Thursday, December 26, 2013

KEANU WORLD ORDER

Happy Boxing Day!

Hope everybody had a great Christmas. It was a busy opening day at the multiplexes, and among other offerings was 47 Ronin


…a fantasy adventure featuring Keanu Reeves and a cool dragon that I became aware of too late to include in my Topless Robot list of cool pop-culture dragons. But that’s no reason…

Monster-of-the-Week: …he can’t be this week’s honoree…

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

BETTER WATCH OUT

Merry Christmas everybody!

Here’s a heartwarming holiday story: At least two banks, one in Florida and one in Maryland, have been robbed by men dressed as Santa Claus...




Or, maybe, Santa is hard up this year, and he himself has gone on a robbery spree, confident that we’d all assume it was the work of imposters.


In either case, the incidents reminded me of the 1978 Canadian noir thriller The Silent Partner, in which Christopher Plummer tried the same shtick. Teller Elliot Gould took the opportunity to skim a bit off of Plummer’s take, hence the title. Susannah York is in it, and the very young John Candy, and a ravishing actress named Celine Lomez. Be forewarned, the movie gets a bit violent, even gruesome as it progresses, so it may not be the best choice for festive holiday viewing, but it’s worth seeing…

Friday, December 20, 2013

BANKS JOB, INSIDE MAN, WALKING TOUR

Opening in the Valley this weekend:



Saving Mr. Banks—It’s 1961, and P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) doesn’t want to sell the movie rights to her novel Mary Poppins to Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). She’s afraid he’ll vulgarize it with music, animation and sentimentality. This movie, directed by John Lee Hancock, dramatizes how Disney and his cronies succeeded in wearing the prickly, exasperating Travers down, so that they could, indeed, vulgarize her book into a sentimental, partly animated musical.

Thompson is superb, as usual, as the impossible woman, but Hanks steals the picture with a delightful—and probably appalling whitewashed—portrayal of the drawling, relentlessly genial Disney. With its terrific acting and its loving period detail—we get not only early-‘60s Hollywood but also flashbacks to early-20th-Century Australia, as we learn the author’s sad backstory—this is a highly enjoyable movie. It’s also, being a Disney picture, a rather unbecoming piece of company propaganda: Its message is that once you sign your soul over to Uncle Walt, your life will become a wonderful world of color. Vulgarization is salvation.



Inside Llewyn Davis—The latest from the Coen Brothers is also set against a backdrop of early-‘60s show business, albeit a very different one than that of Saving Mr. Banks—this time it’s the folkie scene in New York. Llewyn, stunningly played by Oscar Isaac, is a performer in the Village clubs. He sings and plays traditional-style folk songs beautifully, but he’s a chronic screw-up, basically homeless, sleeping on other people’s couches after gigs, impregnating women—including, possibly, the wife (Carey Mulligan) of his best friend (Justin Timberlake)—and even losing his benefactor’s cat on the streets. His blundering odyssey from New York to Chicago and back is infuriating to watch—it’s as if the Coens are deliberately trying to see how annoyed they can make us with a protagonist and still keep rooting for him. I almost began to wonder if they were trying to make people hate folk music (more than most do already).

But I, at least, did keep rooting for Llewyn (except in his encounters with animals), and while it’s far from the Coen’s best work, the movie, with its weird humor and unpredictable twists, has stuck in my head since I’ve seen it.



Walking With Dinosaurs 3-D—This feature was made using the same techniques as the popular BBC series aired in the US on the Discovery Channel: majestic live settings (Alaska and New Zealand) into which computer-generated, more or less scientifically-accurate dinosaurs are added, creating the sense of a live nature documentary about the extinct beasts. Unlike the documentaries, however, this movie adds corny voice-over dialogue to turn the story into a kids-friendly adventure. The coming-of-age plot follows a young Pachyrhinosaurus, called Patchi, who has a distinguishing (and occasionally musical) hole in his frill, through his perilous, predator-filled migrations, his conflict with his brother Scowler, his love for a pretty she-dino called Juniper, and his eventual rise through the herd hierarchy.

