Friday, November 29, 2013

BEAGLE RAMIFICATIONS

Hope everybody had a great Thanksgiving.

The Kid and I had a celebrity encounter—my friend’s nephew’s beagle appears for a second or two in this “digital video” sketch from Saturday Night Live. She was visiting my friend for the holiday, so yesterday The Kid and I got to meet her.



She has a lovely, musical howl, which we were assured means she’s happy…

Thursday, November 28, 2013

SNOW COUNTRY FOR COLD MEN

Happy Thanksgiving everybody!


On the long list of that for which I’m thankful—down the list a ways, I admit—is the good fortune to have grown up with Peabody’s Improbable History, one of the features on the marvelous Bullwinkle shows. Mr. Peabody remains one of my role models (unattainable, of course); a tiny Peabody stands on my desk staring at me as I type these words. How well the feature version of Mr. Peabody & Sherman, due out next year, will live up to the great original cartoons remains to be seen…


Now in theaters is Disney’s animated musical Frozen, “inspired” by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. It’s an origin story for Andersen’s title character, a young sovereign under a magical curse who can freeze things with her hands . It has an ice palace, trolls, fiords and other Norwegian motifs, but the story here concerns the tempestuous relationship between the Queen, Elsa, and her lonely, love-hungry younger sister Anna.

The filmmakers seem to be trying for a sort of junior league Wicked, however the score isn’t as memorable as some of the other Disney musicals. But it is, at least, superbly sung, especially by Wicked’s great Idina Menzel, as Elsa.

Its real crowd-pleasers, however, are its two sentient snowmen. First there’s sweet-natured Olaf, voiced by Josh Gad, who has the misfortune to crave “warm hugs.” Then there’s…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week’s honoree, a pretty cool snow giant named "Marshmallow"...

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE PHILOMENA?

Philomena Lee was a teenager in rural and very Catholic Ireland when she got pregnant in the early ‘50s. She was turned over to the nuns and, after delivering her son Anthony, she and her fellow unmarried teen mothers were kept in the convent as, essentially, slave labor, while their kids were adopted—sold, essentially—to any Catholic who could come up with the sizable adoption fee. In 1955, Anthony was taken to America, along with another little girl from the convent. Philomena had been made to sign a document renouncing any claim on him.

Philomena later married, had other kids, and had a successful career as a nurse, but needless to say, she never forgot her first child. She tried several times to get information about him from the convent and was denied each time. Eventually a journalist named Martin Sixsmith took an interest in her case, and the two of them travelled to the U.S. where they made startling discoveries about the boy. The result was a book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee (Sixsmith also wrote a summary of the story for The Guardian in 2009, with the True Confessions-ish title “The Catholic Church Stole My Child.”).

If this story were an old-school stage melodrama or a TV soap opera, it would seem corny and overwrought, down to its tear-jerking final twist. But Philomena, the movie version, isn’t even a little depressing. The director, Stephen Frears, brilliantly treats this real-life tragedy as an odd couple comedy.

Judi Dench plays the gabby, cheery Philomena, an intelligent but unpretentious woman, unfiltered but so warm that she doesn’t give offense to those she chats up. Her openhearted, un-ironic manner wears a bit on Sixsmith—an educated, sophisticated but oddly unlikable cold fish played by Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the adaptation of the Sixsmith book.

The bracing, self-deprecating wit of the movie helps us manage our fury at the Church’s crimes against Philomena and her son, and God knows how many other families. Sixsmith isn’t able to contain his; his journalistic objectivity dissolves as he unravels the final mystery about Philomena’s son in the climactic scenes.

Yet Philomena keeps her magnanimity to the end, and Dench leaves us with a sense of awe at the grandness of this woman’s soul, even while she keeps on making us laugh. After seeing her so many times as Queen Victoria and James Bond’s boss and other such dour roles, it’s great to see her in what can only be called a lighter vein.

While it isn’t the most remarkable piece of filmmaking I’ve seen this year—the documentary The Act of Killing currently holds that title, and I doubt it will be unseated—Philomena is, I think, the movie I’ve most enjoyed so far in 2013. As cinema craft it’s conventional but polished, and the leads are sublime. If you’re like me, the critical cliché “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry” applies.

