Friday, March 28, 2014


Of all the Bible stories, the account of Noah and the Ark from Genesis is almost certainly the one that most fascinates children, and it’s not hard to see why—it’s the animals. I remember, as a kid, having a toy Noah’s Ark from some gas station, and every week they’d offer a new pair of animals with a fill-up. I think I eventually had the complete set.

But the animals are bit players in Darren Aronofsky’s new film Noah. They show up in waves—pairs of birds first, then reptiles, then the large mammals, many in prehistoric-looking species that suggest considerable evolution is still to take place post-Flood. They placidly enter the Ark, then lie down and go to sleep, like business travelers settling in to a red eye.

These sequences are sort of magical, but they’re brief, and not at all the point of this Noah. It’s only at first glance, after all, that this seems like a charming fable. Aronofsky remembers what it’s really about—the destruction of the world. Some embellishment was inevitable—in Genesis, for instance, Noah doesn’t even get any lines until after the Flood, when he curses his grandson Canaan, rather passive-aggressively, because Canaan’s father Ham told his brothers about seeing Noah sleeping off a toot in the buff.

Thus the script, which Aronofsky co-wrote with Ari Handel, envisions the pre-flood world as an industrial civilization in decline. The mines are played out, and the landscapes are bleak, scarred gravel fields denuded of trees. It doesn’t look that different than the world through which Viggo Mortensen led his son in The Road. Human society is warlike and hungry, and Noah (Russell Crowe), his anxious wife (Jennifer Connelly) and their three sons hunker down in the rocks, practicing environmental husbandry, avoiding the brutal city folk—though Noah can kick ass with a quarterstaff when necessary—and waiting to see what comes next.

This turns out to be a vision from You Know Who, telling Noah that He’s fed up with people and is about to give the planet a good wash. Noah enlists the aid of hobbling, multi-armed rock giants—Aronofsky’s backstory is that they’re angels who, having tried to help the human race after the Fall, are in a sort of semi-Fallen state themselves—and gets to work.

Human forces, led by the metalsmith/chieftain Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), cause trouble for the Noahs, but not as much as the trouble caused by Noah’s reluctance to provide wives for his sons. He’s pretty sure that “The Creator” (the film avoids the G word) is so done with humanity that he wants them to get the animals through the flood and then let themselves go extinct.

So despite the pre-emptive complaints from conservative Christians and Muslims (Noah is an important prophet in the Quran) about the movie’s liberties and its environmentalism (horrors!), this Noah features war and violence, patriarchal rigidity, generational conflict, terror of women, Abrahamic threats of infanticide—in short, it feels pretty Biblical. Especially, it feels pretty Old Testament Biblical, which is to say it’s strange, and harsh, and morally baffling, and—for me at least—quite compelling.

I went in hoping for an entertaining camp epic in the DeMille manner, and came out appreciating Aronofsky’s efforts to take the material seriously on its own terms. Not everything in the movie works, to be sure, but the occasional unintentional laughs are a relief, and the central drama—the title character’s inner struggle with whether or not humanity has any business carrying on—plays far more satisfyingly than I would have guessed it could.

This is, in large part, thanks to Crowe’s understated, haunted performance. Balancing him is Connelly’s Mrs. Noah, who ages far better over the course of the story than her hubby. She’s not the comic shrew that the role was in the medieval miracle plays, but she wants grandkids, and she’s very in touch with her feelings on this. Emma Watson also pours a lot of emotion into her role as Noah’s daughter-in-law, allowed on the Ark because she’s thought to be barren. The standout in the small supporting cast, however, is Logan Lerman as Ham, the wifeless, brooding, sympathetic middle son.

Anthony Hopkins does drop in long enough to contribute a few wry line readings as Noah’s grandfather Methuselah. At this point, one almost wonders if the makers of big blockbusters even need to call Hopkins any more, or if he just mysteriously shows up at the set, like the animals showing up at the Ark.

Thursday, March 27, 2014


A pal of mine…

Monster-of-the-Week: …sent me this flyer:

So let’s make the leaper this week’s honoree. I’m not familiar with this band, but I highly approve of their taste in Creatures.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


Having been out of town for the screening of Muppets Most Wanted, I didn’t catch up with the film until The Wife, The Kid and I took in a matinee this past weekend.

Like all Muppets flicks, it certainly has funny moments, but it seemed oddly overlong and overambitious, with an unnecessarily complicated caper-thriller plot. Some of the songs by Bret McKenzie were good, but there were too many of them, too, and none were home-runs. The human stars are Ricky Gervais and Ty Burrell, neither of whom get enough to do, and Tina Fey, who sings surprisingly pretilly as a gulag commandant.

Half Price Books is running a literary sidekick bracket to coincide with March Madness. Neat idea, but some of their candidates don’t seem quite right to me, notably Pepper Potts from the Ironman comics—shouldn’t a love interest automatically disqualify a character from sidekick status?

