Thursday, January 31, 2013

OIL BE SEEING YOU

Su-PRIZE, Su-PRIZE, Su-PRIZE! Gomer Pyle, USMC, himself, Jim Nabors has gotten married, at 82, to his partner of 38 years. Mazel tov.

Tomorrow is Phoenix First Friday art walk for February; this month’s festivities include a screening of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange at Phoenix Art Museum. So...

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s do a gallery-oriented ghoul, specifically the title character of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model,” as realized in the ‘70s TV anthology series Night Gallery. Here’s how the eldritch sitter for haunted artist Pickman (Bradford Dillman) appeared in the Tom Wright painting that introduces the episode:


And here he is in the episode, played by costume designer Janos Prohaska, also known as the Horta and the Mugato on Star Trek, and the giant spider on Gilligan’s Island:





The show—one of the better Lovecraft adaptations available, believe it or not—may be viewed in its entirety, here.

Friday, January 25, 2013

JUST FOUR FUN

Based on Ronald Harwood’s 1999 play, Quartet takes place in a palatial retirement home for classical musicians, many of them opera singers. When they belt out “Happy Birthday” to one of their number in the dining room, it sounds particularly fine.


The film, which hinges on the preparation by the residents for a concert in celebration of Giuseppe Verdi’s birthday, marks the feature directorial debut of Dustin Hoffman. The completed directorial debut, that is; Hoffman started out as director of the 1978 crime drama Straight Time, in which he also starred, but left the job in favor of Ulu Grosbard, because he didn’t feel able to judge his own performance.

Hoffman doesn’t have that discomfort with Quartet, in which he doesn’t appear. And he’s had the good sense to stock the movie with the kind of cast for which the word “reliable” is an impertinent understatement. Like last year’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Quartet is one of those movies so full of peerless Brit veterans that you feel pretty sure going in that it’s going to be worth watching even if it’s not very good. Best Exotic indeed wasn’t all that good, but there were Judi Dench and Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton and Ronald Pickup and Maggie Smith, among others, giving it life with what appeared minimal effort.

I’m pleased to report that Quartet, though slight, is a better movie than Best Exotic, thanks in part to Hoffman’s smooth direction, in part to Harwood’s gently nipping dialogue, in part to the lovely, idyllic setting, but in by far the biggest part to the cast: Tom Courtney, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon and, once again, Maggie Smith, among others.

Smith plays a long-retired opera star who, out of financial options, comes to live at the home—played by Hedsor House in Buckinghamshire, it surely must be the most opulent old folks’ facility ever. It’s not big enough, however, for her and fellow singer Courtney, a former lover that she wronged long ago, and who hasn’t forgiven her. The two of them, along with the defiantly still-lecherous Connolly and the sweet Collins, who’s showing early signs of dementia, are asked to perform the quartet from Rigoletto at the Verdi gala. Smith alone refuses—she knows her best days as a performer are long over, and doesn’t want to betray the memory of them. The other three try to persuade her.

How it all turns out will be of no particular surprise to anyone, nor is this important—the company of these actors is such a pleasure that the mild storyline is just a formality. The point of the movie seems to be that getting old doesn’t ensure emotional maturity. True, no doubt, but as Hoffman and his four razor-sharp leads, all in their seventies, demonstrate here, it doesn’t necessarily take away talent, either.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

TREED

Say it ain't so, Chuck! Peter Robbins, the original voice of Charlie Brown in the first Peanuts specials, has been arrested for stalking and making threats. I hate to ask, but did the Little Red-Haired Girl finally get fed up and call the cops?

Anyway...


Monster-of-the-Week: ...this week let's honor Charlie Brown's nemesis, the Kite-Eating Tree:



 Always one of the more unnerving flights of Schultz's imagination...

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

RAPID GRANDS

The Wife, The Kid and I took in a matinee of Parental Guidance.

Billy Crystal and Bette Midler are dismayed to find that they’re “the other grandparents” to their daughter’s three mollycoddled moppets, and are determined to change this status while watching the kids for a few days. Slapstick wackiness ensues.

