Tarantula, among others. The Kid seemed to enjoy them, and didn’t seem to be particularly scared by any of them. Then one slow afternoon I put on the 1961 Ray Harryhausen adventure Mysterious Island...



It didn’t occur to me to worry that this colorful, rather sunny fantasy would scare The Kid. But that, alas, was the one that got her—thanks to none other than Herbert Lom.

Lom had one of his more memorable roles as Captain Nemo…


…in the last third or so of that movie. In the climactic scene, Nemo is trying to escape from the sinking Nautilus when he gets pinned in the collapsing vessel. There’s a big close-up of Lom’s expressive face as his eyes roll, full of pain and suffocation and awareness of impending death. The next day The Kid reported that she was so haunted by Lom’s face that she had a hard time sleeping. Giant crabs and birds and tentacled bottom-dwellers, no problem, but a Czech actor’s face kept her awake.

Thereafter I was forbidden to show The Kid any more monster flicks, nor did The Kid herself show any enthusiasm for them (though as Halloween approaches she’s begun expressing interest again).

I couldn’t be too irritated by the ban, because…it occurred to me that the very same scene had creeped me out pretty good when I was a kid. Indeed, I have a memory of seeing that movie at my pal Lonnie’s house, and the same shot scaring Lonnie’s little brother enough that he fled the room.

So Herbert Lom, with just the look on his face, gave a couple of generations of kids the willies. What an actor.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

FOR WHOM THE DELL TOLLS

Today Your Humble Narrator enjoyed an excellent lunch at Haiku Grill with Vince LaRue, an up-and-coming illustrator who’s visiting from Normandy. Here we are just after…

In addition to my idiotic squint, I look like late-vintage Orson Welles.

This week (October 8) would have marked the 93rd birthday of Dead End Kid/Bowery Boy Gabriel Dell, so…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week let’s give the nod to Count Dracula. That is to say, to Dell’s vinyl version of Count Dracula, from the 1963 spoken-word album Famous Monsters Speak.


Each side of this LP, which was peddled in the back pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland, featured a dramatic monologue, one by the Frankenstein Monster, the other by Drac. The Frankie side doesn’t quite come off, but Dell’s Dracula, speaking Interview With a Vampire-style to a nosy writer who has disturbed his slumber, is memorable (it was scripted, by the way, by Cherney Berg, author of many spoken-word records for kids and son of Gertrude Berg, of radio’s The Goldbergs).


Dell was a comedian and impressionist after his Bowery Boys years, and he hammed his Bela Lugosi voice, which he had already played for laughs on The Steve Allen Show, to the corny hilt on Famous Monsters Speak. It creeped me out pretty good when I heard it at a friend’s house as a kid.

Years later The Wife, having no idea I knew the record, gave me a CD re-release of it. I still listen to it now and then—I just played it last week, to inaugurate October.

A couple more RIPs: To Alex Karras, passed on at 77, who despite his legendary status with the Detroit Lions will for many of us be most fondly remembered as Mongo in Blazing Saddles. I‘ll always disagree with his assertion that “Mongo only pawn in game of life.

RIP also to Turhan Bey. I was amazed, quite candidly, to learn he was still alive. He was 90; I was amazed he was that young. I always liked him, even when he was sending Kharis the Mummy off to murder somebody.

Friday, October 5, 2012

A STITCH IN TIME SAVES CANINE

Tim Burton gives the boy-and-his-dog movie a macabre but touching spin in Frankenweenie, a remake, from Disney, of his 1984 live-action short. Suburban boy-genius Victor Frankenstein’s beloved dog Sparky gets run over, but Victor, a science whiz, robs his grave and zaps him back to life in a makeshift lab in the attic, in the manner of James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein.


Other kids get wise to Victor’s revivifying technique and, dreams of science-fair glory in their eyes, try it on a dead turtle, rat, Sea Monkeys and other creatures. A “Weird Girl” even manages, inadvertently, to create a hybrid of her equally weird cat Mr. Whiskers with a bat. The results of all this weird science wreak riotous havoc on the town’s festival, and a raise an angry mob that chases Sparky toward the windmill on the hill…

Rendered in stop-motion and ravishing black-and-white, with a voice ensemble that includes Catherine O‘Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau and Winona Ryder, all propelled by a splendid Danny Elfman score, this striking piece of movie craft is an homage, principally, to the Universal monster pictures, though it also carries references to everything from Gamera to The Birds to the Hammer films. Indeed, if the film has a fault it’s that it’s too dense and overstuffed with references, witty though they are, for its brief running time.

