Friday, February 28, 2014

IT DOESN'T BLOW

Hayao Miyazaki’s Oscar-nominated animated feature The Wind Rises, opening here in the Valley this weekend, is one of the most visually and kinetically beautiful movies I’ve ever seen. Miyazaki has claimed that this dizzying paean to the glories of aviation will be his last film, and if so, he’s certainly going out on top, although it’s a morally complicated, troubling triumph.


In content, the movie is a heavily romanticized biopic of Jiro Horikoshi, the aeronautical engineer whose designs for Mitsubishi in the ‘30s led to the Japanese warplanes of the WWII era. According to Miyazaki’s script, as a boy Horikoshi idolized the Italian aircraft designer Gianni Caproni, and the movie dramatizes this hero-worship by making them “friends” through shared dreams of riding in the sort of huge, elegant, multi-winged passenger airplanes that Caproni envisioned, like his magnificent and hopeless nine-winged “Noviplano.” The young Jiro wears coke-bottle lenses on his face, and thus glumly knows he won’t be a pilot, but his dream mentor tells him that designing airplanes is a far more prestigious pursuit anyway.

As a child in rural Pennsylvania, I lived along the runway of a small recreational airpark and flight school, and while I never had aspirations to be a pilot, I can vividly recall dreams not very dissimilar to Jiro’s—blue skies full of impossibly large, roomy flying contraptions. This imagery gives The Wind Rises an epic grandeur, as do, on the darker side, such scenes as a depiction of the 1923 earthquake that demolished Tokyo.

But the film also has, or at least it had for me, a riveting perceptual intimacy. Miyazaki’s intense primary colors, the subtlety of his light-and-shadow effects (and sound effects), and the eccentricity of his compositions deliver the past to us with a joyous hallucinatory immediacy that live action filmmaking, no matter how fine, couldn’t equal. There are moments, lots of them, which feel, somehow, like time travel. Strictly as cinema, The Wind Rises is heavenly.

It’s not that simple on the level of content, however. In one of their dream conversations, Caproni also tells the young Jiro that airplanes aren’t for war, or for making money; that airplanes are, rather, “beautiful dreams.” Well, yeah, but….

Herein, of course, lies the difficulty with The Wind Rises. The charmingly told hero struggle we’re watching is the development of the Zero, the airplane that attacked Pearl Harbor and brought so much misery and death to so many people, Allies and Axis alike. Toward the end of the film, Jiro and a friend are discussing the uses to which their design will likely be put, the other countries against which it will be used. “Japan will blow up,” says one, little knowing how literally right he will be, as a result of another, less aesthetically pleasing innovation in weaponry in another country.

“We’re not arms merchants,” says the other. “We just want to build good aircraft.” That justification might be acceptable from a boy, but from grown men, fully aware of the implications of their work, it just sounds obtuse.

Of course, anyone can find themselves on the wrong side of a war, and even if you’re on the “right” side you’re still peddling ruin and slaughter to the innocent if you’re a weapons designer. It doesn’t necessarily invalidate you morally, but there’s something a little queasy about celebrating the pure creative spirit that led you to build flying death machines.

That Miyazaki fully recognizes and acknowledges this difficulty, maybe even regards it as the point of his movie, doesn’t entirely banish the queasiness. Like Miyazaki’s other works, The Wind Rises is a movie to be savored, even loved. But it carries with it a stubborn unease.

Check out my list, on Topless Robot, of 10 Terrible Earlier Movies by this Year’s Oscar nominees. Enjoy Oscar night, if you care. Come to think of it, enjoy the night, whether you care or not.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

REVERSAL TO FORTUNE

Opening tomorrow here in the Valley is the Oscar-nominated animated feature The Wind Rises, which the great Hayao Miyazaki claims will be his swansong film.

So this week…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to a Japanese monster, or rather to an Western reimagining of a Japanese monster which a pal posted to my facebook page:


I like the idea; I’m calling him “Allizdog.”

