Saturday, February 27, 2016

SPOCK FEAT

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the death of Leonard Nimoy. In his honor, Your Humble Narrator wrote this short “fan fiction” parody/tribute to Mr. Spock for New Times blogs.


This weekend I also crossed a long-coveted title off of my sci-fi bucket list: Courtesy of the one-of-kind Friday movie nights of a film historian pal, I got to see, projected from an actual celluloid print no less, the 1930 sci-fi musical comedy Just Imagine.


Set in the far-off date of 1980, when people have numbers instead of names and commute in little airplanes instead of cars, this lavish tale of romance and a trip to Mars is probably best known for supplying futuristic stock footage to sci-fi serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. It’s pretty corny and not exactly crisply paced, but it looks great, has some slightly risqué or otherwise topical pre-Code gags, and a likable cast led by El Brendel as a funny Swede who’s been revived from fifty years earlier. It also has some good songs, the best being “The Drinking Song” and “Never Swat a Fly.”

Friday, February 26, 2016

BUT CERTAINLY NOT LEAST...

Opening this weekend in the Valley at Harkins Shea: 

 
The Last Man on the MoonSometime in the ‘60s, Charlie Brown asked Linus if he’d like to be the first man on the Moon. Linus, said no, he wasn’t that brave, that he didn’t even think he was up to the courage or responsibility of being second or third. Eventually he settled on the ambition of being the forty-third man on the Moon.

We haven’t gotten anywhere near that number. This documentary is a chronicle of the eleventh man to get there, who is also, to date, the last to leave. Former Navy flier Eugene Cernan spacewalked (terrifyingly) during the Gemini program and flew to the Moon ahead of Neil Armstrong in the “dress rehearsal” of Apollo 10, but his true distinction is being the last person to lift his feet off of the lunar surface, in December of 1972.

Now in his 80s, he’s a lean, handsome, high-cheekboned fellow with a full head of white hair. As Cernan and a few other talking heads—among them NASA luminaries like Jim Lovell, Alan Bean and Gene Kranz, as well as some former astronaut wives—recount his story and the story of the Apollo program, we see it, vividly depicted, both from startling archive footage and special effects recreations.

Directed by the British documentarian Mark Craig, The Last Man on the Moon has a personal edge and an ambiguity that’s missing from many space movies. Cernan tries to get into words the awe and wonder he felt at his experience, and while we don’t doubt him, it’s hard to shake the sense that, for those of us back on Earth—unless you were an astronomer or geologist—the literal Moon turned out to be a disappointment compared to the Moon of collective human imagination. It’s almost certainly why the program succumbed to budget cuts soon after Apollo 17 got home.

At the same time, looking back on the Apollo missions from nearly half a century later, it’s useless to deny a mad grandeur in them. Cernan wonders aloud what the Moonshots will seem like to people a hundred or a thousand years from now; I just found myself hoping that there will still be people around to have an opinion—that no crazy nationalism (of the sort that fueled the space race)—will have made it a moot point by then.

Another part of what gives this movie a hint of tension is that Cernan, while a reflective man, isn’t just a gee-whiz Tom Swift. It’s hard to resist Cernan’s story of writing his daughter’s initials on the Lunar surface, but Craig’s portrait of him includes another side: driven, ambitious, competitive, even somewhat vain. He’s been to the Moon, but there’s little doubt he’s a man of this world.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

MOON ROCK LOBSTER

Opening tomorrow at here in the Valley is  The Last Man on the Moon...


...Mark Craig’s documentary about Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan, the last man (to date) to walk on the moon. Unless, of course…


…you believe the 2011 “found-footage” movie Apollo 18, which claims, per the title, that there was one more (secret) mission to the moon, and that [SPOILER!] the guys on it discovered…

Monster-of-the-Week: …nasty crabby creatures disguised as rocks. Let this specimen serve as this week’s honoree...

Friday, February 19, 2016

RIGHT IN DER FUHRER'S FACE

Opening today:


RaceIt’s sort of surprising that the story of Jesse Owens hasn’t made it to the big screen before. By which I mean, of course, made it to the big screen via actors and sets and dialogue and all that. The track and field star’s triumphs at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin were powerfully chronicled in Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary Olympia. But it took eighty years for Owens to get the standard inspirational sports biopic treatment.

James Cleveland Owens—a grade school teacher misheard his initials as “Jesse” and the name stuck—was born in Alabama in 1913 but spent most of his youth in Cleveland, Ohio. He was already tying world records while he was still in high school. On the Ohio State team, under Coach Larry Snyder, he famously set three world records in one 1935 meet at Ann Arbor, Michigan, all in less than an hour.