But the characterizations compensate for the feverish tone of Frankenweenie's parody. Victor has a beautifully long, gloomy face—a bit like a boy version of Burton, perhaps; he’s a junior filmmaker as well as a scientist—and his grief isn’t just a plot point. His parents are a bit generic, maybe by design, but the kids, the science teacher, Weird Girl and Mr. Whiskers, the monsters, the neighbor poodle with whom Sparky has a connection—all of them are vividly real beings.


As for the title pooch, he’s classic; one of the all-time great achievements in stop-motion characterization. Sparky is so deeply endearing that he ensures an authentic emotional response to Frankenweenie. Both visually and as a piece of sustained narrative, this may be Burton’s most satisfying movie since Ed Wood. It’s one of the better films so far this year.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

GIBSON GIRL

The Diamondbacks wrapped up a streaky, often exciting, more often exasperating season Wednesday night with a 2-1 loss to the Rockies. Last Friday The Wife, The Kid and I betook ourselves to Chase Field, where we had the pleasure of watching the Snakes defeat the Cubs—which meant that we were over five hundred on our Diamondbacks season: we saw them lose once and win twice. The Kid got to see two of her favorites, Cody Ransom and J.J. Putz, have a good night; a homer for the former, and a successful close for the latter, and The Wife got to see a favorite of hers, John McDonald, make the Cubs pay for an insulting intentional walk ahead of him.

Here’s The Kid, cunningly disguised as Kirk Gibson…


She and I also saw Hotel Transylvania this past Sunday…



In this animated feature, which set a September box-office record last weekend, Dracula, voiced by Adam Sandler, presides over the title lodging, a palace so buried so deep in the region’s haunted forests that the familiar freaks—Kevin James as Frankenstein, Fran Drescher as his Bride, Steve Buscemi as the Werewolf, David Spade as the Invisible Man, Jon Lovitz as Quasimodo, Chris Parnell as the Fly—can go there and enjoy a nice vacation without worrying about persecution from pitchfork-wielding mobs of humans.

Drac really built the place, however, to keep his cute daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) safely insulated. But Mavis is 118 now, and eager to experience life, and when a human backpacker (Andy Samberg) wanders in, thinking the place is a hostel, he and Mavis connect.

The movie pays subtle tribute to the affectionate parody of iconic monsters popular in the ‘60s—there are hints, in the visual style, of Aurora’s “Monster Rods” models, of the art of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, of the Rankin-Bass feature Mad Monster Party. But at heart, this sweet film is just the story of a single father trying to deal with a daughter growing up: Scarier than any monster.

Out on DVD this week is Disney’s 1950 version of Cinderella. I hadn’t seen it in many years, but had an opportunity to this weekend. Not to my taste among the animated Disneys—the Mack David-Al Hoffman-Jerry Livingston songs, including “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” play pretty schmaltzy now—it nonetheless holds up well. Cindy seems to be the archetypical Suzy-Creamcheese Disney Princess, the one Amy Adams was parodying in Enchanted, assisted by birds and mice as she sings her way through crushing housework. The Wicked Stepmother is an imposing villainess, a low-key version of the Queens in Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.


RIP to the wonderful Herbert Lom, passed on last week at 95. Like many kids of my generation I first encountered him in the title role in Hammer’s 1962 version of Phantom of the Opera...


…and it’s his version that comes to my mind first when the character is mentioned. But he’s probably best remembered as the increasingly maniacal Chief Inspector Dreyfus in the Pink Panther films...


His many other credits include, to name only a few, Spartacus, El Cid, Mysterious Island (as Captain Nemo), Asylum, And Now the Screaming Starts!, Hopscotch and The Dead Zone, as well as two turns as Napoleon Bonaparte, in The Young Mr. Pitt (1942) and War and Peace (1956). He also played the very nasty Witchfinder in the notorious German shocker Hexen bis aufs Blut Gequalt, released in the U.S., with many barf-bags gimmicks, as Mark of the Devil.

RIP also to R. B. Greaves, famous for “Take a Letter, Maria,” passed on at 68.

Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie opens tomorrow, so…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to a supporting monster in that film, a gigantic, Gamera-esque turtle…

…who runs amok in the streets. What’s the rampaging reptile called? “Shelley.” In addition to being a good pun, the name could also be seen as a reference either to Mary Shelley, or to Shelley Duvall, who starred in Burton’s original live-action short Frankenweenie. Or both. Not bad, that.