Friday, November 22, 2013

PEDALING LIES

In 2010, the prolific, Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney finished work on a film he planned to call The Road Back. The subject was cyclist Lance Armstrong’s 2009 return to the Tour de France. Earlier this year, Armstrong publically admitted what had long been asserted in the media: That he, like all of his teammates and almost all of his competitors, had indeed employed performance-enhancing drugs in all of his Tour de France wins, and that his defiant and indignant protestations to the contrary were spectacular lies.

Armstrong, who had won hearts around the world with the story of his comeback from testicular cancer in the mid-‘90s, eventually admitted to doping and lying about it in a long 2013 TV interview with Oprah Winfrey, immediately after which he allowed himself to interviewed again, by Gibney. The resulting film, opening here in the Valley today, obviously needed a new title, so Gibney borrowed a headline that had appeared in the French sports journal L’Equipe: Le Mensonge ArmstrongThe Armstrong Lie.


Along with a detailed—possibly over-detailed—account of Armstrong’s career and some beautifully-shot, exciting cycling footage, Gibney’s film gives you a pretty big dose of the guy himself, as a talking head against a black background. Left, at last, with no plausible deniability, this handsome, superficially unassuming fellow speaks with no evident shame about what he did, and admits that he didn’t particularly lose any sleep over it.

I’m not a cycling fan, but to the slight extent that I paid any attention to it I suppose I, like many people, thought it was cool and inspirational that a cancer survivor had come back to unprecedented repeat triumphs in his grueling sport, not to mention starting a foundation in 1997 for cancer survivors. When it came out that this had been made possible only through an elaborate, scientifically sophisticated system of doping, and that Armstrong’s steely-eyed assurances of his innocence were loads of the most unmitigated bullshit imaginable, I, like many people, felt contempt. It would have been amused contempt—after all, we’re just talking about cycling, not something important like baseball—had it not been for the way Armstrong had piously set himself up as a role model for other people struggling with cancer, including children.

I wouldn’t have thought anything could have made me feel sorry for Lance Armstrong. But The Armstrong Lie did, because…this dude doesn’t understand what winning means. You sit there listening to this guy, with his near-peerless physical prowess and his psychological determination to win, and you think, there’s a wire in his head that’s not hooked up somewhere. He thinks—or, at any rate, he thought at the time—that winning is being declared the winner, and controlling the narrative that other people see. He admits as much to Oprah, calling his career a “mythic, perfect story, and it wasn’t true.”

Because this idea of winning isn’t remotely limited to Armstrong in the world of sports, and isn’t limited to the world of sports, either, but shows up far more dangerously and tragically in business, politics, religion and international relations, The Armstrong Lie isn’t a trivial film. I guess I’d have to say it’s the best sports documentary I’ve seen in years, at least since Kevin Rafferty’s delightful Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 back in 2008. But unlike Rafferty’s film, The Armstrong Lie, though compelling, isn’t that much fun. It seems a bit overlong, but that may just be because it’s disheartening, maybe even a little disturbing, to spend time in this creep’s company.

Maybe it’s presumptuous of me—a non-athlete and a fairly un-athletic person, with little overt competitiveness in my nature—to suggest that I understand winning more than Armstrong does. I’m sure I could never know the high that finishing first gives a person like that. To him, my suggestion that finishing first and winning aren’t always the same thing would probably seem like a comforting platitude from a physical mediocrity.

But I can’t help but wonder if the real problem is that Armstrong didn’t see, or didn’t pay enough attention to, the right sports movies, like The Bad News Bears or the original Rocky. I’d even prescribe for him a screening of the 2000 competitive-cheerleader movie Bring It On, in which the heroine learns that her cheer squad has been winning championships with routines purloined from an inner-city school. When her squad takes second, honestly for the first time, the movie closes with this wonderful exchange:

Boyfriend: So, second place. How’s it feel?

Heroine: Feels like first.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

CARRION ON

Although he’s not in the top spot on my list of 13 Great Bird Monsters on Topless Robot…


Monster-of-the-Week: …this week let’s nonetheless give the nod to the title character in 1967’s The Vulture, here showing he’s even tough enough to take on Broderick Crawford…


This late show may be savored in its majestically inane entirety here.

