Friday, August 28, 2015

LILY IN THE VALLEY

Opening this weekend:


Grandma Lily Tomlin plays Elle, a widowed poet, sort of famous by poet standards several decades ago, now eking out a meager L.A. existence with lecturing and writer-in-residence gigs. Elle’s granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) shows up one morning in a jam and needing a few hundred bucks, but Grandma’s broke at the moment.

Like last year’s Obvious Child, this comedy-drama from Paul Weitz concerns a young woman who, unlike Diablo Cody’s Juno, is in no serious doubt about her desire for an abortion. Elle and her granddaughter are both reluctant to face the wrath of her high-powered daughter (Marcia Gay Harden) so they set off in Elle’s 1955 Dodge Royal in search of anyone else they can hit up.

It’s a simple, poignant story, but the great Tomlin gives it comic force. Or she did for me, anyway. I’ve never been able to resist Tomlin, not since I was a small child. I interviewed her once, and she cracked me up to a professionally unseemly degree. While most of her lines in Grandma aren’t laugh lines, on paper, her blunt, declarative delivery makes the cantankerous yet kind Elle a potently mirthful figure.

But this enhances her authority rather than undermining it. When she says, in that Detroit accent, that they should stop and buy a couple of dollars worth of gas—“stahp and buy a couple of dahllers wirth of gahss”—it somehow has the quality of a Biblical pronouncement.

Garner, wistful beneath a Jean Harlow-like blond halo, wisely does little more than hang back and serve as Tomlin’s foil. Most of the other cast members that pop up in the episodic storyline—including the late lamented Elizabeth Pena—do the same, but one actor is allowed to shine: Sam Elliot, as Grandma’s distant ex.

Over the last couple of decades Elliot has sometimes been on the borderline of a joke—a piece of prime ‘70s beefcake that aged uncommonly well, an endearing, easygoing hunk emeritus. In his brief scene in Grandma, however, he reveals a painful bit of Elle’s backstory, and in the process gives maybe the most startlingly intense performance of his career.


No EscapeOwen Wilson has taken a job with an American firm operating in an unnamed Southeast Asian country, and has moved there with his wife (Lake Bell) and two daughters. They aren’t even there a day, however, before the government is overthrown and the revolutionaries are massacring people in the streets, including Americans. They have a special resentment for Wilson’s company.

So for the rest of the movie, Wilson and his wife frantically try to elude the murderous mobs and get their kids to safety. They’re eventually helped by Pierce Brosnan as a skirt-chasing Brit expat who [spoiler!] turns out to be with British Intelligence.

Directed by John Erick Dowdle from a script he wrote with his brother Drew Dowdle, No Escape is undeniably gripping, especially in its first half. As it progresses, the hairbreadth escapes and turns of good fortune grow harder and harder to accept, and the dialogue grows more sanctimonious, but the situation keeps us invested until the end credits.

The stars are well-cast, too. Beautiful, strapping Lake Bell has the right physicality for this brave and capable Mom, and Wilson, with his boyishly openhearted American-idiot persona, is a perfect fit for the clueless hero. You think, really? You took this job and dragged your family to this distant country without so much as spending ten minutes reading up on Wikipedia about the potential problems there?  But then you look at Wilson and think, yeah, it’s possible.

No Escape isn’t boring, but it is distasteful. It was hard for me to shake the sense that we’re meant to see what happens to this family as extra-special horrible because it happens to middle-class white Americans. It’s true that Brosnan’s deus ex machina character is given a heavy-handed little speech in which he says all the right things about how western influence in repressive regimes leads to this sort of horror. This seems intended to preempt charges of xenophobia, but it’s cosmetic. The visceral impact of the film is Yellow Peril, all the way.

Playing this week at FilmBar Phoenix:



Turbo KidThis actioner is set in the post-apocalyptic year of…1997. The conceit is that we’re seeing a cheesy sci-fi flick of the ‘80s, a low-budget Road Warrior knockoff in the vein of Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone or Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared Syn or World Gone Wild or Crime Zone. It even has Michael Ironside, all but reprising his Spacehunter role as an evil warlord.

