Friday, May 19, 2017

BOO, RIDLEY

Opening this weekend:



Alien: CovenantRidley Scott’s original 1979 Alien was a space Gothic, a sort of Ten Little Indians with a parasitic alien replacing the mystery killer and a dank industrial spaceship replacing the creepy old mansion. There was nothing very new about the plot, but the film’s combination of gory, lowbrow shocks with Scott’s impeccably-crafted direction and the top-notch production values was a major leap forward in making the horror genre critically respectable.

Those of us who saw it in a theater back then aren’t likely to forget the experience. A junior in high school, I saw it with a group of friends, and during the celebrated scene when the baby alien popped out of poor John Hurt’s chest, the young woman next to me repeatedly pounded my right leg with her fist, leaving me with a bruise. Then the little alien let out a little squawk and scampered off, and we all howled with laughter, hysterical but also delighted.

We’d all seen gorier, grosser scenes in other horror movies before. But I don’t think we’d ever seen a scene like this made with the full force of state-of-the-art special effects and high-end designs by H. R. Giger and an award-worthy cast with the likes of Hurt and Ian Holm and Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton and so on. It felt like a game-changer.

Then came James Cameron’s 1986 sequel Aliens, more adventure picture than horror movie, and two more sequels, and then two films pitting the Aliens against the extraterrestrial trophy hunters from the Predator movies. In short, the svelte, fanged title characters have proven as durable a movie monster as the Wolf Man or The Mummy.

Then, in 2012, came a prequel to Alien, called Prometheus and directed by Ridley Scott. And this week we get this sequel to Prometheus, likewise directed by Scott. About the most that I can say for it is that it increases my admiration of the original.

The setting is a huge spaceship called the Covenant, headed, like the ship in last year’s Passengers, to a distant colony planet with a cargo of suspended colonists and fetuses. The small crew is woken from their decades-long snooze to deal with a flight emergency, after which they notice a much closer, much more promisingly Earthlike planet, so they make a detour to investigate.

The place initially looks like Paradise, but before long it seems more like Hell: the landing party runs afoul of, well, aliens, who look like pretty close relatives of those from the earlier movies. One supporting player after another is bloodily dispatched. They try to take refuge in the ruins of a city, where Michael Fassbender, as a leftover from Prometheus, tells them to make themselves at home, to the extent they can, “in this dire necropolis.” Love that old-fashioned hospitality.

All this may sound more intriguing than it is. The scare scenes are very gruesome, but they rely heavily on CGI effects, and while they’re unpleasant, they lack the shuddery, visceral punch of the original film’s shocks.

But even this is less problematic than the pace. Alien: Covenant is tediously, ponderously slow, burdened with unnecessary backstory and pretentious rambling dialogue.

The supporting players are mostly generic alien-fodder, but several of the leads manage to come across well despite the leaden tone. Elizabeth Waterston is touching as the bereaved but brave heroine. So is Billy Crudup as the feckless fellow who finds himself unhappily in charge, and Danny McBride lightens the mood a bit as a daring pilot.

Fassbender has a dual role, as David and Walter, earlier and later models of the same lifelike robot, so he spends much of his time playing scenes opposite himself. No actor could ask for a more rapturously infatuated scene partner, but the interminable murmured Miltonic musings that he’s been given are enough to make us long for the gore to start up again.

Also opening here in the Valley this week…



…is Lydia Tenaglia’s foodie documentary Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, about the California Cuisine master. Check out my review of it on Phoenix Magazine online.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

RED DON

Your Humble Narrator is a bit belated in paying tribute to the great Don Rickles, who passed on last month at 90. So...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...let's acknowledge the ill-fated vampire into which Rickles was transformed in the 1992 John Landis gangster/horror opus Innocent Blood...

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

GIFT, FRIDA, DIEGO, ET AL

A mini-holiday for Your Humble Narrator! For Mother's Day this past Sunday, The Wife requested to be taken to...


...the Diamondbacks-Pirates game at Chase Field.

Alas, although she was given a handsome Diamondbacks clutch purse upon entering the gates, and although we had good seats and enjoyed voluminous hot dogs, the game itself was a bummer, a draggy affair that the D-bax lost, 6-4, in ten innings, despite numerous chances to win it. Nonetheless, it was most cool to hang out with The Wife at the ballpark (The Kid eschewed the excursion, but joined us for dinner later), and we comforted ourselves with the thought that my dad would be pleased by a Pirates win.

Also, I was startled to see, playing 2nd base for the Pirates, Gift Ngoepe. I had seen Ngoepe play in 2009 for South Africa's World Baseball Classic team, in an exhibition game against the Oakland A's, and had noted at the time, along with the excellence of his play, the supreme coolness of his name. He made his debut with the Pirates this past April, thus becoming, incredibly, the first player from the African continent to play in the Majors. He also took over, from Lastings Milledge, the title of Pittsburgh Pirate with the coolest name.

Anyway, on Monday The Wife and I played hooky from work to visit the Heard Museum and see...


