Thursday, November 29, 2012

MASS APPEAL

It’s claimed that Larry Hagman despised I Dream of Jeannie, the hit show in which he starred from 1965 to 1970. It’s a shame if so, because Hagman, who died last weekend at 81, was really good on it. He was likable as Major Anthony “Tony” Nelson, an astronaut who finds a genie in a bottle—gorgeous, magically all-powerful and unshakably devoted to him—which somehow turns his life into a door-slamming farce.


But he wasn’t only likable—as an actor, he was up to the demands of that farce. Although Barbara Eden, who played Jeannie, Bill Daily, who played Tony’s goofy fellow astronaut and pal Roger Healey, Hayden Rorke, who played their perpetually baffled superior Dr. Bellows, and others on the show were highly amusing, Hagman, son of musical-theatre great Mary Martin, was the energy that kept the silly, occasionally surreal stories buoyant. He was a gifted physical clown, very able to take a pratfall or a wide-eyed double take, or to let out a hilariously panicked bleat.

A product both of the vogue for fanciful sitcoms and of the enthusiasm for the space program in the mid-‘60s, the show grew its farcical situations out of Tony’s frantic efforts to keep Jeannie’s existence a secret, and to explain away the bizarre results of her magical shenanigans. As kids, a lot of us wondered why he bothered, but Hagman’s comic desperation was so infectious that it didn’t matter.

I grew up watching I Dream of Jeannie, and so remember Hagman much more vividly from that than from the role he reportedly liked better, that of snaky Texas oilman J. R. Ewing from the prime time soap opera Dallas. It was there that he made his most famous mark on pop culture, as the object of the “Who Shot J. R.?” cliffhanger. Though I well remember the craze, I wasn’t a Dallas viewer, so while my glimpses of the show suggested that Hagman indeed enjoyed playing J. R.’s rottenness to the gleeful hilt, he’ll always be the hapless Tony Nelson to me.

Hagman was also a director, of many episodes of Dallas and In the Heat of the Night and other shows, but of just one feature film, a favorite of mine…

Monster-of-the-Week: …1972’s Beware! The Blob! This facetious, and genuinely funny, sequel to the 1958 sci-fi classic The Blob has the title amorphous mass, this week’s honoree, coming back to life, this time to gobble up hippies and barbers and stoned egg farmers, eventually enveloping a bowling alley/skating rink.

In outline, it’s a standard creature-feature sequel; what makes it special are the set-piece ensemble scenes, many with an improv-comedy flavor, performed by a cast that includes Robert Walker, Jr., Godfrey Cambridge, Carol Lynley, Dick Van Patten, Cindy Williams, Marlene Clark, Shelley Berman, Del Close and an uncredited Burgess Meredith, among many others—in short, by one of the stronger casts that Hagman ever got to work with. The lovely leading lady, Gwynne Guilford, is the mother of the rising young star Chris Pine.

Long unavailable on video, Beware! The Blob! may be watched in its entirety here, and I highly recommend…with one caveat for sensitive souls: The cutest kitten in movie history cavorts under the opening titles; within minutes it’s blob-chow.


Later, the same thing happens to a cute little dog.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

THE NORMAN HEART

Out on DVD today: The excellent little stop-motion-animated kiddie-spooker ParaNorman.


It starts with the same premise as The Sixth Sense—a little boy who sees dead people. It’s up to Norman to figure out the secret that raises six rotted corpses from their graves and sends them shambling through the streets of the small town where he lives. The movie is imaginative, generous-hearted and funny, though with a surprisingly dramatic and poignant revelation at its core. Best of all, it avoids the sterility that haunts so many contemporary animated movies—Norman’s home town has a grubby, hardscrabble look, like a shop town down on its luck, that’s very refreshing.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

FROST HIT

Given his abstract-impressionist’s brush on window glass, you might imagine Jack Frost would be the artsy, snooty sort. But according to Rise of the Guardians, Jack’s a friendly, mischievous boy, eager for acceptance, dismayed that the kids who have him to thank for snow days and sledding fun can’t see him.