Thursday, March 20, 2014


Here are Your Humble Narrator and The Kid in front of the Luxor, where we stayed in Vegas this past weekend…

The sphinxes, jackals and obelisks put me in an Egyptian frame of mind, so…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to one of the all-time greats, The ambulatory Mummy from the Universal stable, as realized here in the marvelous ‘60s-era box art by James Bama for the Aurora Famous Monsters model kit…

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


Your Humble Narrator is back after a couple of days in Vegas, where I got roughed up in broad daylight by Marvel Comics riffraff, right on The Strip. The Kid got a picture of the ugly incident…

Here we are overlooking Lake Mead on the way back to Phoenix…

Out on DVD is the Disney smash Frozen. Check out this pretty cool version of “Let It Go” in a bunch of languages...

Friday, March 14, 2014


Opening this week:

The Grand Budapest Hotel--Wes Anderson’s latest is set in another of his seamlessly-imagined alternative realities. This time, it’s a fortress-like resort hotel in a mountainous eastern-European nation. At the core of a couple of nesting-doll-like frame stories, the main action concerns the adventures of the Grand Budapest’s hapless but unflappable concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) and his sidekick, the neophyte lobby-boy Zero Moustafa, charmingly played by Tony Revolori as a boy. F. Murray Abraham plays Zero’s older self, telling the story in the 1960s to a young writer (Jude Law) staying at the now-shabby hotel.

Gustave sees his duties as including gigolo services to the hotel’s wealthy, elderly—in some cases octogenarian—female guests. When he is implicated in the murder of one of these ladies—who has left him an impressive legacy—he and Zero are chased across “Zubrowka” by the sinister agent (Willem Dafoe) of her rotten son (Adrien Brody).

This is, I think, about as simply as the plot can be explained. There are dozens of characters, all manner of intrigues, subplots, chases, gun battles, romances, delicious-looking baked goods, and eccentric characterizations by a cast that includes Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Harvey Keitel, Saoirise Ronan, Bob Balaban, Edward Norton, Mathieu Amalric, Jason Schwartzman and others, all in good form. Fiennes gives maybe his funniest and most endearing performance. It’s the usual Anderson shtick, and if, like me, you buy into his visions, you’ll probably find The Grand Budapest Hotel a delight.

Or mostly a delight, anyway. Grand Budapest is slightly marred, or at least was marred for me, by odd touches of violence—fingers severed by a sliding door, prison guards massacred during an escape, a casually murdered pet—that feel jarringly out-of-key with the general atmosphere of stylized whimsy. Other Anderson films have shown this trait—the arrow killing the dog in Moonrise Kingdom, for instance, or the fatal helicopter crash in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. I’ve always guessed that it’s Anderson trying to force some dramatic gravity into his fictions, to keep them from seeming too trivial.

He probably felt even more pressure in this direction with The Grand Budapest Hotel, because of the setting and the period. On the whole, Europe in the mid-20th Century was no picnic, and since there are no Nazis or Fascists in the movie, the gruesome touches in The Grand Budapest Hotel may have been the director’s attempt to reassure the audience (especially its older members) that he knows this.

But this doesn’t seem any more substantial than anything else in the film—just less good-natured. F. Murray Abraham’s magnificent voice, narrating from weary decades later, carries all the poignant melancholy the movie needed to offset its lightness. The Grand Budapest Hotel is the work of mature master confectioner; its violence seems self-consciously scribbled on its surface, by Anderson’s adolescent inner vandal.

RazeViolence is also the issue in this exploitation melodrama, opening today and playing this week at Filmbar Phoenix. It stars the marvelous actress and stuntwoman Zoe Bell, best known for Tarantino’s Death Proof, as Sabrina, one of a bunch of women who have found themselves abducted and imprisoned in an underground bunker and forced to fight each other, mano a mano, to the death, in an elimination tournament.

They’re told that if they die, their loved ones will be murdered, and the survivors are shown videos to prove it. Running this vile spectacle is a husband-and-wife team (Doug Jones and Sherilyn Fenn) of unctuous sickos; the audience, watching on video monitors, are rich scumbags.

I sat there watching this film, directed by Josh C. Waller from a script by Robert Beaucage, wondering why it seemed so toxically more vicious than innumerable action films with very similar premises, in most of which the combatants were male—just last year, for instance, I enjoyed the Keanu Reeves-directed Man of Tai Chi, the plot of which, in bare outline, is close to identical. Was my reflexive revulsion to Raze just cultural Victorianism because the cast was distaff?

It can’t have been only that, because while I don’t much like the Hunger Games flicks, which also employ this idea and a warrior heroine, I’m not appalled by them in the same way I was by this film. Perhaps it’s because the fight scenes in Raze are so furiously savage and concentrated, and the actresses—among them Tracie Thoms, Bell’s costar from Death Proof—give off a despairing sense of empathy for the opponents they have little choice but to pummel. Anyway, while I found the first two-thirds of Raze more grueling than fun, it doesn’t seem fair to censure a movie for making hideous violence seem hideous.

Based on this description, your own tastes should tell you if Raze is for you. I wouldn’t quite call it torture porn, but it carries some of that genre’s dismal stink. In any case, on its own terms, it’s effective. When (spoiler alert!) Sabrina at last gets around to some vengeance against her captors, I can’t claim I’m sufficiently pure-hearted not to have enjoyed it.