The title character, played by the sympathetic Munro Chambers, is a bicycle-borne scavenger of the wastes who models himself on a comic-book superhero called Turbo Rider. A sweet, daffy blonde pixie called Apple (Laurence LeBoeuf) befriends him, and when she’s abducted by the despicable Zeus (Ironside), who presides over gladiatorial games a la Thunderdome and has found a way to turn dead bodies into precious water, The Kid comes to her rescue. Somewhere in there he and Apple are also befriended by a Down-Under-Accented cowboy-type tough guy (Aaron Jeffery).

It certainly can’t be said that Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoann-Karl Whissell, the writing-directing team that created this insane Canada-New Zealand co-production, don’t know their source material. Everything rings on-the-money ‘80s: the editing, the costumes, the hair, the stunts, the special effects and especially the music, including Stan Bush's marvelous pump-up anthem, “Thunder in Your Heart.” Apart from Ironside’s gray hair, about the only giveaway we’re not watching a genuine artifact is the extreme level of slapstick gore, which in those days, if memory serves, was more the province of stuff like the Evil Dead flicks and, later, Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive than of the wasteland-warrior genre.

If this kind of splatter, mostly played for laughs, doesn’t bother you—I wouldn’t recommend the film for younger kids—Turbo Kid is nostalgic fun. I spent many hours in front of movies like this, often with some poor long-suffering girlfriend I’d dragged along, and I can attest to its authenticity.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

ARMED & DANGEROUS

In honor of The Barclays, currently underway in New Jersey…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s acknowledge the unusual water hazard…





By the way, is anybody in the advertising business currently as lucky as the folks who have the Geico account? They seem to be able to do anything that comes into their heads...

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

DIVERSITY, PHOENIX STYLE

A sign on a business The Kid and I passed:


I don’t know, does it make you want to be nice to them?

On an unrelated note: A friend of mine sent me this picture of a toy he says he found on the shelf of a discount/closeout store back east, noting that he was shocked to see the kid on the box flashing gang signs:


He says he later found it online and posted a question about it, and that two suppliers replied that they were dropping it from their inventory. I’m relieved of course, but honestly I’m too na├»ve to have recognized those as gang signs; I would have thought the kid was just gesturing his satisfaction at scoring an awesome new wooden locomotive and steamroller.

On yet another unrelated note: Something has been on my mind since the other day when I happened to hear, on the radio, Kenny Loggins singing “Danger Zone” from the 1986 Top Gun soundtrack. Now I’ve heard that song way too many times over the years, but I don’t think that the full insipidity of the chorus ever struck me before:

Highway to the Danger Zone
Gonna take you right into the Danger Zone
[repeat with emphasis on different words]

For now, let’s set aside the fact whatever Cole Porter it was who wrote these lyrics rhymed the word “Zone” with the word “Zone.” Let’s focus, instead, on the content—on what the song is telling us. It’s telling us that the highway to the Danger Zone is going to take us right into the Danger Zone.

When I complained about this to The Wife, she wearily suggested that in her opinion, the lines are discrete from each other, not intended as a single sentence but as a repetition for effect. And maybe she’s right. But I still question whether “Danger Zone” represents the highest achievement of the American songwriter’s art.

Friday, August 21, 2015

JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS

Opening this weekend at Harkins Shea:


Being EvelJohnny Knoxville was both an executive producer and a talking head for this documentary about ‘60s-and-‘70s-era motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel, which of course makes perfect sense. It never occurred to me, but Knievel is regarded as a major influence on both the “extreme sports” movement and the Jackass culture of idiotically risky and painful stunts as comedic performance art.

For the uninitiated, or the young: Robert Craig “Evel” Knievel was a hell-raising kid from Butte, Montana who started doing gimmicky, insanely unsafe motorcycle stunts up and down the Pacific coast in the ‘60s. After ABC Sports aired footage of his (unsuccessful) 1967 jump of the fountains outside Caesar’s Palace in Vegas, he rose to mega-stardom and fortune, in no small measure through the adulation of preadolescent boys and their enthusiasm for a licensed Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle toy from Ideal.