Friday, November 15, 2013

ANOTHER FINE MESSAGE

Back in the ‘70s, critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel used to occasionally devote a show to their “Guilty Pleasures”—lurid or tacky movies in which they saw some wit or energy or pungency and couldn’t help but like. I’ve never been a huge fan of the moniker; I’ve always felt that if something gives you pleasure and doesn’t hurt anybody else, you probably shouldn’t waste time feeling guilty about it. Besides, fashions change. Today’s guilty pleasure might turn out to be tomorrow’s recognized masterpiece.

But I admit, there is a genre of movies for which many critics—critics who would like to be thought hip, anyway—might feel a bit sheepish about admitting a fondness, and I’m no exception. But I’m going to acknowledge, red-cheeked, my guilty pleasure:

Message movies.

Yes, that’s right, earnest, high-minded, didactic, condescending, heavy-handed, platitudinous, preaching-to-the-choir message movies. I like them. I even love some of them. I’m out of the closet.

This—among other reasons—is why I wish I could be in Palm Springs, California this weekend. The town is already the home to my favorite film festival in the country, the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in May, and this weekend, today through Sunday, the Camelot Theatre on Baristo will host the inaugural edition of the Stanley Kramer Film Festival. Kramer, of course, was The King of the Message Movie.


In addition to appearances by Kramer’s widow Karen Sharpe Kramer and his daughter Katharine Kramer, the fest will feature a line-up of six movies either produced or produced and directed by Kramer. It kicks off today with The Defiant Ones (1958) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), continues Saturday with The Wild One (1953; directed by Lazlo Benedick) and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), and on Sunday with Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) and The Caine Mutiny (1954; directed by Edward Dymytrk). With the possible exception of Mad, Mad World, all of these star-packed favorites qualify as message movies.
What do we mean when we say “message movie?” Well, broadly, the definition would be something like this: A fiction film which seeks to dramatize some controversial social or cultural issue, usually in an accessible, unsubtle way, and usually with an overt, “editorial” viewpoint regarding which side of the issue is the right one. Racial tolerance is a typical preoccuption—among the Kramer Festival’s line-up, for instance, it’s the theme of both of Friday’s selections.


Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a classic specimen. The film has a breezy, sunny, romantic-comedy look and atmosphere, but the theme is spiky—white liberal discomfort with interracial marriage when it’s concretely in your family, as opposed to theoretical. A San Francisco newspaper publisher (Spencer Tracy) and his wife (Katharine Hepburn) are introduced to the fiancé of their daughter (Katherine Houghton)—a flawlessly dignified and charming young black doctor (Sidney Poitier). Privately, the Doc tells his prospective in-laws that he’ll call off the marriage if they don’t approve, but that he must have their decision that night. The Dad, supposedly on the basis of all the hardships the couple will face, finds himself tempted to take the Doc up on it, much to his wife’s horror.

Kramer and his screenwriter, William Rose, weren’t naïve about black racial attitudes—it turns out that Poitier’s parents don’t know his fiancée is white, either, and his father (Roy Glenn) is no happier about it than Tracy. Again, this guy’s wife (Beah Richards) is appalled at her husband’s intolerance. And the publisher’s maid (Isabel Sanford) isn’t impressed with the idea either—she thinks the Doc is uppity.

In description, the movie might sound fairly crazy—the young man’s offer, made without consulting his fiancée, to forget the whole thing if her parents don’t improve, just isn’t that convincing, and the symmetry of the older couples’ attitudes seems artificial, too. They’re like devices from a clumsily structured stage play, keeping everything on one set, trumping up a fake deadline for the action (the Doc and the daughter are flying overseas that night) and, most importantly, allowing for everyone—but especially Spencer Tracy—to make big showcase speeches.

All I can tell you is that the movie works. It’s not that it makes its laborious plotting feel at all likely, because it really doesn’t. You recognize all of the awkwardness of the storytelling as you’re watching the movie, and you dismiss it as unimportant.

Partly, at least for movie buffs, this is because of the charisma of the actors, all of whom are in top form, especially Tracy, whose last film this was (he died less than three weeks after completing it). Partly it’s because some (not all) of Rose’s dialogue has sparkle and screwy wit. But to a great degree it’s because the movie persuades you, corny as it may sound, that Love Trumps Race.