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

HAROLD THE GREAT

RIP to Harold Ramis, passed on at 69, which is way too young.



A pretty solid argument can be made that, in his unassuming way, Ramis just sort of was popular American movie comedy from the late ‘70s until the advent of Judd Apatow—he wrote, co-wrote, directed, acted in, or some combination of the above, National Lampoon’s Animal House, Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters II, Groundhog Day and the criminally underrated, hilarious but fiercely touching Stuart Saves His Family, the best movie ever adapted from a Saturday Night Live sketch. He had a couple of clunkers, sure, but his batting average was insanely high.

Also, he was for a while the head writer on SCTV, the second-greatest TV sketch comedy of all time (second only to Monty Python’s Flying Circus), even though he was American, not Canadian. As if all this weren’t humbling enough, he played one-scene roles in a couple of movies he didn’t write or direct, As Good As It Gets and Apatow’s Knocked Up, and added notes of warmth and sweetness both times. He was awesome and lovable and he’ll be enormously missed.

Friday, February 21, 2014

LAVA CAMP

Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson of the Resident Evil flicks, Pompeii begins with a few onscreen lines from Pliny the Younger, powerfully describing the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius that buried the title city and many of its inhabitants in 79 A.D. Pliny had witnessed the sudden event, which centuries later would provide archeologists with a snapshot of provincial Roman life, at the age of 17. It so happened I had reread Pliny’s account the afternoon before the screening, in anticipation of the movie.


Rather optimistically I suppose, I was holding out some dim hope that Pliny and his famous uncle Pliny the Elder, who died in the eruption, might be characters in the new film. They aren’t, but the stock figures and melodramatic clich├ęs out of which the film is made date back farther than the disaster itself.

Well, OK, maybe most of the motifs date from as recently as Gladiator and Spartacus and the spaghetti westerns and, especially, Titanic. Like that film, Pompeii takes place against the backdrop of a horrific catastrophe the popular perception of which has grown quaint and even romanticized with historical distance. Also like Cameron’s film, it’s built around star-crossed lovers—Cassia (Emily Browning), a patrician girl, and Milo (Kit Harington), a pouty-looking Celt gladiator brought to Pompeii to fight at a festival. Both, for very different reasons—both connected to the same person, however—bear Rome a grudge.

Neither are particularly interesting characters. Harington is on a show I haven’t watched called Game of Thrones, and he’s lively enough, but the character is storybook simple—brave and innately gallant, despite a life of brutal bondage. He’s even a horse whisperer. The nymph-like Browning gets even less to play as the noble and egalitarian Cassia.

As is usually the case, the real fun in Pompeii comes from the supporting cast, and from the wild spectacle, and plenty of fun they both provide. Once it gets going, the movie is an utterly headlong, non-stop ride, so feverishly paced that it becomes funny. Happily, the actors manage not to get crushed (unless the script requires it). Jared Harris is excellent as Cassia’s weakling Dad, a would-be urban developer of a sort not remotely unfamiliar here in Phoenix, who’s trying to smooch the butts of the investors from Rome. Boy are he, and they, in for a surprise.

Carrie-Anne Moss is serviceable as Cassia’s Mom, and Jessica Lucas was, I thought, cuter than the heroine as Cassia’s servant and BFF. Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje is imposing as always as a gladiator who must kill Milo to earn his freedom; they of course become pals. But the real juice in the cast comes from the bad guys—Kiefer Sutherland as a loathsome, heartless senator, and Sasha Roiz as his murderous henchman. The desire to see these two creeps get their comeuppance is intense, always the sign of a well-done villain.

Alongside all of this roiling drama, Vesuvius serves as little more than a plot device—indeed, the movie goes so far as to hint that the eruption may be a gift from the gods to help Milo avenge himself on those who have wronged him! In any case, much like in the disaster movies of the ‘70s, the destruction is amusing to watch. Unlike Titanic, Anderson’s computer-generated depiction of Pompeii’s doom stirs up little genuine dread. Say what you will about the hokey dramatics in Titanic, but Cameron really did generate a frightening sense of how much it would have sucked to be on that freaking boat.