Justin Long provides the voice of Patchi, and the narration and commentary is provided by John Leguizamo as the bird that rides on his back. The blend of kidflick dramatics with the occasional harshness of the paleontological accuracy creates an odd effect, but the movie is great to look at—even some of the 3D effects are worthwhile—and the young audiences seem to respond to it.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

SAY WIN

Phoenix Film Critics Society has announced our 2013 Award Winners...



BEST PICTURE

12 Years a Slave

TOP TEN FILMS OF 2013 (in alphabetical order)

12 Years a Slave

American Hustle

Captain Phillips

Dallas Buyers Club

Gravity

Mud

Nebraska
Philomena

Saving Mr. Banks

Short Term 12

BEST DIRECTOR

Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity

BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE

Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

Lupito Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave

BEST ENSEMBLE ACTING

American Hustle

BEST SCREENPLAY - ORIGINAL

Nebraska

BEST SCREENPLAY - ADAPTATION

12 Years a Slave

BEST LIVE ACTION FAMILY FILM (Rated G or PG)

Oz, The Great and Powerful

THE OVERLOOKED FILM OF THE YEAR

(TIE)

The Kings of Summer

And

The Spectacular Now

BEST ANIMATED FILM

Frozen

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

Blue is the Warmest Color

BEST DOCUMENTARY

20 Feet from Stardom

BEST ORIGINAL SONG

"Let It Go," Frozen

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

Frozen

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Gravity

BEST FILM EDITING

Gravity

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

Gravity

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

The Great Gatsby

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

Gravity

BEST STUNTS

Fast & Furious 6

BREAKTHROUGH PERFORMANCE ON CAMERA

Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis

BREAKTHROUGH PERFORMANCE BEHIND THE CAMERA

Lake Bell, In a World...

BEST PERFORMANCE BY A YOUTH IN A LEAD OR SUPPORTING ROLE, MALE

Tye Sheridan, Mud

BEST PERFORMANCE BY A YOUTH IN A LEAD OR SUPPORTING ROLE, FEMALE

Sophie Nelisse, The Book Thief

As always, some of them reflect my voting—I was especially delighted to see Lake Bell win Breakthrough Performance Behind the Camera for her overlooked comedy In a World…—and some don’t, but it’s a list full of movies worth seeing.

Although Bruce Dern didn’t win Best Actor for his beautiful underplaying in Nebraska, the movie did win for Best Original Screenplay. So, just since Dern is one of my favorite actors…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to any specimen of the Zanti Misfits…


…stars of the like-titled 1963 Outer Limits episode, in which the young Dern appeared as an Earthly Misfit who has an unhappy encounter with the alien exiles…

Monday, December 16, 2013

LOVE IT AND LIST IT

In honor of the mighty Smaug, check out my list of the great pop-culture dragons on Topless Robot.



Valley holiday shoppers can also check out my list of some intriguing handmade gifts in his month’s issue of Phoenix Magazine


RIP to the great Peter O’Toole, passed on at 81. He’s likely to be most remembered for Lawrence of Arabia, but I love his glorious comic turn in My Favorite Year even more. RIP also to Joan Fontaine, passed on at 96, to crying-in-your-beer bard Ray Price, passed on at 87, and to Tom “Billy Jack” Laughlin, passed on at 82. Odd, somehow, to think that he was a year older than O’Toole.

Friday, December 13, 2013

LAIR RAID

Part Two of Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation of Tolkien’s The Hobbit opens today. This episode is called The Desolation of Smaug, and it can be dealt with briefly: It’s a much more exciting couple of hours than last year’s An Unexpected Journey, good as that film was.


No doubt this is because the first film, like the first film in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, was concerned in a rather deliberate way with delivering backstory and carefully setting up the reasons for the adventure to come. There was a lot of feasting and singing and portentous flashbacks and solemn declarations, and it seemed to take a while to get to the chases and battles.

The Desolation starts with a quick recap of Part One and ends with an infuriating—and highly effective—cliffhanger, and in between it’s very nearly non-stop action. Our hero, as before, is the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), who along with his full-sized pal, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), is accompanying a band of Dwarves on a quest across Tolkien’s mythic Middle Earth to recover a treasure in Dwarf-forged gold from inside a mountain.