Or, at least, it persuades me. Plenty of critics—movie critics and social critics both—elaborately rolled their eyes at Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner back in the ‘60s. Some of them, no doubt, were motivated by the need to show that they were way ahead of this movie and of any middle-class square that it could possibly edify. But some were probably motivated by honest cynicism—they just couldn’t buy the underlying optimism of the movie, or of message pictures in general.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner stands easily accused of all of the big slams against message movies: First, that they’re “preachy”—in other words, that they commit the grievous sin of saying what they mean, directly and bluntly. They do so, not uncommonly, through grand righteous speeches, shoved into the mouths of actors with a credible manner—often Spencer Tracy, in Kramer’s case.

Secondly, the message movie is seen as a biased, wag-the-dog sort of genre. Instead of telling a neutral story from which an attitude toward a social theme might arise naturally in a viewer, these films are seen as contriving a story in order to support a social position. In short, they’re seen as propaganda.

Finally, it’s argued that message movies are also ineffective propaganda—that they don’t change hearts and minds. I don’t know that this can be confidently claimed in every individual case, but on the whole, the idea that if, say, you were a firm racist before you saw Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner or The Defiant Ones, you’d come out of those movies suddenly colorblind and tolerant does admittedly seem pretty implausible, in the unlikely event that you saw them at all. But this, by itself, doesn’t mean that such films can have no efficacy in advancing progressive social change.


Here’s what I mean. A while back I happened to hear a few minutes of a talk radio show here in Phoenix in which an elderly-sounding woman was venting her dislike of Mexicans, illegal or otherwise. At a certain point, citing her belief that Mexican immigrants were welfare cheats, she said “I’m sorry, but they don’t work.”

The host (a self-identified conservative, by the way) cut her off at this point with: “Well, at least you realize you should apologize for your prejudice, so that’s something.”

It struck me that he was right. That “I’m sorry” was a good sign. Message movies don’t turn bigots into non-bigots, at least not usually. But they can be a part of a pop-culture mainstream in which such bigotries are ridiculed or vilified, and expressing them becomes less acceptable—in which if a racist old lady can’t keep her ugly attitudes to herself, she at least feels the need to preface them with an insincere “I’m sorry.”

As is pointed out right there in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—by Spencer Tracy, so you can be sure it’s true—interracial marriage was still illegal in nearly twenty states at the time that movie was made. Of course, you might point out that that’s about the number of states in which, at this writing, same-sex marriage isn’t illegal, and this wouldn’t make a pro-marriage-equality movie particularly courageous in this day and age.

And you’d be right, both for that theoretical movie now, and for GWCTD in 1967. Neither is courageous. It’s not like Hepburn and Tracy and Poitier et al were acting the story out live in a park in Birmingham, Alabama or someplace like that.

But I’m not arguing for the courageousness of that movie or of the “message” genre. I’m arguing for its utility, for the part it's played in creating a middle-of-the-road pop culture that helped make the values it was advocating acceptable, and, more importantly, the values it was opposing unacceptable.

But even if you find my claim for the social effectiveness of message movies dubious, I would still argue in favor of them simply as entertainment—well-acted and sometimes full of thrilling oratory, often (especially in Kramer’s films) delivered by legendary stars, and charged up with a sense of the possibility of human progress. So, as far as I’m concerned, long live the Stanley Kramer Film Festival.

At a glance, though, longevity for such a fest seems unlikely. After all, Kramer directed fewer than twenty films. But if you consider the movies he produced but didn’t direct—and that list would include stuff like High Noon and Marlon Brando’s debut film The Men—he was remarkably prolific. You could program an annual festival for several years without having to repeat a selection.

I hope, though, that if this festival continues it eventually becomes devoted, at least in part, to message movies in general—find some other term for them, maybe, so that audiences don’t stay away in droves—not just those from the Kramer canon. Anything could be fair game, from Johnny Guitar to The Day the Earth Stood Still to Network.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

MARKET SCARE

A friend of mine is a major Joan Crawford nut, so I was thrilled when I sent him the link to this astounding film she made sometime in the ‘60s, promoting the supermarket industry, and he wrote back saying he’d never seen it before. The film’s attempt at an arty tone is jaw-dropping—it's like some unholy collaboration between Ed Wood and Michelangelo Antonioni.

Anyway…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week the nod goes to any specimen of Little Weirdo...


...the tiny rubber goblins one used to get out of the vending machines at the supermarket. I well remember them. The little girl here covets a red one; if I’d had it, I would gladly have traded it for her Green Weirdo…

Friday, November 8, 2013

JUST BEAT IT

Opening here this weekend:



Kill Your Darlings—The title is a maxim from literature and journalism. The “darlings” here are the beautiful words, phrases and passages you’ve written; the advice is to cut them cold-heartedly if they aren’t absolutely necessary to the piece overall.