I was around 10 at the height of Knievel-mania, and I remember it vividly. I wasn’t particularly a fan myself, but my best friend and several other kids I knew idolized Knievel and we saw him all the time on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. I have an especially clear memory of watching him flawlessly execute a jump over a row of trucks—the footage is in Being Evel—and of my Mom saying “He did it! That was right pretty.”

It wasn’t always. Many of Knievel’s stunts ended in injurious wipe-outs. Most famous among these was his 1974 debacle at Idaho’s Snake River Canyon—the Department of the Interior had denied him permission to jump the Grand Canyon—not in a motorcycle but in a steam-powered rocket. Knievel suffered both physically and mentally from these ridiculous risks, and eventually became paranoid and unstable. Hubris, violence, jail time, loss of fortune and illness ensued.

Being Evel was directed by Daniel Junge, who co-directed the recent Lego Brickumentary, and like that film it’s presented in a slick, graphically flashy, somewhat impersonal style. Unlike the Brickumentary, however, it has a human charge—Knievel’s scary aggression and his pathos, neither of which were so easily spotted by kids back in the ‘70s, come across here big time.

Other talking heads include pals from Knievel’s youth, his outrageously long-suffering wife, his kids, his publicists. We even hear from George Hamilton, who played the title role in 1971’s Evel Knievel (seemingly irked at the usurpation of his persona, Knievel later played himself in 1977’s Viva Knievel!). Many of these commentators, even those Knievel had alienated, describe him as a hero who came along during a time of national ennui—Vietnam, civil rights struggles, student protests, etc.

It’s probably true that, to that part of the American psyche that preferred a distraction from such conflicts, Knievel had the right qualifications for a hero: Undeniable bravery in service of profit and popularity, and braggadocio wrapped in a banal and superficial patriotism. But I don’t know that it’s a truth to be celebrated.

Don’t misunderstand, I’m certainly not puritan enough to claim that risk to life and limb, undertaken by an adult of reasonably sound mind, can have no place in entertainment. I’ve enjoyed too many Jackie Chan movies. But to suggest that Knievel’s act was more than canny and self-serving showmanship is to push even the fond and nostalgic memories one might have of his heyday a bit far.

Also, the degree to which his popularity hinged on morbid curiosity shouldn’t be underrated. As I said before, I remember my Mom saying “That was right pretty” after we watched Knievel land a jump back then. I also, full disclosure, remember the pang of disappointment that went through my evil little boy’s heart that I hadn’t gotten to see a crash. Knievel was apparently well aware of this aspect of his appeal. In Being Evel, one of his old cronies remembers him saying “Nobody wants me to get killed, but nobody wants to miss it if I do.”

Thursday, August 20, 2015

NIFTY SHADES OF GREAT

In honor of the late “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, last week’s Monster-of-the-Week was a denizen of Frogtown from 1988’s Hell Comes to Frogtown. That movie does not, however, represent Piper’s best star turn—that distinction belongs to They Live, the 1988 sci-fi satire from writer-director John Carpenter (based on Ray Nelson’s 1963 short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning”).


Phoenix FilmBar is showing They Live tomorrow evening, Friday August 21, at 9:10 p.m., in memorial to Piper. If you’ve never seen the film, I highly recommend.

So…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week’s honoree is one of the “They” of the title…

…the skull-faced, pop-eyed aliens who invaded us long ago, and now use their superior technology to conceal not only their own presence but also that of the consumerist messages they’ve embedded in ubiquitous advertising.

Our hero, a homeless guy named Nada (Piper), gets wise to the true state of the world when he tries on a pair of sunglasses he steals from a mysterious L.A. underground.


Immediately he’s able to see things as they are:





If not Carpenter’s best film, this is certainly his most ambitious and interesting, and probably my favorite; I greatly prefer it to the similarly-themed The Matrix. Following a really intriguing, atmospheric and funny beginning, alas, They Live falls apart almost completely in its final third or so, with an extended, utterly pointless (but, I understand, much beloved) fight between Nada and another guy (Keith David), likely included as a sop to the fans of Piper the wrestler, followed by a shift to silly (though entertaining) action melodrama.