Thursday, March 13, 2014


Your Humble Narrator wouldn’t have thought anything could have interested him in the Arena Football League. But getting to interview several members of the Arizona Rattlers...

...for this month’s issue of Phoenix Magazine, currently on the stands, proved me wrong; the experience was fascinating, and now I want to go to a game. You can get a taste of my story about the players, who pursue day jobs alongside their gridiron duties, here, or read the whole thing on page 110.

So in honor of the Rattlers, whose season starts this weekend…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to any of the title characters in the 1976 low-budgeter Rattlers...

...a horde of reptiles gone homicidal after exposure to secret military chemicals. Let’s hope the Arizona Rattlers are every bit as ferocious to the opposition in their upcoming season—without the literal deadliness, of course, and without the chemicals.

Friday, March 7, 2014


The format of the Peabody’s Improbable History segments on the old Bullwinkle cartoons was always pretty much the same. Wryly erudite Mr. Peabody and his enthusiastic ward Sherman would use their miraculous time machine the WABAC to visit some major historical figure. They would find Magellan or Napoleon or Marco Polo or Paul Revere or Beethoven or Zebulon Pike or whoever it was, usually personified as a radio-comedy ethnic stereotype, faced with some absurd obstacle to their greatest historical achievement. Peabody would then offer an equally absurd solution.

The implication was that we owed the Western Tradition to the paradoxical retroactive intercession of a little white dog in spectacles and a red bowtie who spoke like a Boston-Brahmin academic. Sherman served as his gee-whiz Boswell, and as audience for the excruciating puns with which Peabody closed his adventures.

When I was a kid, Mr. Peabody was who I wanted to be when I grew up. He wasn’t my only role model—there was also Mr. Spock, and the Professor from Gilligan’s Island, and maybe Tom Lehrer. You get the idea. I wanted to be calm and benignly ironic yet genuinely and helpfully engaged with humanity. The result, of course, was an insufferable pedantic know-it-all who got beat up a lot.

The aspiration hasn’t worked out for me in adulthood, either—I’m too slow-witted, emotional and sentimental to get anywhere near that ideal. But I still love Peabody. There’s a tiny Peabody standing on my desk as I type these words, arms spread wide as if inviting an embrace.

This is all by way of making clear how complicated my feelings are about the feature film Mr. Peabody & Sherman, opening today.

Because Peabody is such an icon for me, I was, on the one hand, delighted to see him widely celebrated. On the other, I went into the film with trepidation, knowing that the simple, silly conceit of the crudely-animated original cartoons would be twisted to fit the tropes of the contemporary animated feature for kids.

The new film, directed by Rob Minkoff from a script by Craig Wright and several other hands, devises an adventure which allows our heroes visits to the French Revolution—Peabody rides a tumbrel and narrowly escapes the Guillotine—ancient Egypt, Leonardo’s Florence and the Trojan War. But of course all this must be strung along a present-day plot about Peabody’s custody of Sherman being challenged after the boy gets in a fight with a bullying girl at school, and the sting Peabody feels when Sherman resents the girl calling him “a dog.” Sherman gives the bully-girl an unauthorized ride in the WABAC, which results in peril to the space-time continuum, but also to a softening of feelings between the two.

If you find this sort of thing unworthy of the original Peabody’s dignity, I agree. But taken on its own merits, Mr. Peabody & Sherman is very cute, and though I could have done with less of the big time-warp climax, I must admit that the film isn’t dumbed-down, either—it’s full of ingenious gags, many of them witty cultural allusions but a surprising number of them mildly scatological low comedy. It even has a couple of pretty good, by which I mean terrible, puns.

Ty Burrell and Max Charles sound passably reminiscent of Bill Scott (incredibly, the same guy who voiced Bullwinkle and Dudley Do-Right) and Walter Tetley from the originals. The cast also includes Stanley Tucci as Leonardo, Lake Bell as Mona Lisa, Mel Brooks as Einstein and Patrick Warburton as a frat-boy-like Agamemnon.

It all works; my eleven-year-old was thoroughly entertained. A Peabody purist might growl at the idea of Peabody being subject to ordinary paternal anxieties—it takes him, somehow, from civilized to, well, tame.

But for most audiences this would be the pickiest of nitpicking. Mr. Peabody & Sherman is charming, and it’s built on a pretty sound joke—time travel is easy; parenting is hard.

Thursday, March 6, 2014


Not everyone knows that noble canine Mr. Peabody and his loyal boy Sherman…

…whose big-time movie vehicle opens tomorrow, were originally created for the Bullwinkle stock company by cartoonist Ted Key, better known for creating that presumptuous domestic Hazel. Key also created…

Monster-of-the-Week: …a lesser canine, but still a worthy choice for his week’s honoree: the title character in Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World

…a 1973 British movie based on a book by Key. It need hardly be said that Digby, who accidentally ate an experimental growth formula, doesn’t have Peabody’s brains. He’d make an intimidating watchdog, but feeding and cleaning up after him wouldn’t be fun…