Most writers have a hard time with this rule, and in particular it’s not a literary philosophy with which the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs are especially associated (although Burroughs’ lean, excellent early works reflect the style, his more famous later stuff doesn’t). Nonetheless, that’s who this movie is about: The initial meeting, at Columbia University in the mid-‘40s, between these three men who eventually became celebrated as “The Beats,” as well as Lucien Carr, the rebellious, literary-minded rich kid who introduced them.

Carr never became a famous novelist or poet (though his son, Caleb Carr, wrote The Alienist). But his dramatic life makes for a much juicier movie than that of his iconic friends, who were on the fringe of a lurid murder case in which he was implicated. The movie’s focus is on Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), his fascination with Carr (Dane DeHaan), and their attempt to create a “New Vision” for stodgy American lit.

It could be argued that they achieved this, in the long run. I don’t know how closely Kill Your Darlings follows the record, but the movie seems to suggest that they revolutionized midcentury literature not by writing striking works that deflated aesthetic orthodoxies but rather by needling professors, playing pranks in the library, hanging out in jazz clubs, vandalizing old books and getting drunk. And we’re expected to cheer as they crap on the Western canonical tradition without which their counterculture would have been not only meaningless but impossible.

Kill Your Darlings is nicely directed, by John Krokidas, and very well acted, but it really brought out the (small “c”) conservative in me. I say this as somebody who treasures at least some work by Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs: I spent this movie thinking “Get the hell back to class, you little pricks, learn to write a proper sonnet and quit wasting your parents’ tuition money.”

Like I said, though, the ensemble cast is strong. Radcliffe seemed like odd casting to me as Ginsberg, but he’s creditably serious. In the flashier role of Carr, DeHaan is quite the glamorous object—he looks like a hybrid of Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. I mean, that's really exactly what he looks like. The movie presents Carr as a narcissistic, manipulative tease and possibly a sociopath, which may be unfair, but DeHaan’s performance is gripping.

Jack Huston (great-nephew of John Huston) is solid as Kerouac, and the always-interesting Ben Foster is interesting as Burroughs, though both of these roles are recessive compared to Ginsberg and Carr. Michael C. Hall is both scary and pitiable as Carr’s obsessed would-be mentor David Kammerer, and Elizabeth Olsen makes an impression in the small role of Edie Parker. There is also a fine gallery of character actors as the older generation—David Cross as Allen’s father, the poet Louis Ginsberg, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as his mentally shattered mother, Kyra Sedgwick as Carr’s mother and John Cullum and David Rasche as buffoonish Columbia faculty.

Most of these grown-up roles are presented with a hint of caricature, especially the academic stuffed shirts. But I must admit that, as they dealt with these punks, I empathized with them. Boy, did this movie make me feel old.


Thor: The Dark World—Chris Hemsworth is once again agreeable as the Marvel Comics version of the hammer-bearing Norse deity. This time the McGuffin is an amorphous something or other called “The Aether” that has invaded the body of Thor’s mortal love interest Jane (Natalie Portman), and is coveted by a race of trolls or goblins or something because it would allow them to take the Universe from Light to Darkness. Or something like that.

The makers of Thor: The Dark World—director Alan Taylor, the cast, which includes Anthony Hopkins as cranky Old Man Odin and Rene Russo as Frigga, and the special effects and design folks—work hard to put on a show for us, deploying otherwordly armies and strange cosmic forces with gusto, like kids playing with action figures. In the course of the movie, Thor must place trust in his shifty brother Loki, who’s locked up in Asgard’s rather elegant dungeon. Sly, droll Tom Hiddleston steals the movie effortlessly in this role, and when his strand of the story is satisfyingly resolved the movie was, for me, effectively over.

But the demands of the blockbuster are such that we’re dragged through another interminable round of fistfights and explosions and rubble and sifting ash, just like the finales of The Avengers and Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel. Do they all have to end like that? I can’t claim that I didn’t sit there enjoying large chunks of this movie’s spectacle, but as usual with these big superhero or action movies, I was ready for it to be over at least a half-hour before the filmmakers were done pummeling me.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

ARTSDALE

Check out the November issue of Phoenix Magazine


…for Your Humble Narrator’s profile of “Original Sun” Dick Van Arsdale, and the artistic ability he’s discovered since having a stroke. It’s on Page 33, or here.