The difficulty with getting this ancestral treasure back is that it’s guarded by Smaug, a gargantuan fire-breathing dragon who exhibits unmistakable hoarding tendencies. Bilbo is the expedition’s designated “burglar,” tasked with sneaking into Smaug’s lair and finding a McGuffin called “The Arkenstone,” a magical rock that will somehow give the Dwarves clear title to the treasure.

I think. As is so often the case for me with high fantasy stories, I got a little lost in the exposition, and was a bit unclear on the Arkenstone’s value. But it doesn’t matter much more than “the microfilm” or whatever does in a Hitchcock thriller; I just accepted that it was important that Bilbo find the thing, and that when it came to giving it up, Smaug would be a dangerously reluctant dragon.

Anyway, as no particular Tolkien buff, I can still say that I found The Hobbit: TDOS a rollicking time. It’s one showcase scene after another. We follow the lads as they encounter a giant bear who shape-shifts at times into a giant man (or maybe it’s the other way around), or escape a nest of giant spiders, or hurtle down white water rapids in empty wine casks chased by hideous Orcs—that last sequence looks ready-made for a theme park somewhere. There’s an escape from the palaces of the Elves, and a yearning between one of the Dwarves and a quite adorable She-Elf (Evangeline Lilly). And all this comes before Bilbo ever even creeps into Smaug’s lair.

When he does, Jackson gives us the most spectacular movie dragon since, at least, the terrifying monster in the splendid 1982 fantasy Dragonslayer. Voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug is a more or less traditional dragon in design, but Jackson stages an entrance for him, gradually rising from under his drifts of gold, that is nearly as good as the original King Kong’s.

A part of what makes Smaug’s introduction so hair-raising is the slyly underscaled comic takes of Martin Freeman. As Bilbo realizes the colossal monster is aware of him and he’s been caught with his hand in the ultimate cookie jar, he reacts with bemused, almost mild irritation, like somebody who’s failed to avoid a boring colleague or a tiresome neighbor.

A couple of other notes for the weekend: Those here in the Valley who might want to do the young dinosaur buffs of their acquaintance a solid might consider taking them to the Walking With Dinosaurs 3-D event tomorrow afternoon at Arizona Museum of Natural History.


Also, somebody forwarded me this year’s necrology from Turner Classic Movies. You can check it out here, it seems comprehensive compared to the one on the Oscars.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

SMAUG ALERT

Phoenix Film Critics Society, of which I am always proud to note myself a founding member, has announced its 2013 Award Nominations. As always, some of them reflect my nominating and some do not, but there are plenty of good movies on the list. The winners will be announced next week; my Top Ten list will appear here after the New Year.

In theaters this week is the next chapter in Peter Jackson’s multi-movie adaptation of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, with its grand new incarnation of the title dragon, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. So…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week let’s look back to an earlier version of Smaug, from the 1977 Rankin-Bass version of The Hobbit



…in which he was gruffly voiced by Western fixture Richard Boone.

Friday, December 6, 2013

KILLING THEM LOUDLY WITH HIS SONGS

Opening in the Valley this weekend:


Narco Cultura—“We’re bloodthirsty, crazy and we like to kill.

This is a lyric from a narcocorrida, a popular Mexican song form celebrating the exploits of drug traffickers. That specimen—a translation—may not seem like anything you wouldn’t hear in, say, gangsta hip-hop; what the gives the Narco music a particularly bizarre flavor is the juxtaposition of the grim, gruesome murder and torture that make up its subject matter with its sound—a cheerful, brassy polka beat, often carried by an oom-pah-ing sousaphone.

Shaul Schwartz’s documentary Narco Cultura contrasts two figures from the Mexican drug wars. On one side is Edgar Quintero, a singer and songwriter for the rising Los Angeles band Bukanas de Culiacan. On the other is Richi Soto, a crime scene investigator for the police in Juarez, just across the border from El Paso.

Edgar is an infectiously enthusiastic kid with a lovely voice, which he employs in romanticizing killers—sometimes he’s paid, handsomely, by a particular thug to customize a corrida just for him. He’s a happy young artist reveling in his growing popularity, and itching to spend time in Mexico and gain street cred in the gangster lifestyle he’s mostly written about from internet research.

Richi, on the other hand, spends his days collecting evidence from his city’s innumerable daily murders, most of which will be filed away and never investigated further. He works methodically, but he seems defeated, and he’s afraid to leave his house at night—several of his colleagues have been assassinated.