There’s not much to it as a movie; it’s just another heavy-handed family-values comedy. But it’s a real pleasure to watch Crystal and Midler in action—both with each other and with some of the other actors, including the kids, acting as straightmen, they get fast old-school vaudeville rhythms going. It may be Crystal’s best star turn since When Harry Met Sally.

The movie takes on wussified modern parenting, with its “choices” and diplomatic catch-phrases instead of simply saying “no” and telling the kid what’s what. It’s an audience-pleasing, fish-in-a-barrel target, but at least, in Parental Guidance, the attitude is reflected in Crystal’s and Midler’s performing style—heartfelt but precise, direct and disciplined.

Friday, January 18, 2013

BARRELS OF FUN

Much as I would like to avoid any weary reference to his famous Terminator catchphrase: he’s back. Arnold Schwarzenegger, that is. After a ten-year hiatus from starring roles so that he could do some temporary state government job, Schwarzenegger has returned with The Last Stand, a simplistic, bloody action picture which is, like Arnie himself, very much of the old school.


I’m a fan; I’ve always liked him. I don’t know what it says about me, but I’ve always sheepishly enjoyed the childish shoot-‘em-up fantasies of the middlebrow Republican manly men, starting with John Wayne and continuing through Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis. I even have a (slight) soft spot for Chuck Norris.

But Schwarzenegger is a particular favorite. There’s a sweetness that sneaks past his stony, stilted delivery and his action-figure physique and gives him a droll charm, even when he’s playing a killer robot (that, I think, is why the first Terminator, in which he’s a menace, is so much sharper than the sentimental sequels, in which he’s the hero).

The physique is looking more human now that he’s in his mid-‘60s, but he still appears fit in The Last Stand, and his face is agreeably weathered. He seems a little rusty in the acting department, though. Never exactly Olivier, he had nonetheless gradually developed a little timing and panache, and had learned to use his accent to comic advantage. Now he’s back to picking his way through his lines word by laborious word.

Not that the lines he’s given in this movie offer him much help. The dialogue in The Last Stand, credited to Andrew Knauer, is of deadening banality. The plot is equally basic: an odious young drug lord (Eduardo Noriega) escapes from federal custody in Vegas and makes a dash for Mexico in a supercar. The little Arizona border town of which Arnie is the sheriff is the last barrier to this creep and freedom, so he and his ragtag deputies prepare to block his way.

This simplicity wouldn’t be a fault, could indeed be a strength, if the dialogue and characterizations weren’t so dreary. The best performance is by the ever-reliable Forest Whitaker as the earnest head G-Man. Luis Guzman is entertaining as Arnie’s deputy sidekick. Peter Stormare, making some strange attempt at a southern accent, is cartoonish as the leader of the bad guy’s advance team of goons, and so is Johnny Knoxville as a local gun nut. The great Harry Dean Stanton turns up, and it’s nice to see him, but it’s only a bit. Everyone else in the movie, from the pretty deputy (Jaimie Alexander) to her troubled old flame (Rodrigo Santoro) to the fresh-faced young kid (Zach Gilford), is straight out of Walker, Texas Ranger.

None of this matters, however—on its own silly, fairy-tale terms, The Last Stand works perfectly well. The director, the South Korean Jee-woon Kim (of the notorious revenge thriller I Saw the Devil) manages the preposterous chases and gunfights expertly, and cinematographer Kim Ji-Yong makes both the faces and the desert landscapes beautiful.

Poor Arnie has, of course, chosen a singularly uncomfortable moment to release an orgy of firearms porn—the gun nut’s stash, which is lovingly mooned over, saves the day for the sheriff. But the intolerable real-life horror of recent weeks didn’t seem to spoil the picture—the screening audience with whom I saw it clapped and cheered as Arnie and pals massacred the heavies.

I enjoyed myself, too. Whether this sort of bang-you’re-dead absurdity is culturally pernicious or harmless fun seems like an important question right now, and my answer, I’m afraid, is: I don’t know. But harmless or not, fun it is.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

DID YOU HEAR THE ONE ABOUT THE POLISH ALIEN?