Speaking of tall types…

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


…from Thor: The Dark World, opening this weekend. More about that film tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

ATTA BABY

Out on DVD today is Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room.


This documentary, directed by Vera Iwerebor, concerns Diana Serra Cary, earlier known as Peggy-Jean Montgomery, or, when she was in the movies in the early 1920s, as Baby Peggy. Because she was a little girl—indeed, at the beginning, a toddler—she’s now, at 95, one of the last surviving stars of the silent era.

Seeing her here at opposite ends of her life is fairly amazing. In clips from the (relatively few) surviving Baby Peggy comedy shorts, we see a performer of remarkable precision as well as a champion mugger. She claims to have been well aware of being the breadwinner for her family, and of being scared by this, and this adds a distressing subtext to watching her jolly antics.

On the other hand, it’s inspirational to see her in her 90s, sharp as a tack, matter-of-factly recounting the sometimes nightmarish dysfunction of the family she was forced to support. We then learn how she re-invented herself as a writer and historian (and Catholic convert) in her adult years. Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room is a quietly uplifting story of hard-won identity.

The film is less than an hour long, and the DVD’s special features include several Baby Peggy flicks.


It’s not new, but I recently watched another documentary about an unconventional show-business career, that of the one-man spook-show Brother Theodore: To My Great Chagrin. You can read my review of it here, on my recent list of Brother Theodore’s Greatest Hits on Topless Robot, and you can obtain the DVD for yourself here.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

FAIR ENOUGH

Because I didn’t grow up in the Valley, I don’t have the nostalgia for Arizona State Fair that I’ve encountered in people who did. I went there once with The Wife, more than twenty years ago, as a newlywed, and though we had fun we didn’t feel any pressing need to go again until last summer, when we took The Kid, then ten. We had fun again, but we also noticed, again, how much it cost.



Nonetheless, and even though I was battling a chest cold, The now 11-year-old Kid and I braved the Fair, which winds up tomorrow, one warm Saturday afternoon this October. We picked the day because it offered free admission to Girl Scouts in uniform, and also because The Kid had filled out a form describing three books she had read, in return for which document she could get three free rides. I, who have read Shakespeare, George Eliot, Melville, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, got zero free rides, of course.

This particularly stung because…I dislike rides. The ones that lift you to dizzying heights and then plunge you back to earth, the roller coasters and drops and the like, terrify me. The ones that furiously spin you around close to the ground, the Tilt-a-Whirls and such, don’t frighten me especially, but they do make me queasy. So neither kind is high on my list of favorite amusements.

The Kid, on the other hand, loves rides of both kinds, and so, wishing to be a good dad, I agreed to go on three with her. She was reasonably merciful to me in her choices—first we did the Cliffhanger, which whirls you around lying on your belly and gives you some sense of how Superman must feel. Then we went on the Crazy Coaster, a relatively mild-velocity version of a roller coaster that didn’t cause me too much discomfort of either the existential or the intestinal variety, and finally the Alien Abduction, a flying saucer that spins so fast that centrifugal force affixes you to the walls when the floor drops away.

I needed to sit down on a bench for a while after these three, but I was okay. Then it was dad’s turn—I dragged The poor Kid into Star Trek: The Exhibition, a show of props and costumes from the sci-fi franchise. I’ve seen similar exhibits over the years, at the Arizona Science Center and also at the Vegas Hilton. This one wasn’t quite on their level, and, as I’m an Original Series man, there were inevitably fewer props and artifacts from my preferred vintage than from the later series. But it still had some great stuff, plus I got to see my kid sitting in the Captain’s chair on the replica of the original series bridge.



After that we checked out the ostensible reason for the Fair’s existence—the livestock and other agricultural exhibits. We saw pigs, cows, chickens and ducks, and we saw a sheep being fleeced. I could empathize with him. Even with all of The Kid’s freebies, after paying for parking, for my own admission, for three rides for myself and for admission for two to the Star Trek exhibit, I couldn’t help but feel that, while it had been fun, it might have been possible for us to find something even more fun to do with a Saturday afternoon at a fraction of the cost.

