Friday, April 29, 2016


Opening this weekend:

Green RoomThe Ain’t Rights, a down-and-out punk band on a broke, exhausted, gasoline-siphoning tour, lines up a dodgy gig at an isolated club in the Pacific Northwest. The place turns out to be a hive of skinheads and neo-Nazis, but they play their set, get paid and are in the midst of getting the hell away when one of the band members goes back into the green room to retrieve a forgotten cell phone and sees…well, let’s just say something that very definitely ain’t right.

From there on, The Ain’t Rights are besieged by the scumbags, who are determined not to let them leave after what they’ve witnessed. Eventually the club’s owner (Patrick Stewart) shows up, and starts plotting the band’s elimination in earnest.

This very violent, gory shocker has a terrifying plausibility, especially in its first half. We can see from the start that these idiots are in trouble, but we glimpse the overt mayhem they’ve blundered upon elliptically, and the response of their skinhead hosts to the situation feels real.

These aren’t a bunch of hyper-confident professional villains, like in a Die Hard movie—they’re scared too, and unsure about what to do next, and also on the stupid side, a deeply dangerous combination. Patrick Stewart hits just the right, loathsomely believable note as the harried proprietor frantic to protect a secret; it’s pretty clear that he uses Nazi ideology as a business tactic to maintain employee loyalty and retention.

Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier, of the excellent 2013 noir Blue Ruin, obviously had a bigger budget this time, as he could afford Stewart, as well as Anton Yelchin as the most reflective of The Ain’t Rights. He’s a smashing talent, though Green Room, like Blue Ruin, is stronger and more excruciatingly tense in its first half than its second. Sauliner seems to have a weakness for runaway bloody carnage and body counts that verge on comicality, perhaps intentionally.

The Jacobean final quarter of Green Room seems meant to be a little tongue-in-cheek, and if so this may show Saulnier’s shrewdness. Had he maintained the same atmosphere of doom and desperation, unvaried and unrelenting, for the whole movie’s length, Green Room might have been more convincing and harrowing, but it wouldn’t be such good nasty fun. Which, if you’re not too squeamish, is what it is.

Ratchet & ClankRatchet is a “lombax,” sort of a cat-like creature with ears like a fennec fox and a talent for mechanics, while Clank is his small robot pal. Their interplanetary adventures have, I understand, been popular among video gamers for more than a decade, so now they’re getting the computer-animated feature treatment.

I hadn’t heard of the game, so I’m in no position to comment on how the movie compares to it. On its own merits, however, I found it pretty slow and by-the-numbers, and its attempts at knowing humor mostly fall flat. On the other hand, it’s visually strong, with some pretty cool robot and alien designs.

Ratchet, voiced by James Alan Taylor, is a drearily standard yearning-for-glory underdog hero obligatory for this sort of film. The movie’s best element is Clank (David Kaye), a very polite and endearing robot. Had it simply been called Clank, it might have been livelier.

Thursday, April 28, 2016


Phoenix-area folks: Tomorrow night only, Friday, April 29 at 7:30 p.m., you can catch Destination Moon at an outdoor showing, for free!

This landmark in sci-fi cinema is scheduled to be screened on the grounds of another once-futuristic midcentury landmark, the David Wright House. Should provide just the right atmosphere.

For the uninitiated, Destination Moon (1950) is a fairly serious-minded attempt, co-scripted by Robert A. Heinlein, to depict a scientifically plausible lunar expedition. It’s a little too serious-minded, really. The director was the memorable character actor Irving Pichel, and his presence could have been used onscreen; the astronauts, led by John Archer (Anne’s Dad) are painfully one-dimensional. Woody Woodpecker turns up to explain the problems of space travel near the beginning, and he’s probably the richest and most complex character in the movie.

Having said that, Destination Moon ought to be seen, not only as a highly influential piece of pop culture but also for its visual beauty. The lunar surface, cracked like a dry river bed, the craggy mountains in the background, and the starscapes, designed by the great astronomical painter Chesley Bonestall, still have the power to stir the imagination even now, decades after we decided the Moon wasn’t all that worthwhile of a destination.

There’s nothing as vulgar and unrealistic (or as fun) as a monster in Destination Moon, so…

Monster-of-the-Week: …in its honor this week the nod goes to “Moon Monster…”

…offered in countless comic books of the ‘60s and ‘70s—one of several premiums you’d get FREE, that is, for your one dollar registration fee, when you joined the Horror Fan Club. It was just a big poster, but notice how, as with the “Polaris Nuclear Sub” ads of the same period, the copy allows for the interpretation that you’ll actually be sent a giant life-sized 3-dimensional figure of a Moon Monster...

Thursday, April 21, 2016


Check out my essay, on New Times blogs, on Huxley’s Brave New World, written 85 years ago this year.

And since the title phrase “brave new world” comes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week’s monstrous honoree is this cool 19th-Century illustration by C. W. Sharpe of Caliban from that play...

Friday, April 15, 2016


Opening this weekend:

The Jungle BookDisney’s 1967 version of The Jungle Book is probably my favorite of that studio’s animated features. This is partly sentimentality—it’s the first movie to which I can remember being taken, when I was four or five years old. But it’s also looser, lighter, funnier and far richer in personality than a lot of Disney fare, with vibrant primary colors, wonderful voice acting and a couple of catchy big band numbers.