But it’s tough to shake the power of the movie’s most admirable invention, those magical bebop shades, and the unnerving visions that Nada sees through them (by the way, free They Live sunglasses will given out at the FilmBar screening, according to the website). It’s just a shame that Carpenter couldn’t, so to speak, find a way to make us all look in the mirror while wearing them.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

UP AGAINST THE WALTER

Check out my list, on Topless Robot, of ten triumphant Tracey Walter credits.


RIP to the seriously adorable Yvonne Craig, passed on at 78. She’s hard to forget as the primly high-kicking Batgirl in the third season of the ‘60s Batman series...
 


 ...but she should also be remembered as the green-skinned, ill-fated Marta, consort of Steve Ihnat’s LOOOORD Garth in the Star Trek episode “Whom Gods Destroy.”


She’s also an example of what Mars needs in Larry Buchanan’s Mars Needs Women. Get in line, Mars.

Friday, August 14, 2015

THE SPY'S THE LIMIT

Opening this weekend:


The Man From U.N.C.L.E.The feature knockoff of I Spy back in 2002 would have been a lousy movie in any case, but it was the more galling if you had any affection for the original series. The same went for the 1999 version of Wild Wild West, and the 2008 version of Get Smart.

I was at an advantage when it came to the new movie version of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., directed by Guy Ritchie, and based on the hit espionage series which ran on NBC from 1964 to 1968. Unlike the aforementioned three shows, I hardly ever watched U.N.C.L.E. as a kid, and therefore had no particular nostalgic investment in it.

The show, you may recall, concerned an international agency (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) in which spies from either side of the Cold War set aside their differences and cooperated to thwart the evil designs of T.H.R.U.S.H. (Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity). Two such agents were American Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Soviet Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum), supervised by dry Brit Mr. Waverly (Leo G. Carroll).

I watched the old show a little in recent weeks in anticipation of the film. It’s on the slovenly and feeble side, but the acting, both of the regulars and the guest stars, was droll and good-natured, and so was some of the writing. If I had been a bigger fan, maybe I would be outraged by Ritchie’s film version. It’s a mixed bag, with style and panache in the directing and designs and acting thrown together with tiresome, even tasteless ideas. But for me, the style and panache won out.

It’s an origin story, about how Napoleon and Illya meet as enemies and are forced to work together to retrieve an atom bomb from some surviving Nazis, and for about the first half of the movie the two of them brawl and bicker. This is tedious, but not as tedious as the chase of all-terrain vehicles in the rain that climaxes the film. And the slightly campy tone taken toward a Nazi torturer feels a little queasy, too.

But Ritchie’s mastery of scrambling and de-scrambling strands of action through omniscient camera moves, split screens, chronology juggling and wild crosscutting give the film a lot of headlong momentum to get us past these missteps. So does a heavy dose of mid-‘60s period flavor from the cars and the fashions on the several beauties in the cast to the punchy, sexy soundtrack.

Probably the biggest upside, though, is the performance of Henry Cavill as Napoleon. Cavill seemed like a cipher to me as Superman, but here he has a grand time imitating the ironically stentorian cadences of Robert Vaughn, and he more or less carries the film.

Armie Hammer manages Illya’s accent well, but the anger issues with which the character is stuck here cheat him out of the chance to show his suave side. Hugh Grant comes into the story late as Waverly, and his line readings are a breath of fresh air, though it’s distressing to think that Grant is now old enough to play a Leo G. Carroll part.

Anachronism watch: The phrases “low tech” and “skill set” are spoken in this movie. Likely, in the mid-‘60s?


Straight Outta ComptonAs to the historical accuracy of this chronicle of N.W.A., I’m certainly not hip hop historian enough to have an opinion. I was a fan of several of the guys from the seminal late-‘80s “gangsta rap” ensemble, but mostly on the basis of their movie work. I liked the music a lot, but didn’t think it provided the healthiest set of life influences, and I must say that little in this movie suggests to me that I was wrong about that.

Besides, to a white kid from rural Pennsylvania, it would have somehow felt oddly presumptuous buying those albums, like something I couldn’t pull off. I would have felt like a poseur (if all the white boys had felt that way back then, those guys would have gotten much less wealthy).