Jack, voiced by Chris Pine, is the hero of the computer-animated flick, conflated from William Joyce’s series of children’s books. The title characters are the legendary or allegorical figures who watch over childhood wonder, hopes and dreams. The others include Santa Claus, voiced like a radio-comedy Russian by Alec Baldwin, the Tooth Fairy, a winsome half-woman/half-hummingbird voiced by Isla Fisher, and the tough, Aussie-accented Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), who comes armed with a boomerang, but also has the tendency to leave a blooming flower in his burrow’s wake.

Best of all, maybe, is the Sandman, a roly-poly sort who doesn’t speak, but communicates by shaping his thoughts in sand over his head. They’ve all received their commissions from the omniscient—and thus, of course, highly enigmatic—Man in the Moon, and now it’s Jack Frost’s turn. If he becomes a full-fledged Guardian, then the kids may actually believe in him like they do Santa or the Bunny, and thus be able to catch a glimpse of him.

The menace is Pitch Black, aka the Boogeyman, given a nicely ironic, tut-tutting voice by Jude Law. Pitch is a simply pale figure in a brown robe, attended by a stamping herd of terrifying black horses—nightmares, of course.


Nostalgic for the Dark Ages, the salad days of terror and despair, Pitch looks to make a comeback, and he’s no minor adversary. So the Guardians must put aside their egos and grudges—even the Bunny, who resents Jack for the “Blizzard of ‘68” on Easter Sunday—and unify to defend childhood wonder.


Like last year’s fine Arthur Christmas, among other kid movies, Rise of the Guardians plays with the childhood desire to literalize and reconcile the difficult logistics connected to the duties of these symbolic figures, and does it in funny and imaginative ways. It also features an exciting action finale and many good jokes and some thrilling images, like the Sandman’s good dreams—sand-cast dinosaurs and sting-rays and dolphins—trooping to the rescue down suburban streets. That it’s not the best animated movie of the year testifies not to its weakness but to the genre’s strength these days.

RIP to the excellent Larry Hagman, passed on at 81, and to lovely Deborah Raffin, passed on at 59. More about the redoubtable Hagman, and his contribution to Monster-dom, in the next edition of Monster-of-the-Week.

Friday, November 23, 2012

HUSBAND AND KNIFE

It’s possible that I’m not the best judge of Hitchcock.


It’s a movie about the making of Sir Alfred’s 1960 classic Psycho, which is, truly, one of my two or three favorite movies. It has a fine cast, including a number of extremely attractive actresses, two of them—Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel—decked out in Psycho costumes. It’s set in an elegant recreation of Hollywood swank, circa the late ‘50s.

For all of these reasons, I enjoyed it. But I don’t know that even all of them together quite make it a good movie. Hitchcock, directed by Sacha Gervasi, from a script by John J. McLaughlin based on Stephen Rebello’s Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, is fun to watch, but somehow I couldn’t quite find it convincing.

The main reason, I think, lies with the title personage. He’s played by Anthony Hopkins, padded and plastered to resemble the great man, to little avail. Powerhouse though Hopkins is, he couldn’t make me believe he was Alfred Hitchcock, or even simply forget he’s not Hitchcock, which might have been enough. It isn’t his fault—I don’t think any actor could. I haven’t seen the HBO movie The Girl, about the making of The Birds, but I hear Toby Jones doesn’t really swing it either.

The word “inimitable” is thrown around a lot in show business, but beyond the level of an easy Rich Little impression, Hitchcock really is inimitable, at least for someone of my generation. His canny on-camera self-promotion made him indelible to Boomer-era TV viewers and moviegoers. Nobody looks like that—for all the heroic efforts of the make-up folk, Hopkins looks more like late-vintage Rod Steiger than Hitchcock—nobody sounds like that, and nobody, I think, is really likely to capture that same grave drollery of manner. Hopkins gives a sometimes funny, sometimes touching portrait of a weird repressed middle-aged guy, but not of this particular weird repressed middle-aged guy.