This week…

Monster-of-the-Week: ...let’s acknowledge the Alien in Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien, not as it appears in the movie but rather as it is expressed in this deeply strange and beautiful Polish movie poster…


A fine selection of other bizarre and wonderful Polish movie posters may be found here; I think my favorite may be the one for, of all things, Weekend at Bernie’s.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

WORLDS AWAY

Sure wish I could hit the Phoenix Symphony this weekend: They’re playing The Planets suite by Gustav Holst, accompanied by projected HD images from the Mars Rover and other NASA sources. Geek Nirvana!

In honor of this…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s recognize a denizen of Jupiter, largest of the planets—represented by possibly the most magnificent movement in Holst’s masterpiece—Colossus Rex…



…quite the most badass-looking of the Colorforms Outer Space Men toy series from the late ‘60s—one guy for each planet in the Solar System except Earth, even Pluto, still considered a planet in those days (Holst, by the way, didn’t write a movement for Pluto, as its discovery was still a few years off when the suite was completed)



Like Ralphie’s Red Ryder air rifle, C-Rex was something of a Holy Grail among toys for me as a kid—the only one of the Outer Space Men I could ever find was Alpha 7, the classic Little Green Man from Mars...



Alpha 7 was a cool little dude, no question, but not in the same league as the fanged, brawny, mace-wielding ass-kicker from the other side of the asteroid belt, who somehow never seemed to be on the shelves when I was looking. Sigh…

Monday, January 7, 2013

IT'S ALL IN THE LIST

Along with the usual bushels of dreck, 2012 brought some really remarkable movies. Below, by tradition, are the ten I found most rewarding.

You may notice that a high number—almost half of them—are movies aimed at children; another one has a child as its heroine, and yet another is a love story between two preteens. This phenomenon is due in large part, no doubt, to my availability for screenings often being dependent on my ability to take a ten-year-old along with me.

But even if I had been able to get to Django Unchained or Zero Dark Thirty or Silver Linings Playbook or Les Miserables in time to consider them for this list, I doubt that all of the kidflicks would have been muscled out. It was just an unusually strong year for the genre, and the issues underlying many of them weren’t just kid stuff.


Lincoln—Spielberg’s direction has the iconic power of the great silents, Tony Kushner’s dialogue is majestic, and so is the acting of Daniel Day-Lewis, among others. The movie is uneven in spots, but unforgettable.

Beasts of the Southern Wild—Set in a community outside the levee in Louisiana, Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature is magical realism that feels like a documentary. Quvenzhane Wallis is electrifyingly good as Hushpuppy, the neglected little girl at the center of the story, as is Dwight Henry as her ill father. Also, the musical score was the year’s most soul-stirring.

The Sessions—The story of the poet and essayist Mark O’Brien, who spent most of his life in an iron lung after childhood polio, and his decision to work with a sex surrogate, may sound like a depressing assignment. But Ben Lewin’s movie is bright, warm and funny, and features knockout performances by John Hawkes as O’Brien, Helen Hunt as the surrogate, and William H. Macy as O’Brien’s sympathetic priest, among others.


Argo—Ben Affleck directed and starred in this top-notch spy thriller, juiced-up from the true story of the rescue of six American embassy workers from Tehran in 1979. If Affleck wasn’t the fashionable figure of ridicule that for some reason he is, then on the basis of this film and The Town in 2010, he would already be acclaimed as the best director in this genre since at least Costa-Gavras, if not Hitchcock himself.

The Secret World of Arietty—Tiny people live in bourgeois comfort under the floorboards of a human house, appropriating tiny amounts of what they need from their unwitting hosts. This version of The Borrowers, imported by Disney from Japan’s Studio Ghibli, is a work of delicate enchantment, alternating between quiet comedy and poignancy.