What I can say is that the movie, directed by F. Gary Gray, is juicy entertainment, full of terrific acting and music and laughs and heart. It follows the familiar show-biz-legend movie template—an insanely meteoric rise from rough origins, exhilarating success, too much too soon, conflicts and feuds and tragedy and reconciliation. It plays out against the backdrop of L.A. in the turbulent '80s/‘90s, with its constant threat of violence and terror, both from gangs and from the goonish occupying force of the CRASH-era LAPD.

Ice Cube and Dr. Dre were among the producers of Straight Outta Compton, and Gray directed the former in Friday and the latter in Set It Off, so it may not be surprising that these two—played by O’Shea Jackson, Jr. (Ice Cube’s real-life son, or possibly clone) and Corey Hawkins, are presented as the best artists. But the emotional center of the film is a little-known actor named Jason Mitchell as Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, the weed-dealing hustler who launched Ruthless Records, and, even though he was strained and unmusical, managed to make his mark as a performer as well. Mitchell has a touchingly pensive quality as Eazy-E; it’s not hard to believe it when he bonds with Ruthless manager Jerry Heller (the target of Ice Cube’s notorious anti-Semitic swipe in “No Vaseline”), played here by Paul Giamatti. They’re both fretters.

Nobody in the movie comes across as perfect, nor does anybody—except, maybe, for the baleful Suge Knight (R. Marcus Taylor)—come across like a villain. Everybody seems, rather, like they’re in over their heads, blindsided by the intensity and breadth of the reaction to their music and the fame and fortune it brought. The title, after all, is Straight Outta Compton, not Gradually Outta Compton.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

PIPER GLORY

While the WWE has never been an interest of mine, I always liked “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, the wrestler turned action movie star who passed on last week at 61. Last week’s Monster-of-the-Week was in honor of the late lovely Coleen Gray, which meant postponing a Piper MOTW.

So…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week the nod goes to this denizen of Frogtown…


…in Hell Comes to Frogtown, the 1988 epic in which Piper starred—indeed, played the title role of potent, frog-fighting wasteland warrior Sam Hell.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

R.I.P. STAN

RIP to my friend and Phoenix Film Critics Society colleague Stan Robinson, passed on yesterday at 68.


Stan had become a film reviewer for AZ Weekly after he retired from a long career on the production side of movies and TV; he worked, in various capacities, on movies ranging from Passenger 57 to Van Sant’s To Die For to Psycho IV: The Beginning.

But he was at least as much a movie fan as a movie maker—he was one of the happiest and most devoted screening rats I’ve ever known, never missing anything if he could help it. He struggled with poor health and other challenges over the last few years, always with an inspirationally upbeat attitude. He was a really sweet guy, and we’ll miss him.

Friday, August 7, 2015

O RICKI, WHAT A PITY

Opening this weekend: 

 
Ricki and the FlashMeryl Streep has been a favorite of mine since, if memory serves, the second movie I ever reviewed, The Seduction of Joe Tynan back in 1979. If I recall, I referred to her as a “brilliant newcomer”; a nervy line from a seventeen-year-old, but I wasn’t wrong. Much as I loved her work back in those accent du jour days, however, I love her even more now—she's lightened up, and loosened up, and her performances are genuinely fun.

I also love Jonathan Demme, and I’ve missed him. Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s he turned out a bunch of sophisticated yet unpretentious, entirely accessible classics and near-classics, like Something Wild, Married to the Mob, Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, but he hasn’t made anything anywhere near that level in years.

And I have a high regard for Diablo Cody, who crafted the snappy but heartfelt dialogue for Juno back in 2007. For that matter, I love Kevin Kline.

Which is why it pains me to report that the collaboration of all of the above, Ricki and the Flash, despite plenty of good work, is a miss, and not even a near-miss.

Streep plays Ricki, who abandoned her upper-middle-class Indiana family decades earlier to follow her rock star dreams in California. She had one failed album, and now she and The Flash serve as the house cover band at a bar in Tarzana, where they often outnumber their fans. Her lead guitarist (Rick Springfield, who looks agreeably a bit Kris Kristofferson-ish with middle age) is also her main squeeze, though she holds him at arm’s length emotionally.