The following year he went to the Berlin Olympics, where he took four gold medals, for the 100 meter sprint, the 200 meter sprint, the long jump and as part of the 400 meter relay team. Magnificent simply on an athletic level, what made these victories all the sweeter was that Owens, an African-American, achieved them quite literally under the nose of Adolph Hitler, and in the face of his racial ideologies.

Race—there’s just possibly a double meaning to the title—makes the point that Riefenstahl’s propaganda film, meant to celebrate the ascendant Nazis, nonetheless acknowledged the greatness of Owens in a way that, for instance, the White House didn’t do for decades after. Indeed, director by Stephen Hopkins and screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse come uncomfortably close to making Riefenstahl (played by Carice van Houten) a heroine here. But the ironic point is well taken: the reception Owens got in Berlin, where he wasn’t segregated from the white athletes and where he was befriended by his German long jump opponent “Luz” Long, was superficially less ugly than he got at Ohio State and elsewhere in the U.S.

Complexities like this arise from the history; the movie itself is highly conventional sports-movie uplift, a little overlong and not always convincing in terms of period. Line after line—like “You’re an amazing girl” or “Good luck with that”—sound more Disney Channel than 1930s.

But the acting helps. Owens is played by a compact young actor named Stephan James, with a dulcet voice and a charming callowness. SNL alumnus Jason Sudeikis has a likable brassy manner as Larry Snyder, and there are enjoyable character turns by the likes of Jeremy Irons, William Hurt, Glynn Turman, David Kross.

More than any of this, however, Race works because of the story it tells. I wasn’t able to remain unmoved by it, at any rate. By the time the scenes at the Games arrived, I was as on the edge of my seat as if I’d been in the stands myself. 

Opening today at Harkins Valley Art in Tempe:


SouthboundThis horror anthology, set on various stops along a desert highway, features several grim, blood-splattered tales linked end-to-end in the manner of Schnitzler’s La Ronde. Different writers and directors handled each segment, but they’re certainly unified by a potent atmosphere of desert-southwest isolation, menace and futility. That’s on the upside.

Also on the upside, the special effects folks serve up some spectacular, scary demons. In general, this low-budget effort is a seamlessly made, technically impressive piece of work.

On the downside, the stories are a little vague and one-note. Because all the characters seem, not to put too fine a point on it, screwed from the start, the proceedings lack suspense or a sense that there’s much at stake.

The movie does, however, seem to have a cautionary message: Stay the hell out of the desert.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

TRILOBITE-SIZED

RIP to Justice Antonin Scalia, passed on at 79. I was thinking of Justice Scalia the week before he died, because of his spluttering use of the term “jiggery-pokery” in his Obamacare dissent—I happened to come across the phrase in a British paperback from the ‘60s, called Night of the Trilobites by Peter Leslie.

So…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week let’s give the nod to any of the title invertebrates from “Trilobite Terror…"


 
…card 39 in the late ‘80s “Dinosaurs Attack!” card series from Topps...


Follow how I got there?

Friday, February 12, 2016

THE RUNWAY OF ALL FLESH

Opening this weekend:


Zoolander 2As targets of urgently needed satire go, male models don’t seem all that high on the list just now. Nonetheless, Ben Stiller has made a sequel to his 2001 Zoolander, and it’s funnier than the original.

At least, I think it is. I can’t really remember. It’s been a freakin’ decade and a half, after all, since the original came out, and I’ve never felt any pressing need to see it again. But I dimly remember getting a chuckle or two out of it, and I got maybe four or five solid chuckles out of this very silly, very belated follow-up. So I’d say it’s funnier than the original, at least a little bit. You know, just in case Paramount might want to quote me and mention this blog in some high-profile print ads.

Craggy-faced, blank-eyed, dull-witted runway model Derek Zoolander (Stiller) has been in isolation for years as a “hermit crab” in a cabin in “Extreme Northern New Jersey,” after having suffered a tragedy and having his son taken away from him. One day he is mysteriously offered a modeling gig at a show in Rome, and soon is asked to assist in an Interpol investigation into the murders of beautiful celebrities—the film opens with such a killing (it’s also in the TV ads) which elicited hearty applause from the screening audience with whom I saw it.