It was hard to imagine that this same charm could be captured in live action. There was a live-action attempt in the 1940s, made by the Korda Brothers and starring Sabu. Heavily narrated, it used live animal footage, but also had a much more human-oriented story.

But Disney’s new version of Kipling’s tales of Mowgli the wolf-raised “Man-Cub,” featuring a live actor as Mowgli and CGI as his animal co-stars, takes a different approach from either earlier version, and finds some unexpected grit and emotional range. Directed by Jon Favreau from a script by Justin Marks, the film uses bits of Kipling’s language and gets across some of his near-peerless storytelling panache. Bits of his icky colonialist presumption inevitably creep in here and there, too, though to my mind this film wasn’t nearly as bad on this score as The Lion King.

As before, young Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is menaced by the scarred tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba), who bears him a grudge. It’s decided that the black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) will return Mowgli to the “Man Village,” and episodic adventures ensue. He’s befriended by the leisure-loving bear Baloo (Bill Murray) and threatened by the python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) and the primate King Louis (Christopher Walken), here presented much like Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, before he and Shere Khan have their big confrontation.

It’s an odd hybrid, with the Brit actors declaiming high drama alongside Murray’s Chicago-accented shtick, but mostly it works. Lupita Nyong’o, voicing Mowgli’s lupine mother, brought tears to my eyes with her avowals of love for him. It should be noted that there are a few funny but retroactively wistful lines spoken by the late Garry Shandling, as the porcupine.

There are also a few missteps, the most glaring, for me, being the decision to allow Murray and Walken to perform their character’s songs from the 1967 film. Both are great performers in their own right, but musically Murray is no Phil Harris and Walken is no Louis Prima, and they seem to know it—their numbers feel halfhearted, almost sheepish.

Parents of smaller kids—and anyone sensitive to animal suffering—should be aware that the film is violent at times, especially by current kid-movie standards, and that a couple of characters are killed in the course of the story. As the saying goes, it’s a jungle out there.

Thursday, April 14, 2016


Just because The Fearless Vampire Killers is on Turner Classic Movies Saturday night… 

 Monster-of-the-Week: …our honoree is the cackling green-skinned vampire who tangles with the title characters in the animated prologue of that 1967 classic...

Friday, April 8, 2016


Opening this weekend:

Everybody Wants Some!!Writer-director Richard Linklater calls this a “spiritual sequel” to his 1993 classic Dazed and Confused, and certainly the format is the same. It’s an ensemble period comedy with a soundtrack full of pop hits and a large young ensemble cast of relative unknowns, depicting the tribal rituals around getting high and getting laid.

But while Dazed and Confused was about high school and the ‘70s, Everybody Wants Some!! is about college and the ‘80s. That is to say, it’s about the beginning of college and the beginning of the ‘80s. The central figure is Jake (Blake Jenner) an incoming freshman arriving at “Southeast Texas University” a few days before classes start in 1980.

Jake’s a pitching prospect for the school’s powerhouse baseball team, so he moves into one of the dumpy houses in which his teammates live, drink, party, swap bravado and chase girls. Some of his new housemates are wound-up, obnoxious jerks, and some of them are wound-up, obnoxious nice guys, and you see Jake slip easily into differing levels of friendship with or toleration of them.

It’s striking that both here and in Dazed and Confused, Linklater has unsentimentally focused on the jocks, the sheiks, the alpha dogs, swaggering, confident and, at least by the standards of their age, sexually successful. And in both, he’s managed to make them likable, even touchingly vulnerable at times.

Because of the narrower environment, there isn’t as much variety to the dramatis personae in Everybody Wants Some!! as there was in Dazed. But Linklater does gives us a romantic interest for Jake in the form of a cute theatre student (Zoey Deutch), which allows him to take the guys out of their comfort zone to an artsy theatre party.

When I first saw Dazed and Confused back in ’93, I thought that there wasn’t a scene or a performance that wasn’t funny and completely convincing. But I remember also thinking that the pace was a little unvaried; there wasn’t much rising tension. In the many, many times I’ve seen that film since, I’ve come to see this as a strength, not a weakness—it’s central to how Linklater generates the sense of a window on the past.

Everybody Wants Some!! has this quality as well. I was in 8th Grade in 1976, and I started college in 1980. Both of these films evoked sense memories in me of considerable intensity, and—considering that I “wanted some” as much as everybody else, and was far more frustrated than these guys—surprising affection.

Thursday, April 7, 2016


Since 1962’s Danish space opera Journey to the Seventh Planet...

 …is out on Blu-Ray this week… 

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s acknowledge an old favorite, the giant rodent Cyclops from that film…

Monday, April 4, 2016


Happy Opening Day everybody!

Recently The Wife and The Kid assembled this rather daunting (to me, at least) jigsaw puzzle of Chase Field...

…the taxpayer-subsidized home of the Arizona Diamondbacks, which the team now wants Maricopa County to re-subsidize for millions in repairs. Grrrr.

Even so, Your Humble Narrator is cheered at the prospect of having baseball, one of the few comforts of the warmer months here in the Valley, droning away on the radio again. The Wife even gave me this swell new garment to wear today…

April brings not only baseball, but the April issue of Phoenix Magazine

…featuring Your Humble Narrator’s takes on four different restaurants, each in a different corner of the Valley. It’s on the stands now, or you can check it out here.