Her patient, recessive ex (Kline), who long since remarried a supermom (Audra McDonald), has made peace with Ricki, but her three grown kids still resent her, at different levels of bitterness. Ricki gets a call from the ex that their daughter (Mamie Gummer) has been dumped by her husband and is in bad shape. When Ricki gets to Indianapolis, she finds that this was an understatement.

Nothing terribly wrong with any of this, on paper, and there are many sharp, funny passages of dialogue and lively little episodes. Cody has a way of departing from the standard movie-character playbook—Ricki, for instance, is one of those Tea Partiers who turn up at times in fields where you wouldn’t expect them. She makes sour cracks about Obama from the stage, voted twice for George W. Bush, and even has a Gadsden Flag tattooed on her back.

As always with Demme, the settings ring with authenticity and there are terrific touches of atmosphere. But there’s a slackness to the pacing and a sloppiness to the transitions that keep the movie from adding up, somehow, either as drama or as comedy.

Or, I’m afraid, as a jukebox musical, either. Streep is a fine musical talent—she handled the folk numbers in Altman’s Prairie Home Companion and the show tunes in Into the Woods with authority and wit. But the classic rock in Ricki and the Flash just isn’t a good fit for her voice and performing style, and Demme saddles her with several full numbers. I don’t wish to be ungallant, but let’s just say that it’s not terribly surprising that Ricki’s album wasn’t a success.

About the best thing I can say for Ricki and the Flash is that it doesn’t punish us too much. The movie climaxes at a wedding. I knew there were going to be toasts and speeches and awkward encounters, and I tensed up, remembering Demme’s 2008 Rachel Getting Married. But Demme and Cody give us a break—they don’t seem determined to make us miserable. Ricki’s gesture at the wedding is borderline inappropriate yet nonetheless lovely, and it ends the film on a pleasant note. But it’s faint praise when the best feeling a movie gives you is relief at what it didn’t do.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

LEECH THERAPY

RIP to the astoundingly beautiful Coleen Gray, best known for noirs like Kubrick’s The Killing and for the western Red River, passed on this week at 92.



In her honor…

Monster-of-the-Week: …the nod this week goes to the title character in 1960’s The Leech Woman


…played by Gray, as a vain middle-aged American lady who learns a native African secret for restoring her youthful beauty by leeching away the pineal hormones of men.

 

A minor detail: this results in their deaths.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

TRIUMPH OF THE WOOL

Opening today:

  
Shaun the Sheep MovieThe hero of this wonderful English stop-motion feature from Aardman Studios may literally be a sheep. But he’s not a sheep in the figurative sense. For better or worse, he isn’t one to conform, to accept his lot unquestioningly, to follow the flock.

Shaun, who debuted in the Wallace & Grommit short A Close Shave and starred in his own 2007 TV series, lives on a farm under the dominion, not quite cruel but not especially tender either, of The Farmer. Inspired by an advertisement on the side of a double-decker bus, Shaun decides he deserves a day off from being herded around the farm, so he stages a daring escape to spend a day in The Big City.

He hasn’t taken into account the effect his holiday may have on others, however. It results in accidents, homelessness and imprisonment for his flock, amnesia for The Farmer, and peril for all from a relentless animal control officer. Wild slapstick chases ensue.

The characters converse, when they do, only in indistinct jabbering and muttering and grousing. Aside from some song lyrics on the soundtrack, the only clearly enunciated word I heard was “hey!” Thus Shaun the Sheep Movie is, essentially, a silent comedy, and its star, Shaun, is a somewhat stoic, Keatonesque hero.

He isn’t a pure stone-face, however. It’s astonishing how much subtlety and nuance and depth of emotion the animators are able to bring out of the faces of these characters—which include not only the sheep and The Farmer but Bitzer, the wary sheepdog, and a large dramatis personae of supporting dogs, pigs, people and other animals. There wasn’t a moment, watching Shaun the Sheep Movie, when it occurred to me that these weren’t real creatures leading real lives somewhere. Indeed, I still refuse to believe they aren’t.