Thursday, February 28, 2013

DOUBLE HEADER

With Jack the Giant Slayer opening tomorrow…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s make this two-headed stop-motion menace from the fun 1962 movie version of the tale, Jack the Giant Killer


…this week’s honoree (or would that be, “honorees?”).

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

VATICAN-DO ATTITUDE

“What a relief, the symbologist is here.”


Thus sneers a haughty Vatican bigshot when he beholds Tom Hanks as the professor hero in Angels & Demons. This was by no means the only time that the film made me laugh out loud, but I think it may have been the only time it did so intentionally.

A sequel to 2006’s The Da Vinci Code, and directed, like that film, by Ron Howard, the movie was a much better time than I expected. The Pope officially steps down tomorrow; if you’d like to mark the occasion with a tale of wild Vatican intrigue, this could be your choice.

Da Vinci Code was well-made but silly and a little slow; Angels & Demons is no less silly but is furiously fast-moving and sometimes surprisingly gruesome. It involves the Catholic Church and the Illuminati and the kidnapping of four Cardinals and a plot to blow up the Vatican right in the middle of a Conclave, using a fragment of anti-matter purloined from the CERN laboratory in Switzerland as the explosive.

Hanks’ symbologist rides to the rescue at the request of the Vatican cops, and follows a string of clues conveniently planted around Rome in Bernini’s sculptures. Hanks takes a deep breath at the beginning and pounds through his movie-star duties here with an award-worthy straight face, belting out exposition on the fly.

Aiding him is a gorgeous CERN physicist, played by Ayelet Zurer, who shows a solid grasp of such other disciplines as pathology and Renaissance art whenever the plot requires—she’s a bit like the Professor on Gilligan’s Island. I liked her a lot. Rounding out the cast are Ewan McGregor, as a fresh-faced young priest, Armin Mueller-Stahl as a cold-fish old cardinal, Stellan Skarsgaard as the chief of the Swiss Guard and the very cool-looking Pierfrancesco Favino as the Vatican police inspector.

Crazy and headlong throughout, Angels & Demons chucks any pretence of credibility in its last twenty minutes or so, climaxing in a chaos of helicopter ascensions and explosions and immolations. It’s quite absurd, but Howard kept me happily entertained throughout.

Like Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons is an adaptation, of course, of a best-selling novel by Dan Brown. How faithful it is, I can’t say, because I was completely satisfied, and felt no need to press on, after reading Brown’s stunning first sentence: “Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and knew it was his own.

Really? He was a physicist? How interesting. I wonder what made him decide to choose physics as a career? I wonder how the lifelong study of the laws of the physical universe molded his outlook on life? Also, why was his flesh burning?

Monday, February 25, 2013

DARK LORD OF THE SETH

I understand that Seth MacFarlane has gotten poor reviews online for his stint as Oscar host last night. I’m no particular MacFarlane fan, but I thought he did just fine. He made some of the mildly tasteless jokes that were, of course, precisely why he was hired, and he made a solid effort at old-school song-and-dance showmanship. His opening routine, opposite William Shatner, went on a little too long, but I thought it was pretty funny all the same.



I maintain, as I wrote here about last year’s show, that the reason that middle-aged viewers so often react with cranky petulance toward the Oscars isn’t that the show is on the lame side—though it usually is—but that they fail to feel the excitement that the spectacle gave them as kids. Many viewers in my own circle are also show-biz wannabes, wash-outs or bush-leaguers ourselves, so there’s often an unacknowledged streak of career envy behind the Oscar-hatin’. The fault, dear Brutus, is typically not in these overhyped stars, but in our tired-ass selves.

This weekend The Kid and I also caught up with Escape From Planet Earth, a computer-animated flick that wasn’t screened for critics, in Phoenix at least, prior to its release.


It’s the story of a milquetoast, blue-skinned, nose-less alien (voiced by Robb Corddry) from the planet Baab who travels to Earth to rescue his hotshot brother (Brendan Fraser), and winds up imprisoned with him and other wacky aliens at Area 51 in Nevada by an evil General (Shatner again!) who’s running a technology sweatshop there.

The movie is watchable and pleasant but mostly routine. The conflicts are standard for the genre—caution versus recklessness, the desire to seem heroic to your kid—but there are some odd, almost free-standing episodes that struck me as curiously witty and erudite. Then, in the end credits, I noticed an “additional material by” credit, and the first writer listed was Stephen Fry. That probably explains the erudition.

Friday, February 22, 2013

SNUBSTANDARD

Somebody gets snubbed by the Academy Awards almost every year, but this year might just go down in Oscar history as The Year of the Snub. At this writing, Ben Affleck has won a BAFTA award, a Golden Globe and a Director’s Guild Award, among others, for directing his splendidly entertaining political thriller Argo.