Similarly, Hitchcock overplays its hand in dramatizing the making of Psycho. That film, as hardly anyone needs to be told, is Hitchcock’s modestly-budgeted, brilliantly-crafted California-gothic about Norman Bates, a sweet young motel manager who has an unusually close relationship with his mother—lethally close, to any strangers who encroach on it. It was adapted from a lurid little novel by Robert Bloch, which was in turn loosely based on the much grimmer real-life exploits of Wisconsin psychopath Ed Gein in 1957.

Hitchcock was slumming a bit when he took on the project, no doubt, challenging himself to make a profitable low-budget shocker, using the crew from his TV series, instead of the glamorous, romantic Technicolor thrillers he’d been turning out for the last decade or so. It’s doubtful he could have guessed he was making the movie for which he’d be best remembered.

Gervasi's film, on the other hand, tries to generate dramatic urgency by creating the sense that Psycho was a make-or-break crisis point in Hitchcock’s career. Much is made of Hitchcock’s own investment in the project, though the practical minded Mrs. H (Helen Mirren) points out that the peril to their fortune is along the lines of having to buy domestic rather than imported pate de fois gras. Gervasi and McLaughlin even resort to showing Hitchcock’s dreams haunted by the specter of Ed Gein (Michael Wincott). This feels like an overwrought reach.

So Hitchcock comes to life, mostly, in incidental episodes, and in the cast—James D’Arcy absolutely nailing the small role of Anthony Perkins, Toni Collette, ravishingly chic as Hitchcock’s right arm Peggy Robertson. Biel looks great as Vera Miles, and Johansson really did her homework as Janet Leigh, perfectly capturing Leigh’s pursed-lipped, mock-perplexed cock of the head (I did wonder, though, why Leigh and Miles ever needed to be on the set on the same day).


It could be argued, however, that Sir Alfred isn’t the the true title character of Hitchcock anyway. The film’s best element is Helen Mirren as Alma Reville Hitchcock. The good lady had been the director’s editor and screenwriter/script-doctor in the old days, and was still his most trusted adviser. In Mirren’s sharp, jumpy turn, she’s a clear-thinking, patient sort, but flustered and emotionally hungry from her husband’s neglect, and susceptible to the seductions of the screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston).


Mirren’s vibrancy turns Hitchcock, at its best, into a mild comedy about a sexually frustrated middle-aged married couple; the fact that they were responsible for Psycho becomes a secondary matter. Yet Gervasi and McLaughlin do virtually claim for Alma an uncredited hand in the Psycho screenplay. While they go quite a bit farther with this suggestion than Rebello’s book does, there can be little doubt of how much he owed her (he was always fulsome in his praise of her). If the movie does nothing more than drag Alma’s role in the Hitchcock story out of her husband’s formidable shadow, it’s served a worthwhile purpose.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

HORNING IN

Happy Thanksgiving everybody!

In honor of that holiday…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s turn to classical mythology for this week’s honoree, the river god Achelous, sometimes depicted as a sort of snake or fish monster, as in this pottery…


…or in Francois Joseph Bosio’s sculpture in the Louvre…


…and sometimes depicted as a giant bull, as in this mural by Thomas Hart Benton…


But what does Achelous have to do with Turkey Day, you may ask? Well, while scrapping with Hercules, Achelous got one of his horns ripped off, and, according to Ovid at least, said appendage became the Cornucopia, or Horn of Plenty. May it shower bounty upon us all.

Friday, November 16, 2012

ABE PLUS

It’s understandable if, after endless months of venomous, bitterly divisive politics, you aren’t particularly in the mood for a movie about a venomous, bitterly divisive period in American politics. But it would be a shame if political burnout kept audiences away from Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s amazing movie built around the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th President.