In Anderson’s Pompeii, by contrast, the characters have all the time, stamina and leisure they need to engage in swordfights, exchange taunts, settle old scores, all with flaming pumice raining down around them. At one point Milo remarks to Cassia “We have to get to the harbor.” You think? Nothing gets past these Celtic boys.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

OUR FEATURELESS ATTRACTION

With Pompeii—or, as it’s pronounced by Mayor Shinn in The Music Man, “Pompee-eye”—opening tomorrow…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to Quintillius Aurelis, title character of 1958’s Curse of the Faceless Man. His moniker doesn’t refer to cipher-like anonymity; the poor fellow literally has no face…


He’s a petrified gladiator found in the ruins of the town regrettably at the foot of Vesuvius, but the petrifaction doesn’t extend to his libido. As the poster says: “ENTOMBED FOR EONS…TURNED TO STONE…SEEKING WOMEN—WOMEN—WOMEN!”



Well, after all, 79 A.D. to 1958 is a pretty long time between, you know, eruptions…

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

FALLON MAN

Thank you…


For me, the funniest thing about Jimmy Fallon is his inflection of those two words, in his recurring “Thank You Note” segment on Late Night. If you watched the show Friday nights, you’ve seen the shtick—to the accompaniment of a poignant piano theme, Fallon takes a few minutes before the first guest segment to catch up on his thank you notes, speaking them out loud as he writes them on cards (which he doesn’t take the time to seal). They’re often addressed not to individual people but to inanimate objects and concepts, as in:

Thank you, cotton candy, for making my grandmother’s hair look delicious.

Thank you, microbreweries, for making my alcoholism seem like a neat hobby.

Clever as many of these are—two volumes of them have been published—I think it’s less the quips than Fallon’s presentation that makes them funny: his soft, lost-in-thought murmur, and the sense of spiritual cleansing provided by the music.

Born in Brooklyn but raised in upstate New York, Fallon was a Saturday Night Live nut from early childhood. He broke onto that show in his mid-20s in 1998, with his gift for impressions, especially of musicians. By 2000 he was the co-anchor, with Tina Fey, of SNL’s “Weekend Update” segment.

He acted in a few movies, notably Almost Famous, Woody Allen’s Anything Else and the dreadful action comedy Taxi, without making much of an impression, before being tapped to take over for Conan O’Brien on Late Night when O’Brien, in turn, left to take over Jay Leno’s Tonight Show for what turned out to be a painfully short tenure—NBC returned the antsy Leno to the host’s chair, and O'Brien was exiled to TBS, where he remains.

Fallon, however, settled in nicely in the Late Night slot, with his thank-you notes and his good-natured musical parodies. Now, after Leno’s teary-eyed farewell earlier this month, and some time off for the first week of the Olympics, Fallon yesterday became the 6th host of The Tonight Show (or maybe the 7th, if you count Leno twice).

It’s hard to say, but I think it could be a good fit. Although he had some fine bits—his “headlines” routine, especially—I was never able to warm up to Leno as the great Carson’s successor. Leno, with his prickly, nettled persona, was one of the best American stand-ups ever back in the ‘80s, but he grotesquely softened and dumbed-down his act for The Tonight Show—there was always something unctuous and wheedling and pitifully desperate not to offend about him. And ill-treated though he was, it must be admitted that somehow O’Brien’s aggressive brilliance didn’t quite fit the classic flavor of that show either.

Fallon, on the other hand, has always used a soft, fuzzy persona, an amiable vagueness. Talented though he is, you wouldn’t think to use the word “brilliant” in connection with him. I don’t mean to suggest that he isn’t intelligent, only that his appeal as a performer derives more from his likability than from his intelligence or wit. He’s unlikely to replace Carson—nobody’s likely to do that—but unlike Leno or O’Brien, he has no need to dumb down his humor to be easy for the mainstream audience to take. Put bluntly, he doesn’t need to sell out to succeed.