The film itself has also been widely honored—indeed, it received seven Oscar nominations. But even if his movie won all seven on February 24, Affleck can’t be honored with an Oscar for Best Director, because he wasn’t nominated.

Argo indulges in a bit of hairbreadth-escape melodrama in its final stretch, and one could argue about whether the movie might have been equally tense and satisfying with a more realistic resolution, instead of this sort of corny Hollywood action. But this is a question of artistic taste, not of execution—corny or not, the picture, these scenes included, is rousingly suspenseful, and must be considered one of the best-directed movies of the year. It would be disappointing but perhaps legitimate if Affleck didn’t win, if the award went to Spielberg or Tarantino or Ang Lee or even to the visionary young Benh Zeitlin of Beasts of the Southern Wild. But for him simply to be ignored is arguably the most egregious Oscar snub in decades.

It seems to have happened for two reasons. First, Affleck has been a fashionable figure of ridicule for years, for reasons I don’t understand. I’ve never been a particular fan of him as an actor; though I think he’s given some fine performances—notably in Hollywoodland—he’s also been a bland lightweight at times. He’s impressively low-key and haunted in the lead in Argo, however, suggesting that he may, on top of everything else, be his own best director.

But no one really disputes the excellence of his work as a director. By any other name, the guy who directed Gone Baby Gone and The Town and then Argo would be hailed as, quite simply, a new Hitchcock. Because it’s Ben Affleck, however, much of the praise has seemed either grudging or insultingly astonished. Enough already—it’s time to declare him paid up for Gigli (sad to say, I’m part of that small cult of outcasts who thinks that Gigli, while certainly flawed, is overall a worthwhile movie).

In the long run, the snub will likely work to Affleck’s benefit—the standing ovations he’s been getting while he wins all those other directing awards suggest that it may have caused the filmmaking community to look at him with new eyes. And his oh-so-gracious-and-humble acceptance speeches, though probably sincere, are also flawlessly played.

The other reason for his omission seems to have been the need to find a place among the nominees for director David O. Russell, for Silver Linings Playbook. Russell is a superb director, rightly nominated for 2010’s The Fighter, snubbed himself for his terrific 1999 Three Kings. But while Silver Linings Playbook is a watchable, generally touching comedy-drama, I don’t think it represents anything near Russell’s best work, and it doesn’t come within a mile of Argo. I’m not sure why it’s been so rapturously received.

Silver Linings Playbook also seems to have figured into this year’s worst acting snub, that of John Hawkes for his star turn in The Sessions. I admit that I’ve had a hard time warming up to Bradley Cooper, but I thought his performance in Silver Linings was quite creditable and poignant. But it isn’t in the same galaxy as the luminous work of Hawkes—in any year in which Daniel Day-Lewis didn’t play Lincoln, Hawkes would deserve to win.

I was delighted, however, that Helen Hunt received a Supporting Actress nomination for her lovely turn in The Sessions. It’s a pleasant surprise, as Hunt—an authentically great actress—has long been fashionably sneered at in the same perplexing way as Affleck.

One other note: I was also delighted that the Best Animated Short nominees included The Longest Daycare, a riotous Simpsons cartoon that played before Ice Age: Continental Drift. Nice to know that Maggie Simpson wasn’t snubbed.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

MIDGARD ACTION

With the Chinese New Year holiday festivities winding down this weekend, there’s still time for one more…

Monster-of-the-Week: …selection honoring the Year of the Snake. One friend suggested Thulsa Doom’s giant pet who runs afoul of Arnie in 1982’s Conan the Barbarian...


…or the snake with whom Arthur O’Connell has a candid chat in The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao


Fine choices both, but they're edged out by another friend’s suggestion: the Midgard Serpent, aka Jormungand, the vast, world-encircling, tail-chasing reptile of Norse mythology, and for the god Thor, in his career as an angler, the perennial One That Got Away. Here’s the Middie in a painting by Henry Fuseli…


…and here’s the Marvel Comics version….


By the way, I’m hoping that this being The Year of the Snake bodes propitiously for the Arizona Diamondbacks…

Friday, February 15, 2013

LAMON/ABE

As an onscreen character, Abe Lincoln has been a pretty busy guy over the last year or so. First there was the silly but mildly amusing Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, and then, of course, Spielberg’s epic Lincoln. Then there have also been Abe’s peculiar, spectral appearances in those Ford commercials “rebooting” the Lincoln brand.

And now comes the indie Saving Lincoln, which plays February 16 through 18 at FilmBar in Phoenix. Directed by Salvador Litvak, who wrote the script with his wife, Nina Davidovitch Litvak, it’s an account of Lincoln’s long and intimate friendship with Ward Hill Lamon, an ebullient Virginian who was first a law crony of Abe’s, but later served as U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia, and Lincoln’s unofficial but frequent bodyguard and companion.