Honest Abe has been irresistible to moviemakers for more than a century, depicted sometimes reverently, as in D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln (1930), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) or Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940), and sometimes irreverently, as in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) or this year’s Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. His achievements in office, his unassuming manner and his tragic end have, in the movies, generally resulted in one extreme or the other—either he’s a secular folk saint, or else he brings out the urge to spoof. There was TV miniseries called Lincoln back in the ‘80s, based on Gore Vidal’s book and with Sam Waterston as Abe, that made some effort to delve into the man’s psychology, but as I recall it was pretty slow going.

Spielberg’s film takes its time, too, and it’s pictorially beautiful. The cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, infuses his compositions with a muted radiance that still seems realistic and immediate—the whole movie feels like a spring thaw. Yet it’s no iconic hagiography, and the unhurried pace that Spielberg sets gives the story a rising hum of dramatic energy. It’s not a tour of wax-museum tableaux from the man’s life. Surprisingly, and to the movie’s great benefit, it’s a story of nuts-and-bolts politics: the seemingly insoluble legislative wrangle to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, ending slavery in the United States.

The script, by Tony Kushner, is partly adapted from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. The title suggests the difference in the new film’s approach. Political genius isn’t the first thing we associate with Lincoln. Yet the movie suggests that it was skill—at strategy, at marshalling favors and muzzling enemies, and at navigating the moral ambivalence of deep compromise—that, paradoxically, led him to accomplishments of moral grandeur.

Spielberg is at the top of his form here. I think film critics and buffs have, in a sense, underrated him for years. After his initial great success with Jaws and Close Encounters and E.T., he made some really terrible movies in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s—pushy, cloying, evasive stuff like Hook and Always—and many viewers naturally assumed that he was just going to be a sentiment-peddler forever. Some of them, I think, didn’t notice that Spielberg’s films in the ‘90s and early 2000s, though often highly uneven in terms of script or casting, were stunningly directed. Amistad and Munich and Saving Private Ryan and War of the Worlds were all flawed, but they were the often mesmerizing work of a master filmmaker—indeed, of a master filmmaker who had rediscovered and deepened his art.

We see this again in Lincoln, from the first images—of a horrifyingly bloody and brutal Civil War battle—to the first few lines of dialogue, as Lincoln converses with two black Union soldiers of very different temperament, and then with two awestruck white soldiers. There’s a weird and complex play of symmetry and conflicted agenda and formality and off-handedness, all presented with an effortlessness of revelation, that few other directors could have managed, or would even have thought to attempt.

What allows Spielberg to maintain this level of mastery through all that follows is the script. Kushner, who wrote the magnificent Angels in America plays, is one of the few contemporary dramatists who is both capable and unafraid of high-flown language, and the 19th Century idiom allows him to cut loose in this regard without sounding overly stylized.

Yet for all of Spielberg’s and Kushner’s brilliance, and for all the splendors of Kamisnki’s camera, what makes Lincoln unique is Daniel Day-Lewis. Like the movie, his Lincoln will not suit all tastes, but for me, it’s one of the great performances in, maybe, the history of movies. It’s up there with Falconetti as Joan of Arc and Brando in The Godfather, and nobody but Day-Lewis could have given it.


A number of people I’ve talked to have been put off by the voice he uses—a thin, soft, upper-register drawl instead of a stentorian baritone. This is thought to be historically accurate, I believe, but it also works in the context of the character as Spielberg, Kushner and Day-Lewis conceive him. The movie operates on the premise that Lincoln was a compulsive raconteur. Again and again throughout the film, he stops, chuckles to himself, and launches a maddeningly digressive anecdote, and everyone in the room, even his friends and allies, look miserable as they sit there and wait for the punchline. This recurring gag, and the voice, connect to the idea that as a speaker Lincoln preferred quiet eloquence to thundering oratory, and as a leader preferred self-deprecating persuasion to conquest.