Derek and his old rival/pal Hansel (Owen Wilson at his most relaxed and enjoyable) follow the Interpol investigator (ridiculously stunning Penelope Cruz) into an intrigue combining elements of James Bond and Silence of the Lambs with a sort of Da Vinci Code backstory. Eventually the villainous Mugatu (Will Ferrell) enters the story as well.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not suggesting that Zoolander 2 is the laugh-riot of 2016. It’s imbecilic. But it’s so doggedly, insistently imbecilic that from time to time it breaks down your defenses and you start to giggle. Or I did, at least. It has some good revue-sketch performances, too, notably by Kyle Mooney as noxiously hyper-ironic designer “Don Atari.”

The movie also has a staggering number of celebrity cameos, ranging from Ariane Grande to Neil deGrasse Tyson, some barely glimpsed, others in surprisingly juicy roles. In the sheer volume of this sort of glitz, Zoolander 2 is reminiscent of a Muppet movie. But Derek’s face isn’t nearly as expressive as Kermit’s.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

TREK SAVVY

Zoolander 2 opens this weekend, again featuring Will Ferrell as the villainous Mugatu…


So, in his honor…

Monster-of-the-Week: …the nod goes to his presumable namesake the Mugato, the terrifying horned white-furred venomous ape-monster designed and played by Janos Prohaska in the second-season original Star Trek episode “A Private Little War”: 




Zoolander director/co-writer/star Ben Stiller would seem to be a pretty hardcore Trekkie: Along with the name “Mugatu,” the new film has a villainess named Alexanya Atoz (Kristen Wiig)—presumably a reference to the well-meaning librarian (Ian Wolfe) in “All Our Yesterdays,” and there’s also the name of Stiller’s company, “Red Hour Productions,” presumably a reference to the “festival” in “Return of the Archons.”

Live long and prosper, dude.

Monday, February 8, 2016

ILLEGAL WRITE TURNS

Your Humble Narrator is humbled to be among the contributors to Southwest Noir, a new anthology of gritty yarns by writers from or in or concerned with the southwest, all illustrated by my pal Vince Larue.


Included is a short comic called “Duck”—story by me, art by Vince—as well as my short story “The Guy on TV.” Other contributors include such notables as James Sallis and Larry Fondation, as well my pals Barry Graham, Robrt Pela and Steve Shadow, among many others.

It’s great to be in such company. Several of us will be present for a book-signing this Friday at Fair Trade Café in downtown Phoenix, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.—not sure which ones or how many, but I’m planning to be there, anyway, as is Vince.

In other scribbling news, the February issue of Phoenix Magazine includes my review of Rhema Soul Cuisine in Queen Creek…


It’s on the stands now, or you can read it here.

Friday, February 5, 2016

AUSTEN POWER

Opening today:


Back in 2009 Jane Austen collaborated with another young writer. A fellow named Seth Grahame-Smith added cannibal ghouls and martial arts action scenes to Austen’s 1813 masterpiece Pride and Prejudice, and called the results Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The stunt was a hit, giving Grahame-Smith a career, and starting a less-than-welcome vogue for such literary or historical “mashups”—Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters followed, for instance, as did Grahame-Smith’s own Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.

Even though her participation was posthumous and without consent, from a literary point of view Austen was the winner in this odd collaboration. I listened to the audiobook of P&P&Z (excellently read by the droll, deadpan Katherine Kellgren) some years ago on a road trip, and as it went into its homestretch, I noticed myself sighing with impatience every time the text shifted to a horror scene. Such are Austen’s chops that I would have preferred to drop the ludicrous zombie gimmick and just hear how her story turned out—even though I’d already read it.

Still, on its own terms this one-joke book was a reasonably funny joke, and now it’s been made into a fairly lavish movie. Adapted and directed by the American Burr Steers (of 17 Again), it departs freely from Grahame-Smith’s storyline, but considering what he did to Austen, Grahame-Smith hardly has grounds to complain.

Wary-eyed Lily James of last year’s Cinderella plays heroine Elizabeth Bennett. As in the book, Lizzy and her sisters are in the market for well-to-do husbands, but they have also been trained in the fighting arts of the East, allowing them to wield swords and dismember any hungry undead that should wander into a country dance or accost them as they’re on their way to make a social call. Sam Riley, excellent as the title character’s sidekick in Maleficent, here plays Darcy, who can’t help but fall for Lizzy despite his pride.

Most of the other major characters are retained, though often in wildly different form. The scoundrel Wickham (Jack Huston), for instance, is a proponent of a zombie appeasement scheme, while haughty Lady Catherine (Lena Headey) is a formidable zombie-hunter with a chic eye-patch. Charles Dance gets to play Mr. Bennett relatively straight, but Matt Smith camps up Mr. Collins to a sketch-comedy degree.

In short, P&P&Z the movie is outrageously silly. It isn’t very scary, but the squeamish should be forewarned that unlike 2013’s World War Z it is quite gory at times, with some inventively gruesome sight gags.