Before we left the Fairgrounds, we treated ourselves to some funnel cake topped with sliced strawberries and whipped cream. It was incredibly delicious. Dollar for dollar, it probably was the best part of the experience.

Then, as we were getting into my truck in the parking lot, I saw a man loading what looked like his grandkids into a shabby old car. He caught my eye and smiled.

“I feel a little lighter in the wallet,” he said good-naturedly.

“Me too,” I said. Then we both drove away, happy kids and all.

Friday, November 1, 2013

VIVA LAS AGED

A busy movie weekend:



Last Vegas—Robert DeNiro, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline are friends from the old neghborhood—Flatbush, Brooklyn, that is. They’re scattered around the country now, but when the most financially successful of them, Douglas, finally gets around to getting engaged, the quartet meets in Vegas for a wild bachelor-party weekend.

One of them, DeNiro, is there under protest; a depressed widower, he bears Douglas an angry grudge. Freeman recently suffered a mild stroke and is being kept on a short leash by his son. Kline’s wife (Joanna Gleason), fed up with his crankiness, has given him a condom and a Viagra tablet and told him to improve his attitude in Sin City. Douglas, whose trophy-wife-to-be is half his age, simply hasn’t come to terms with being old.

What is ensues in this comedy, directed by Jon Turtletaub from a script by Dan Fogelman, is just what you’d imagine—corny, heavy-handed gags about geriatrics drinking, gambling and flirting with scantily-clad nymphs young enough to be their granddaughters. Mary Steenburgen charmingly plays a slightly more appropriately-aged lounge singer who gets drawn into the gang and stirs up a bit of romantic conflict, but nothing very serious. The movie is shamelessly fluffy, and more enjoyable than it has any real right to be.

These guys are the real thing—movie stars—and there’s a reason that each of them has an acting Oscar. Even clowning around, they can effortlessly command an audience.

Oddly, though, the standout is the one that, if you were ranking them, would probably have to be considered the acting lightweight of the four—Douglas. Toward the end, he has a short monologue in which his feelings about aging finally pour out, and this amusing old-guys-behaving-badly smirk-fest turns, for one scene, into a real drama.



Man of Tai Chi—The title sounds like an SCTV sketch, but it’s not meant as a joke—this Hong Kong action melodrama wants to make the case for Tai Chi not as a great exercise for old ladies in the park, but as a badass martial art. The hero (Tiger Hu Chen) is a young delivery boy who studies under a Tai Chi master and competes in tournaments. He gets sucked into the world of a to-the-death spectator fight club run by an odious gangster, and soon finds he can only get out if he dies.

The gangster is played by Keanu Reeves, and the movie also represents the directorial debut of Reeves. Turns out that Matrix Boy makes a pretty good director. Man of Tai Chi is a flamboyant, highly entertaining piece of showmanship. Young Chen makes a sympathetic hapless hero—he has some of the passive, guileless charm of the young Reeves—and a thrilling performer; his Tai Chi moves have a riveting, dancerlike beauty. And Reeves shows, for my money, a better eye for martial arts sequences than most current action directors. He gives us less frenetic cutting, and lets us watch the fighters do their thing.

About all that Reeves the director isn’t able to do here is get a good, non-wooden performance out of Reeves the actor. But that puts him on a long list of filmmakers.


Underdogs—This indie football yarn, which played at the Phoenix Film Festival this year, is set in North Canton, Ohio, at a Catholic high school with an abysmal record. A tough, my-way-or-the-highway new coach (D.B. Sweeney) is brought in, and turns things around with his demanding work ethic.

For a brief time in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it looked like Sweeney might become a big star. That didn’t happen, but he remains an interesting presence. His performance here is good, but there isn’t one football scene in this competently-made but banal debut effort by director Doug Dearth that doesn’t feel derived from earlier, better sports movies like Rudy, The Rookie, The Blind Side and others—the final sideline scene here is virtually a remake of the same scene in Hoosiers.

The movie has a subplot about a different kind of underdog—the quarterback’s Dad, Bill Burkett—that is based on the story of the real North Canton resident Bill Burkett, developer of the EdenPure heater. According to Underdogs, Burkett faced a legal struggle with his then-employer over the intellectual property rights to the device which he had invented at home in his spare time. This is an intriguing story, and it’s hard not to suspect that the football stuff was grafted on to make Underdogs more commercial.