Day-Lewis doesn’t give the only fine performance in the film. Sally Field strikes the right strained yet sympathetic note as Mary Todd Lincoln; Joseph Gordon-Levitt is moving as Robert Lincoln, and Tommy Lee Jones lets it rip as Radical Republican abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. Less flashy than Jones but just as essential to the movie is David Strathairn as Seward, and then there’s Bruce McGill as Stanton, and Jared Harris as Grant, and Jackie Earle Haley as Alexander Stephens and Gloria Reuben as Elizabeth Keckley and Hal Holbrook as Preston Blair and James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson as three comically shady political operatives, among many other creditable turns.

Lincoln is, ultimately—and perhaps to its commercial peril—a movie of remarkable restraint. Spielberg, Kushner and Day-Lewis eschew almost every opportunity for melodrama. Even the score, by John Williams, keeps its voice down. Yet the cumulative effect of this low-key movie is, at least for one viewer, overwhelming.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

STAKES' RIGHTS

With Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln opening this weekend…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to Adam, the antebellum bloodsucker with Confederate sympathies, who takes on Honest Abe in the terrible but sort-of-amusing movie of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter:


Here’s Adam, played by Rufus Sewell, before and after dining:


Monday, November 12, 2012

HUSH HUSH SWEET SILENTS

Out this past week on video are two delightful silent-movie collections from The Milestone Cinematheque:



Cut to the Chase! The Charley Chase Collection: Of the great silent comics whose work is still widely watched and enjoyed, Chaplin probably comes in first, with Keaton a close second and Harold Lloyd a fairly distant third. Charley Chase would probably be a still more distant fourth, but perhaps this fine assortment of sixteen shorts will help to raise his profile.

Said profile certainly had an impressive forehead to begin with, high and steep, over a long, mustachioed, irked face, strong if not quite handsome, lively if not quite smart, likable if not entirely trustworthy. That sort of sums up his persona, too. If you’ve ever rolled your eyes a little at the self-consciously poignant innocence of Chaplin or even of Keaton, you might find Chase’s company refreshingly unsentimental. He’s a shady screw-up, a frustrated wannabe hustler, but he’s much more like somebody you’d actually know.

Among the selections on this set are two new to video: The Leo McCarey-directed Charley My Boy of 1926, and a funny 1925 heist-movie spoof called The Uneasy Three—presumably in reference to Lon Chaney, Sr.’s bizarre caper yarn The Unholy Three, from the same year. In the latter, Chase, the extremely adorable Katherine Grant and the extremely un-adorable Bull Montana pose as musicians to infiltrate a society soiree in hopes of purloining a jewel. Other highlights include April Fool, in which practical jokes lead to grief in a newspaper office, and Isn’t Life Terrible?, in which Chase attempts to sell pens door-to-door, including to an impossibly cute Fay Wray.


Mary Pickford: Rags & Riches Collection: This set offers three of the vibrant, playful young star’s feature vehicles—The Poor Little Rich Girl, The Hoodlum, and maybe her most memorable film for modern audiences: 1926’s Sparrows, William Beaudine’s crazy, gripping melodrama about the children trapped in a fortress-like “baby farm” in a remote, gator-infested swamp, controlled by the vile Mr. Grimes, played by Gustav von Seyffertitz in one of the great villainous turns ever. Pickford is splendid as the plucky surrogate-mother heroine trying to lead them to salvation.

Also included is a short, Ramona (1910), a grimly tragic “story of the White man’s injustice to the Indian,” based on Helen Jackson’s novel and shot in Ventura County. There are also some unconvincing contemporary sketches at the beginning of the films about kids being introduced to the joy of silents. Sparrows, at any rate, should require no such cajoling.

And while we’re on the subject of Milestone Films, check out how the company is attempting to restore the remarkable 1967 indie Portrait of Jason by Shirley Clarke, and how you can help.