Schwartz bounces back and forth between these two, and the people they deal with. In Edgar’s case, it’s big crowds of smiling, dancing fans—one music industry guy refers to them as “Regular people, they go to a club, and they feel Narco for the night, you know? The next day they have to go and work.

He’s probably right. Like gangsta rap, the music has its appeal, and the fans offer perfunctory apologetics, halfheartedly claiming that the Narcos are like Robin Hoods, or that the music can be excused because it’s part of a “lifestyle” or “culture.”

Schwartz is having none of it. Against such catchphrases he shows us Richi’s workday, full of distraught mothers, wives and daughters, keening and moaning as the police pick up their loved ones—sometimes in multiple pieces—from streets which in some cases literally run red with blood. Schwartz doesn’t want us to forget that the men Edgar’s music glorifies are responsible for this awful grief.

Superficially, of course, none of this is new. You can trace it from The Sopranos through New Jack City through Scarface through "Mack the Knife" to the Cagney gangster flicks, through the odes to Bonnie and Clyde and the OK Corral and Billy the Kid and pirates and highwaymen, all the way to the medieval murder ballads. What feels different about the narcocorridas is their seeming shamelessness—most criminal rhapsodies, no matter how clearly their real pleasure derives from their seductive power fantasy, make at least a nominal pretense of being cautionary tales. The Narco songs don’t seem to bother with that obligatory element.

An industry guy claims that the songs represent “…an anti-system rebellion that’s makin’ a hero out of somebody that operates outside of the law.” But this doesn’t seem quite accurate—the songs are full of lyrics like “We follow orders.” They seem much more like propaganda for an extra-legal but very rigid system. A Juarez journalist suggests that it’s really a measure of the listeners’ sense of defeat—the songs represent the closest they can realistically imagine to a success story (the genre is banned on Mexican TV and radio, but is hugely popular in that country anyway).

Narco Cultura doesn’t have the strange, surreal feel of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, another disturbing documentary about an unembarrassed culture of slaughter. Schwartz’s movie is more straightforward and angry. It’s an extraordinary film, but be forewarned: It’s full of hideous real-life gore and violence. Sometimes to a polka beat.


The Hunger Games: Catching Fire—Jennifer Lawrence returns as heroine Katniss Everdeen in this sequel to last year’s monster hit The Hunger Games. The setting is a dystopian future America built around televised annual games that are basically a to-the-death version of the “reality series” Survivor.

In the new film’s first half, Katniss and fellow survivor Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) take a PR victory tour; in the second half they’re forced to compete again. As in the original, I must admit to a distaste for the premise—I don’t necessarily doubt its plausibility, but I’m troubled by the way we seem to be asked to root for some participants in this vile sport over others, as if we were viewers of the Games ourselves.

But also as with the original, it must be said that Catching Fire is well-made and very well-acted by the sensational cast. The new film seems to be a lot about the costumes—Lawrence is a compelling beauty, and she wears over-the-top outfits better than just about anyone in movies right now. Designer Trish Summerville keeps putting Lawrence in one outrageous get-up after another, and she doesn’t look ridiculous, she looks beautiful—or, at least, she looks more beautiful than ridiculous. Summerville should win an Oscar.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

TOO FAST, INFURIATING

Here’s my Topless Robot list of the 13 Most Chilling Fictional Ice Monsters.


I was saddened to hear of the senseless death last weekend of Paul Walker, from the Fast and the Furious franchise. I wasn’t a fan of those movies—I only ever saw the first one, if I recall—but I did very briefly meet Walker years ago, at a Q&A after the screening of that flick. He seemed like a pleasant young guy.

The screening was packed with young gearheads, and I remember that one guy asked Walker how they could have trashed one of the cars they did in that first film. Walker explained that they had done no such thing, that the destroyed car was just a mock-up. Then, to the guy’s reaction, he said “Dude, you look so relieved!”

Anyway, in Walker’s memory…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week the nod goes once again to the title ogre…



…from 1986’s Monster in the Closet, in which Walker, then a child actor, played the bespectacled “Professor.”

RIP also, by the way, to that superb actor Tony Musante, of the too-short-lived 1974 series Toma, passed on at 77.