Students of low-budget filmmaking are likely to be fascinated by Saving Lincoln’s ingenious solution to the problem of making an historical epic for (reportedly) under a million dollars. The actors were shot in front of a green-screen, with the backgrounds added later, many of them derived from historical photographs. The results aren’t realistic, of course, but on their own terms they’re seamlessly done, and they give the movie a dreamlike, theatrical visual stylization—almost the quality of a “magic lantern” show—that is, at least for me, quite effective.

The dialogue and performances have the blunt, declamatory earnestness of a school play, but this, intentional or not, has a certain effectiveness as well. It’s compelling in the way a vigorously-performed school play can sometimes be. There are a couple of name actors in the cast—Penelope Ann Miller as Mary Todd Lincoln and Bruce Davison as Seward—but most of the cast was unknown to me. TV journeyman Tom Amandes plays Lincoln, while a young fellow with the striking name of Lea Coco plays Lamon.

Neither star managed, for me, to be deeply convincing as a 19th-Century man (at one point Lamon refers to John Wilkes Booth as a “blackguard,” carefully pronouncing it “black guard”). But, again, this doesn’t really matter—both make likable, attractive pageant figures. The movie also contains some fine music, and Amandes gets to deliver the Gettysburg Address in its entirety, which means we get to reflect on what a masterly specimen of the speechwriter’s art it is.

There are also a number of strange episodes, as when Lincoln, at the request of his wife, attends a séance, and reacts to a supposed message from beyond—meant to be comforting and encouraging—with withering anger. I couldn’t say how accurate this stuff is—the veracity of Lamon’s sometimes self-serving memoirs are a matter of debate among Lincoln scholars, and in any case I don’t know how closely the Litvaks followed these sources. But it’s memorable, anyway.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

RATTLETALE

We’re still in the thick of Chinese New Year festivities ringing in the Year of the Snake, so…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to this gigantic rattler menacing the space travelers in this Aurora model kit tie-in with the ‘60s TV series Land of the Giants



As far as I know, this scene never occurred in the two-season series, but the box art is pretty awesome.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

PAPAL SYRUP

Pope Benny is retiring! For a good read during the upcoming Conclave, you might consider that wacky Papal novel Hadrian VII.


The early chapters of Hadrian VII are set in squalor familiar to the author, Frederick Rolfe. The central character of this 1904 curio (available on amazon) is an English hack writer named George Arthur Rose, a Catholic convert and a washed-out aspirant to the priesthood living in seedy suburban poverty, nursing imperious pretensions of both aristocratic and ecclesiastical grandeur, along with a variety of personal grudges.

All of the above applied to Rolfe, who published under the misleading pseudonyms "Fr. Rolfe" and "Baron Corvo," and who died in obscurity in 1913. He wasn't discovered as an important literary figure until two decades later, when he became the subject of The Quest for Corvo, A.J.A. Symons' admired 1934 "experiment in biography."

But if Hadrian, Rolfe's most famous work, starts like a gritty Grub Street tale, it soon takes off into unexpected splendors. By an alignment of events generously described as providential, George Arthur Rose finds himself ordained a priest. Then, attending at the Conclave, he finds himself elected Pope.

He accepts this meteoric rise without astonishment, and quickly sets about using the Throne of Peter to reform the Church, to confound the rise of Socialism, to remake the geo-political structure of Europe, and, most importantly, to bring a simple, tasteful style of dress and accessorizing back to the Papacy. Hadrian (he takes the name of a previous English Pope) seems to be, to the Vatican, roughly what Jackie Kennedy was to the White House.

At its heart, Hadrian VII is unmistakably a daydream, akin to that of the dowdy woman imagining herself discovered as the next screen goddess, or the bleacher bum pressed into service as a Major League pitcher. It’s an unusually literate and complex daydream, however, from a frustrated and obsessive but talented megalomaniac.

It’s difficult to know whether the self-importance, the naiveté, and the reactionary bile of the politics are meant to be taken satirically or in earnest—possibly Rolfe himself didn’t know. The dense, verbose style and the fixation on Pontifical minutiae make for some exhausting slogs—there are sentences like “They were tolutiloquent in expressing horror at the impiety of mob-rule which had deprived them of the right to military salutes ordained by the Concordat” which make one cry uncle.

But once you get the hang of the self-consciously mannered prose and the nutty worldview, Hadrian becomes funny and fascinating and—especially in the context of the author’s story—touching. But of course it can’t be taken seriously—the premise is about as likely as, say, an Austrian body-builder and movie actor becoming the Governor of California.