Friday, November 9, 2012

WAYNE'S WORLD

The first thing to say about the documentary Beauty is Embarrassing is that it’s a profile of an artist. The second thing to say, hastily, is that it’s not boring or effete, even if you’re not a gallery rat.


This is also true of its subject: Wayne White, a southern-born, L.A.-based eclecticist. White gained prominence as a set designer, puppet-maker and puppet performer on children’s TV shows, notably the classic Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. He’s also been a music-video art director—Smashing Pumpkins' “Tonight, Tonight” and Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time”—an animator, a cartoonist, a musician (banjo) and a painter. His signature works are “word paintings”—ambiguous phrases, often peppered with the f-word, spread grandly across conventional landscapes White buys at thrift shops.


The movie’s title is an example of the sentences or sentence-fragments in these paintings, others include “HOT SHOTS AND KNOW-IT-ALLS” and “FELL 37 MILES TO EARTH 100 YEARS AGO” and “HID IT IN THE WOODS” and “THAT SHIT WAS DEEP” and “ENOUGH HAIR ON MY ASS TO WEAVE A NAVAJO BLANKET” and simply “FANFUCKINTASTIC.” Something about the epic treatment that White gives these elliptical scraps of sarcasm makes them both funny and resonant; he’s like a cranky, foul-mouthed, cracker Warhol.


What makes him—and the movie—lovable is the sense of a passionate aesthetic drive blended with a detestation of aesthetic pretention: an intense, unfashionable belief in the value of art as entertainment. Directed by Neil Berkely, the movie just chronicles the shaggy-bearded, sheepish White’s inummerable strange projects and seemingly pleasant, stable family life. Berkely has no pressing agenda apart from bringing his subject to our attention—the movie seems to be saying “This guy exists, and this is how he lives. Isn’t it cool?” Indeed it is.

Beauty is Embarrassing plays here in Phoenix through Wednesday at FilmBar. It’s also available now on Video-On-Demand.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

BAD HAIR DAY

Continuing our reptilian theme from last week...

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s notice a lady with a stylin' serpentine coiffure from the wonderful world of Hammer Films: The Gorgon Megara, played impressively by Prudence Hyman…



…in 1964’s The Gorgon.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

BALLOT POINTS

Playing through November 6 at FilmBar in Phoenix is Electoral Dysfunction. It’s a light, humorous documentary about a serious, daunting subject—the undemocratic, unnecessary yet seemingly unshakable weirdness of the voting system in America, especially the Electoral College.


Directed by Leslie D. Farrell, Bennett Singer and David Deschamps in the style of a human-interest TV news story, with Mo Rocca as quipping host and interviewer, and buttressed with amusing Schoolhouse-Rock-style animation, the film is lively and funny and informative. Much of it follows Rocca as he follows the 2008 election from the perspective of poll workers and canvassers in Indiana’s Jennings and Ripley counties, and the unembarrassed, energetic, civic-minded spirit of the people he shows us is heartening, and, I must admit, more than a little surprising.

Because of its droll approach, I enjoyed Electoral Dysfunction. No small achievement this, as the subject is one of nerve-jangling irritation to me, in light both of the ongoing annoyance of the baroque, archaic Electoral College and the distortions it creates in Presidential politics, and also of the vile attempts, in recent years, to block voting in a baldly partisan way in parts of the U.S.

I know it speaks poorly of me, but most news stories on voting rights and voting access abuses send me channel-surfing or fleeing the room, because there’s something about that kind of bad-faith politics that makes me feel helpless. The (mostly) honorable people Rocca chronicles—on both sides—made me ashamed of feeling this way.

A couple of odds and ends: Adults ONLY check out this knavish comic written by Barry Graham and illustrated by Vince LaRue.

The website JabCat on Movies, to which I’m proud to be a contributor, has recently launched a state-by-state guide to art house theatres in the U.S. Check it out here.


Finally, a consumer note: Today I drank a Lime-Cucumber Gatorade. I love lime. I love cucumbers. I love Gatorade. But the three do not, in my ever-humble opinion, go together well. Caveat emptor.