And he says he isn’t going to: “I’m not going to change anything,” he’s reportedly said. “It’s more eyeballs watching, but it’s the same show.

Based on his first show, he seems to be keeping his word. After a brief prologue in which he acknowledged the past hosts and touchingly introduced his parents and explained what The Tonight Show meant to him as a kid, he went back behind the curtain and then re-emerged to do a more or less business-as-usual show. The guests were perhaps bigger-name than usual, and a gag early on allowed for a parade of really big-name cameos, but the loose style—a silly dance skit with Will Smith; a lovely acoustic number by U2—was the same that he’s been using for years, an hour later. Would that Leno had had the same confidence.

Check out this portrait of Your Humble Narrator...


...drawn by Vince Larue for his upcoming Southwest Noir project, to which I’m proud to be a contributor…

Check out Mr. Peabody and Sherman getting honored on Hollywood Boulevard, in anticipation of their March 7 movie…




All I can say is, it's about freaking time.

RIP to Mary Grace Canfield, TV’s perennial dowdy spinster, and guest star on “A Date for Gomer,” one of the sweetest episodes of The Andy Griffith Show, departed at 89…

Thursday, February 13, 2014

EYE SECOND THE MOTION

RIP to Shirley Temple Black, passed on at 85. There’s something rather superb about the quintessential pop-culture child living to such a ripe old age. RIP also to the genuinely freakin’ hilarious Sid Caesar, passed on at 91.

This is quite probably the most awesome piece of TV sports journalism I’ve ever seen.

This week The Wife, The Kid and I have been geeking out pretty happily to the Winter Olympics from Sochi. In honor of—and with wishes of a speedy recovery too—poor Bob Costas, sidelined from his Olympic hosting duties by an icky-looking eye infection…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to the title character from 1958 British shocker The Crawling Eye



…or, as it was known in Britain, The Trollenberg Terror. Youtube offers a taste of this epic, or the whole thing.

Friday, February 7, 2014

OLD MASTERS AND CUBISM

Opening this weekend:


The Monuments Men—It’s worth remembering that the Nazis weren’t just murderers, they were also thieves, looting and hoarding the art treasures of the countries they occupied. Formed in 1943 to work against this shameless robbery was the Monuments, Fine Art and Archives program, known for short as the Monuments Men, a division of Allied forces made up of artists, restorers, collectors, architects and the like in charge of recovering and returning this incomparable booty.

Out of Robert M. Edsel’s acclaimed nonfiction book on this outfit’s intriguing exploits, George Clooney and cronies have crafted a throwback. The Monuments Men is sort of a benign, high-minded version of the facetious buddy-ensemble military actioners that were popular in the ‘60s and ‘70s, like The Dirty Dozen and Kelly’s Heroes and What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? Like those films, it’s not likely to be regarded as a piece of high cinematic art, and like those films, it’s relaxed and engaging—a guy movie for middle-aged gallery rats. The composer, Alexandre Desplat, even provides a jaunty march theme, a la The Great Escape.

Clooney co-produced and co-wrote the script with his frequent partner Grant Heslov (who has a small role as an army surgeon), and provided the easygoing direction. As an earnest MFAA Lieutenant, Clooney also leads his cast into battle, searching for such prizes as Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna and the Van Eyck Ghent Altarpiece. His followers include Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban and Hugh Bonneville. It may be noted that most of these guys are a trifle long in the tooth for basic training, and Clooney doesn’t hesitate to use gray hair and paunches for their comic value.

But these actors are proven good company, and that’s what they add up to here. Murray and Balaban pair off into a mild comedy team, and Goodman and Dujardin show a pleasing rapport together as well. Damon is particularly good, managing a few sweet, wistful scenes with Cate Blanchett, as his Parisian contact who has secretly tracked the art’s destinations (her character is based on the marvelous real-life Resistance figure Rose Valland), without trying to turn them into feverish drama.