Moonrise Kingdom—Set in Rhode Island in the ‘60s, Wes Anderson’s odd comedy is about a romance between two preteens and how it throws a coastal island community into a tizzy. There’s a misstep here and there, but overall this is Anderson’s best film since Rushmore.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi—This documentary about a master sushi chef in Tokyo would be just a rarefied and elegant specimen of food porn, if it weren’t leavened with humor and fascinating psychology. There’s even a bit of environmental consciousness to it.



Frankenweenie—Tim Burton’s stop-motion feature remake of his own live-action short from the ‘80s was neglected by audiences partly because it was black-and-white. But it’s a really delightful mixture of the Universal Frankenstein pictures with the Boy And His Dog theme. It’s out this month on video; check it out.

The Pirates! Band of Misfits—Give me a break; I love the already-obsolete art of stop-motion animation, and the fact there were two stop-motion features this year does my heart good. This piece of Brit silliness from Aardman Studios gave me as many (intentional) laughs as anything I saw this year.

Wreck-It Ralph—Though it’s another animated feature for kids, this story of an arcade-game villain who goes AWOL in an attempt to become a good guy can take its place with the best movies about trying to find yourself. John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman give wonderful voice to the leads.

A few runners-up and slightly underrated near-misses: Killer Joe, Brave, Safety Not Guaranteed, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Beauty is Embarrassing, ParaNorman, Rise of the Guardians, Big Miracle, Hotel Transylvania, Marley, Dark Shadows, Trouble With the Curve, Chimpanzee, Mirror Mirror, The Hunger Games, The Dark Knight Rises, Ice Age: Continental Drift (and its excellent accompanying Simpsons short The Longest Daycare), Skyfall, The Amazing Spider-Man, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, and an honorable mention for the splendid documentary Paul Williams: Still Alive, which might have cracked the Top Ten if it wasn’t a 2011 release, but which played the Valley Art in July.

Friday, January 4, 2013

GOOD WELL HUNTING

A small town in southwestern Pennsylvania is the setting of Promised Land. It’s not exactly flowing with milk and honey—it’s a broke, fading farm community. But it’s sitting on oceans of natural gas, so two corporate agents, Steve (Matt Damon) and Sue (Frances MacDormand) descend on the all-too-eager locals, offering what seems like a fortune in return for drilling rights.


Said rights, in this case, mean hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” extremely deep drilling aided by the injection of chemically-enriched water, in order to release gas from beneath otherwise impenetrable rock. It’s a highly controversial technique, on the one hand suspected of polluting water tables—sometimes resulting in flammable water!—killing crops and livestock, and other environmental blight, but prized on the other hand for its promise of increased freedom from foreign oil.

A local schoolteacher (Hal Holbrook) raises concerns at a town meeting, and Steve and Sue’s deal—and Steve’s big promotion—are endangered. Their headache is increased by Dustin (John Krasinki) an engaging fellow who shows up in town with tales of fracking’s horrors, to which the townies, much to Steve and Sue’s fury, are clearly listening.

Scripted by Damon and Krasinski from a story by Dave Eggers, and directed by Gus Van Sant, Promised Land is a great-looking movie. Rather than focusing on the economic bleakness of the town, the cinematographer, Linus Sandgren, emphasizes the verdant beauty of the Pennsylvania countryside, suggesting what these people stand to lose in return for corporate chump change.

Van Sant’s touch is low-key and, as always, tinged with good-natured comedy, as is the acting, especially in the familiar bickering affection between Steve and Sue. There’s also an agreeable love interest for Damon—and maybe Krasinski as well—in the form of Rosemarie DeWitt as an attractive elementary school teacher, smiling with amusement at what a sitting duck she is for these out-of-town boys.

Also built into the material is a plot twist, and while it’s fairly cunning, I couldn’t decide if it helped or weakened the movie. Something weakens it, in any case—it’s watchable and inoffensive, but somehow it doesn’t deliver. While fracking is certainly made to seem reckless, the movie doesn’t work up that much of a lather about it, and it makes the point that if it isn’t natural gas, it’s going to be oil or coal (the idea of decreased consumption is dismissed). The real point, though, seems to be that the people who do this sort of unsavory work for energy (or tobacco, or pharmaceutical, or whatever) companies aren’t moustache-twirling villains; they’re likable folks trying to get ahead.