Overall, I thought it sustained itself for its entire length a little better, maybe, than the book, because it brings the material more of a sense of…well, female empowerment. Masterly as Jane Austen’s works are, there’s something troubling about the way these tales of near-powerless women anxiously waiting for husbands are often used by modern readers as fantasy fodder—a romanticizing of social and economic strictures to which Austen, for all her talent, had no choice but to conform.

It would be a little much to call P&P&Z, by contrast, a feminist film. Admittedly, the warrior-woman archetype comes with its own set of male fantasies and presumptions. But something about the movie’s Regency-era ladies arming themselves under their Empire waist gowns feels bracing and liberating. It seems possible, somehow, that Jane would approve.


Hail, Caesar!George Clooney never seems happier onscreen than when he gets to act like a buffoonish clod of the first order. And the Coen Brothers have repeatedly been happy to indulge him—in Intolerable Cruelty, in Burn After Reading, in O Brother, Where Art Thou?

They do so again in this spoof of midcentury Hollywood. Clooney plays Baird Whitlock, a leading man in the Victor Mature/Charlton Heston/Kirk Douglas high-testosterone mold, who gets kidnapped right off the set of the titular Biblical epic.

The kidnappers are a cadre of rather well-heeled communist screenwriters who’ve decided to take a break from their usual business of inserting Red content into movies and to step up their game by demanding ransom from “Capital Pictures.” Baird’s a boob, but he’s an agreeable sort, and when he listens to his captors hold forth on politics he has to admit that maybe they have a point.

This notion—what if Malibu commies really acted the way the McCarthy-ites thought they did?—has possibilities. Much as I enjoyed Trumbo, there’s probably something healthy in blowing a raspberry at its easy pieties (Louis CK provides that service within that film). The trouble in Hail, Caesar! is that these scenes, and many others during the film’s first half, dawdle on forever and land with a thud.

Whole strands, like the one involving Scarlett Johansson as an Esther-Williams-ish “aqua-musical” star, add little to the movie beyond length. And there are extended set pieces, like the one in which a cowboy star (Alden Ehrenreich) struggles to deliver a line in a “sophisticated” comedy, that simply aren’t the riot the Coens seem to think they are. The movie looks great, and it has a funny line here or a lyrical image there, but for a long time it refuses to take off.

But then it does. Typically when a Coen picture goes wrong, it does so in the second half—after a brilliant beginning, the story collapses over the Brothers’ stubborn distaste for providing dramatic payoffs. But Hail, Caesar! rewards patience with a painfully slow opening act. About the time that a film editor (Frances McDormand) learns an important safety tip for her profession, the movie starts to find genuine laughs, and some heart, too.

The real star isn’t Clooney but a growly Josh Brolin as studio boss “Eddie Mannix,” who, like his real-life namesake at MGM, serves as a “fixer,” managing the crises and scandals of Capital’s stable. A straight shooter, Eddie’s been offered a job in aviation that would have regular hours and dignity, but he enjoys cleaning up after his rambunctious wards.

Brolin keeps it low-key and holds the picture together, while several other cast members—Ehrenreich, Veronica Osorio as a Carmen Miranda-type musical star, Tilda Swinton as identical-twin Hedda Hopper types—nail their goofy scenes. By the time we get to Channing Tatum in sailor drag, in a double-entendre-packed On the Town-style dance number called “No Dames,” the movie is on a pretty full-fledged roll.

What makes act two of Hail, Caesar! unexpectedly a little touching is its peculiarly un-ironic concern with spirituality. It’s a while before we realize, for instance,  that when Eddie, a devout Catholic who wearies his priest with too-frequent visits to the confessional, consults Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Orthodox authorities about the Hail, Caesar! script, he isn’t just covering his ass, he honestly wants to know if they’re getting the theology right.

Eventually it becomes clear that Eddie is troubled by the disconnect between the triviality of what his industry produces and the satisfaction he takes in his work—he wants a justification by faith. I wonder if the Coens want this too. For them, faith and the movies seem to be the same thing.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

SHOW ME THE MONKEY

Happy New Year next Monday everybody! Chinese New Year, that is. This time we ring in the Year of the Monkey, so…

Monster-of-the-Week: …the nod goes to the hideous (but wonderfully stop-motion-animated) “Sumatran Rat Monkey” who gets the zombie plague rolling in Peter Jackson’s 1992 shocker Dead Alive (aka Braindead)...


 
The creature also got a nice sort-of-cameo in Jackson’s version of King Kong.