Friday, November 2, 2012

WRECKONING

When your name is Wreck-It Ralph and you no longer want to wreck things—well, what you got there is an existential drama.


The title character in Disney’s computer-animated feature is a burly thug in bibs, with two huge fists which he uses, spitefully, to inflict damage on a building. His counterpart is an insufferably chipper handyman who scampers around tapping Ralph’s wreckage with a hammer, thus repairing it. All of this happens within the confines of a video game in the ‘80s arcade style, a la Pac-man or Super Mario Bros.

The chirpy handyman is the game’s titular hero, Fix-It Felix Jr., and Ralph is the designated Bad Guy—a successful game ends with him getting thrown off the building’s roof. Ralph’s been going through this for decades, and he’s sick of it. He’s had to start attending a Bad Guy’s support group, where another heavy tells him “You are Bad Guy, but this does not mean you are bad guy.”

Ralph can’t take this to heart, however. He’s determined to try his hand at being a good guy, so he leaves his game and goes seeking glory in other, more modern games in the arcade—first Hero’s Duty, a grim and violent milieu in which armored space soldiers led by a fearsome Amazon battle giant invading bugs, and later Sugar Rush, a racing game through a land in which everything is made of sweet stuff. In the latter he meets Vanellope, a wisecracking urchin who’s been told she’s a “glitch” in the system.



While all this is going on, the characters back at Fix-It Felix Jr. are suddenly aware that they can’t function without him. The game soon has an Out Of Order sign on it, and with no antagonist, the very dated machine is in serious danger of being replaced. Felix, who after all is the sort of person who always tries to fix everything, heads off in search of his old nemesis.

The premise of Wreck-It Ralph is thus similar to that of Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, but its application to the world of old-school video games is more complex and ingeniously worked-out. To those who grew up in that world, I’d guess the movie might even mean more than it did to me. I played a game of Pac-man every now and then in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, but I was never very good at it, and I didn’t hang out in arcades too often. Many people at the screening of Wreck-It Ralph that I saw were laughing at references that were lost on me.


Yet even without this nostalgic element, the movie works beautifully. Taking off from the odd notion of Ralph’s discontent, the plot gradually expands to nearly epic scope, with elements from all the games converging in the exciting race finale in Sugar Rush. What surprised me even more than the seamlessness of the storytelling, however, was the depth of its emotion. The gradual bond between Ralph and Vanellope is unexpectedly touching.

The voice actors have a lot to do with this. The ever-reliable John C. Reilly brings his voice’s singular combination of overripe thickness and underlying heart to Ralph. Sarah Silverman doesn’t have to take many steps to infantilize herself, endearingly, as the chattering, unflappable Vanellope. Jack McBrayer and Jane Lynch use their usual personas to fine effect as, respectively, Fix-It Felix and Sgt. Calhoun from Hero’s Duty.

Wreck-It Ralph’s release, between the summer and holiday blockbuster seasons, suggests that Disney might be unsure about its prospects. But I have a feeling it could be a hit—the crowd with whom I saw it really responded to it. I was about to say it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, when I realized that at least three of my top-ten contenders for 2012 are animated kidflicks. It’s a great time for the genre.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

SLITHER AND YON

Check out page 40 of the November issue of Phoenix Magazine for my story on Phoenix Herpetological Society, an amazing shelter for reptiles northeast of town. Or, you can read it here.

In honor of the place…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week let’s recognize the title character of The Giant Gila Monster

In this Texas-made 1959 low-budgeter, our hot-rodding hero must take on the enormous reptilian menace, in between making time with his best girl and performing some pretty interesting early rock. The flick may be watched in its entirety, here.




It should be noted that the huge beast is played not by an actual Gila monster but by the Gila monster’s larger, likewise venomous south-of-the-border cousin, the Mexican beaded lizard. Phoenix Herpetological Society has both species in residence.