Anyone who found this surprising would have to be na├»ve—and if they drive a gasoline-powered car, or buy a fast-food hamburger, or for that matter type a movie review on a computer plugged into an electrical socket, they’d have to be hypocritical, as well. Still, there’s a difference, even if it’s only a slight difference, between using pernicious or questionable technology because it’s most of what’s viably available and actually participating in perpetuating that status quo.

Steve and Sue are pleasant, even endearing, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t doing what they’re doing, and Damon, Krasinski and Van Sant can’t seem to find a way to confront this dramatically without turning Promised Land sanctimonious. So they don’t quite confront it. They just let the gas leak out of the movie, with a mild, unconvincing sigh.

THAT THING THEY DIDN'T

Even without the presence of James Gandolfini in the cast, Not Fade Away would be recognizable as the work of Sopranos creator David Chase. It’s made in Chase’s signature style—the same short, elliptical vignettes, starting and ending suddenly, often leaping forward in time, leaving much for the audience to infer about their significance, and about what’s happened in between.

It can be a potent storytelling method, liberating both filmmaker and audience from tiresome, de rigueur narrative tropes. It has its limitations, too, and Chase runs into them here, not for the first time. But for the first half or so of its length, it frees Not Fade Away from coming-of-age movie sentiment and preciousness.


Not Fade Away is about a rock band in New Jersey in the ‘60s. John Magaro is our hero, the usurping lead singer, Gandolfini and Molly Price are superb as his disappointed working-class parents, and Bella Heathcote is his willowy muse from the other side of the tracks. A bunch of fine, funny, authentic-seeming guys play the other band members. The movie isn’t a show-biz story, however. The focus is much more on family life and girlfriends, college and summer jobs, dinner table squabbles about long hair and Vietnam.

The band plays a few gigs over a few years, shows some promise, teeters on the edge not of stardom but of simple professionalism, as opposed to adolescent goofing off. But they’re doomed by internal egos and envies and agendas. They don’t become one-hit wonders, like the guys in That Thing You Do! They don’t even have their one glorious performance, like the title ensemble of The Commitments. They’re no-hit wonders.

Chase wants find the value and importance even in this abortive venture, and he does find some. He has a firm grasp of what, ultimately, being a rock musician is for: Getting laid. But that’s not the same as what rock music, itself, is for—the soul-deepening comforts and exhilarations it can provide to its listeners and practitioners. Chase gets past the vulgarity of the desire to hit the rock-star lottery, even if his characters don’t, and gives a hint of the growth that music has given them, without their awareness.

But in the second half, as the both the band and the hero’s romance begin to fracture into disillusionment, the movie just keeps going and going. After a while, especially after the hero and heroine leave Jersey for California, it’s like a guy in a bar boring you with an over-detailed account of his long-lost youth. There’s a lovely final coda involving the hero’s little sister (the charming Meg Guzulescu) asserting the cosmic importance of rock-n-roll, but if it’s somehow intended to pull the whole movie together, it doesn’t come close.

I doubt it is so intended, however. As the non-ending of his Sopranos series finale showed, Chase has an aversion to offering dramatic resolution. Brilliant though he is, I find this a failing, and I found that last episode a failure. The desire to confound audience expectation is perhaps commendable; deliberately leaving your audience unsatisfied is less so. Not Fade Away has the same attitude, and unlike the Soparanos finale, it doesn’t even have the virtue of abruptness. Despite the title, fade away—slowly and morosely—is just what this movie does.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

OF MONSTERS OF THE WEEK AND MEN

Check out this superb video of the superb, oddly moving song “Little Talks” by Icelandic band Of Monsters and Men. Thus…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to this…


…the most titanic—but also evidently most benign—of the several marvelous, deity-like monsters encountered by the band on their mythic odyssey. Good thing they have an angel-like being accompanying them, to defend them against the beasts, and also to know from which beings they need defending. She smiles with approval when she sees the guy above.