While recognizing its limitations, I enjoyed The Monuments Men a lot. It’s fascinating material, and the cast is tough to beat, and its old-fashioned feel carries, for guys of my age, a nice dose of nostalgia. But I think the real source of its charm may be that it begins as the war is ending—with the Nazis in ignominious retreat, and the shattered ruins of western Europe starting to take a breath. The very fact that the Allies could start worrying about getting art back to its owners was a sign that the good guys were winning.

Because of this, the lackadaisical pace that Clooney sets is almost a benefit. The Monuments Men is no monumental movie, but it’s suffused with a refreshing sense of day breaking after a long and horrible night.


The Lego Movie—Not only did I never have Lego building blocks as a kid, I don’t remember ever playing with them at school or at another kid’s house. Nor did I regard myself as especially deprived by this absence in my toy box. Thus I was an unlikely audience member for The Lego Movie, and thus I was surprised to find myself laughing out loud at a lot of this computer-animated kids' comedy-fantasy, and to walk out of it thinking that I seen something sort of brilliant, even slightly thought-provoking.

In the generic Lego city of Bricksburg, rank-and-file construction worker Emmet, voiced by Chris Pratt, finds himself the object of a prophecy—he’s told he’s “The Special,” the “Master Builder” who can save the (Lego) universe from schemes of the tyrannical President Business (Will Ferrell). The trouble is that Emmet is an enthusiastic conformist who only wants to follow the instructions and fit in.

This leads to a fast-moving and highly complex, but as far as I could tell seamlessly-thought-out, adventure involving everybody from a wizard (Morgan Freeman) to a woman of action (Elizabeth Banks) to a “Unikitty” (unicorn/kitty hybrid) to licensed characters like Batman (Will Arnett, growling amusingly) Superman (Channing Tatum) and the Green Lantern (Jonah Hill) to a villainous Bad Cop with a kindly Good Cop on the other side of his swiveling head (both are voiced by Liam Neeson).

Much good comedy is derived from the limited range of motion possible for rigid Lego figures, and the dialogue is witty too. Yet the movie manages, without so much as a wisp of pretentiousness, to hint at some troubling allegorical resonances about conformity and creativity in human society. The whole thing, if you’ll excuse my saying so, snaps together nicely.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

IN A LEAGUE OF ITS OWN

Happy birthday to the great Jules Verne!



It's been easy for me to remember that February 8 is Verne's birthday since I noticed it in his bio page in the back of some Classics Illustrated comic as a kid, and was filled with bitter envy of my friend Mike, who shared that birthday. Had I known in those days that I share a birthday with Leonard Nimoy, it might have lessened my envy somewhat.

Anyway...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...in Verne's honor let's give the nod to that terrifying sea titan, the giant squid from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, as spectacularly depicted in Disney's fine 1954 adaptation...



...or on the cover of the album which I played endlessly as a kid...



Check out Kirk Douglas singing "Whale of a Tale."

Monday, February 3, 2014

P.S.

It was miserable to learn, on Super Bowl Sunday, of the death, at 46, of Philip Seymour Hoffman.


The word “great” gets thrown around a little too liberally in popular criticism, and I’m sure I’ve been guilty of this, but I mean it when I say that Hoffman was a great actor. Just a day or two before he passed on I had been thinking about how oddly lovable he was as Art Howe in 2011’s Moneyball, and what a top-notch artist he was.

Hoffman will be remembered for his star turns in high dramas like Capote and The Savages and Doubt, and rightly so. But I think I, and probably many other movie lovers, may treasure his eccentric, vibrant supporting parts in stuff like Charlie Wilson’s War and Nobody’s Fool and Boogie Nights and The Big Lebowski and, especially, as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous even more. He had much more great acting in him—he should have lived to old age, and become one of those indestructible character actors like Olivier or Gielgud or Morgan Freeman, who just keep showing up and making stupid action and sci-fi movies worth sitting through. The loss is infuriating and heartbreaking.