Out on DVD today is the Bond movie Skyfall, which won Outstanding British Film at the BAFTA awards this weekend. Slightly surprising, but by no means undeserved—this is a terrific actioner, and the first Bond film I can remember finding at least a little bit moving. It had a remarkable dramatic tactic: Bond fails at almost everything he tries to accomplish here, and you’re left feeling genuine pity for him.

Friday, February 8, 2013

SUCH A DEAL YOU GET

The word “Greater” in Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival isn’t there for nothing. The event, which runs from February 10 through February 24, is spread out all over the greater Phoenix area—although, ironically, not in Phoenix proper. Shows are slated at Harkins Camelview 5 in Scottsdale, in the wilds of the West Valley at Harkins Arrowhead 18 in Peoria, and at Harkins Crossroads 12 in Chandler.

The 17th annual event features movies from the US and Canada, Germany, Austria, Poland and Israel, in genres ranging from comedy to drama to documentary. Many of the screenings are accompanied by guest speakers.

Among the more intriguing selections is the sardonic comedy-thriller My Best Enemy, from Austria. It concerns a swap of identities between a Jew and a Nazi, former best friends, during World War II. A switcheroo is also the basis of the drama The Other Son. This time it’s the well-worn device of babies accidently switched at birth, this time one Palestinian and one Jewish, and of the impact on both families when the truth comes out.

Documentaries are well represented at this year’s festival, as well, two of them concerned with songs: Ever wonder about the origin of “Hava Nagila?” You can learn all about the tune’s history and the evolution of its religious, political and cultural meanings in Hava Nagila (The Movie). I hope it includes Allan Sherman's alternate-lyric version, "Harvey and Sheila."



There’s also AKA Doc Pomus, a documentary portrait of the songwriting great (aka Jerome Felder) who gave us “This Magic Moment” and “Save the Last Dance For Me.” It plays at 3 p.m. Sunday, February 17, at Chandler Crossroads. The speaker for this screening is Rabbi Darren Kleinberg, Executive Director of Valley Beit Midrash, who, according to the Festival’s website, “plays lead guitar in the band Twice Baked in his free time.”


Also on the schedule are the dramas Kaddish for a Friend and Mabul (The Flood), and the comedy The Day I Saw Your Heart. Another comedy, Dorfman, starring Sara Rue and Elliot Gould, screens at 7 p.m. Thursday, February 14, in honor of Valentine’s Day, at Harkins Camelview. Screenwriter Wendy Kout will be guest speaker at this screening.


The festival’s most unusual selection, however, might be Melting Away, from director Doron Eran and screenwriter Billy Ben-Moshe. The story of the rift between parents and a transgendered child, it’s thought to be one of the first Israeli films to explore such a subject.


Check here for a full schedule and details.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

TO SERPENT WITH LOVE

Happy Chinese New Year this Sunday!

It’s the Year of the Snake, so…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week the nod goes to the giant Skull Island snake that menaces Jessica Lange in the 1976 version of King Kong, before being easily dispatched by the title character. The huge reptile looks pretty lame in the movie itself…


…but quite marvelous in this John Berkey promotional art…



Sunday, February 3, 2013

COOKIE MONSIEUR

Friday I had lunch with Vince Larue, the splendid young illustrator who created the cover art for my zombie novel…


Vince was in town for the scheduled opening, that evening, of a show at Willo North Gallery in which his work was to be featured, but which was—for reasons unrelated to him—ignominiously cancelled after he had already made the trip from France to attend the opening (happily, the show is to open in March instead, at a venue TBA).

Anyway, for lunch we went to Beijing Garden, the newish, excellent Chinese place at COFCO Center. I had the eggplant in brown sauce—sublime—and Vince had the spicy tofu, which I sampled and which was also delicious, though a bit spicier than I prefer. When we finished, we were brought our fortune cookies.

Now, at a friend’s recommendation last year I read a charming book, which I highly recommend, called The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, by a New York Times reporter named Jennifer 8 Lee (yes, her middle name is “8”). It’s about the considerable significance of Chinese food in general, and the fortune cookie in particular, in American culture.


Apparently the fortune cookie is not so familiar in Normandy. I cracked mine open, read my fortune (“Have a vision. Be demanding.”) and was crunching up the halves when I heard Vince giggling from across the table. I looked up.

“I ate the message,” he said sheepishly, spitting out a tiny wad of pulverized paper.

So his fortune remains a mystery. But if I had to take a guess, it would be that a bright future is betokened for this guy.


Happy Super Bowl Sunday, everybody. To the very tiny degree that I care, I guess I‘m rooting for Baltimore, as I’ve had a lot of fun in that city, and I love that they named their football team in honor of Poe, who died there.