...their current exhibition of works by, and photographs of, Frida Kahlo (The Wife's idol) and Diego Riveraincluding Kahlo's stunning Self-portrait with Monkeys and her astonishing Love Embrace of the Universe, and Rivera's enchanting Modesto and the heartbreaking Sunflowersfrom the collection of Jacques and Natasha Gelman, as well as a few works by Rivera's and Kahlo's contemporaries (including a charming Portrait of Cantinflas by Rufino Tamayo). Mesmerizing stuff. The Heard is the only North America stop for this show, and if you're in the area I highly recommend.

Friday, May 12, 2017

VARIETY IS THE SPOUSE

Opening in the Valley this weekend:


The LoversThe title characters are Mary (Debra Winger) and Michael (Tracy Letts), California cubicle rats long married to, and out of love with, each other. Both are in serious extramarital relationships, and have been for a while. They still share a bed and have dinner together, and unquestioningly accept each others’ transparent lies and cover stories about why they’re home late from work—at the gym, having drinks with a friend, etc—in civil, unspoken d├ętente.

Their high-maintenance lovers—a ballet teacher (Melora Walters) for Michael, and a brooding writer (Aiden Guillen) for Mary—are impatient for them to divorce, however. When their anxiety is compounded by an impending visit from their disapproving college-age son (Tyler Ross) and his new girlfriend (Jessica Sula), the pressure gets so strong that Mary and Michael suddenly find each other the least demanding people in their lives. One morning before work they impulsively have sex, and before long they’re having a furtive, surreptitious affair, with each other.

Azazel Jacobs wrote and directed this delightful, low-key comedy-drama, a take on adultery and fidelity I hadn’t seen before. It’s full of passages of high comedy, like Michael’s indirect yet steely-voiced verbal seduction of his wife over the phone while he’s out on a date with the ballet teacher, or Mary’s struggle, distracted by thoughts of sex with her husband, to listen while the cool writer reads to her from his work.

But beyond the ingenuity of the situation, I loved the depiction of how these people live. Movies about adultery are often set among people who have all day to devote to it, the economically comfortable idle cheaters. The Lovers shows the rushed, unsatisfactory quality of adulterous encounters. It’s full of splendid details, like the cigarette burns on the tree outside Mary’s office building, where the writer waits to meet her, or the knowing glances of Mary’s and Michael’s coworkers as they scurry into work late.

This atmosphere, so rarely seen in movies that it seems almost exotic, extends to the leads. Winger and Letts look their age here, and it makes them more, not less, intensely attractive—it’s entirely believable that their younger, superficially more glamorous lovers would be the needy pursuers in the relationships. But we also see that this magnetism doesn’t make life easier for them. They’re constantly scrambling around, making excuses and apologizing, constantly hounded by the familiar middle-aged idea, not unfounded, that they’re letting everybody down.

It’s only now and then any more that I feel, watching a movie, that I have no idea how the story will turn out, and that I deeply care. The Lovers gave me that unaccustomed feeling, and its resolution seemed to me perfectly convincing and apt. It may be my favorite film so far this year.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

RAINSPOUT MAN

This Saturday on MeTV, the redoubtable Svengoolie presents a childhood fave of mine, the 1972 TV movie Gargoyles, about living versions of the creepy creatures represented in cathedral architecture menacing researcher Cornel Wilde and his fabulous daughter Jennifer Salt in a remote New Mexico desert community. Bernie Casey plays the leader of the Gargoyles, and Grayson Hall of Dark Shadows and the young Scott Glenn are also in it. If you've never seen it, and if, like me, this sort of thing constitutes an exciting Saturday night for you, I recommend.

So...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...let's acknowledge this guy...


...one of the title characters, designed by the late great Stan Winston.

Friday, May 5, 2017

THE CHANGING OF THE GUARDIANS

Opening this weekend:


Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2Back in 2014, I was delighted by Guardians of the Galaxy, a Marvel movie based on a comic I had never read. I don't think I had ever even heard of it prior to the movie version, and this comparative obscurity has been a sign of success, for me, among Marvel productions. Some of their most charming efforts have been adaptations of their less prominent titles, like Ant-Man or Dr. Strange. Possibly the less-familiar characters afford the filmmakers more creative latitude then icons like Spider-Man or the Hulk.

In any case, Guardians of the Galaxy the First was driven along by a sensational soundtrack of '60s and '70s pop hits, sourced from the "Awesome Mix Tape" in the Walkman of goofball Earthling hero Peter Quill. More importantlythough only a little more importantlythe movie had a droll sense of incongruity between epic space action and the petty bickering of the title heroes, a motley crew of thrown-together interstellar mercenaries.

They're all back for Vol. 2: In addition to Peter (Chris Pratt), there's the sensible, green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the burly, inappropriately mirthful Drax (Dave Bautista), the talking racoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), an endearing juvenile cutting of the talking tree from Part One, jointly parented by the other Guardians. Michael Rooker is also back from Part One, as Peter's scurvy space-marauder stepdad. 

The story this time has Peter, whose late mother was an Earth woman, at last meeting his alien father, Ego, the humanoid incarnation of a protean planet. Ego is played with effortless geniality by Kurt Russell, under a godlike mane and beard. Sylvester Stallone turns up in a small role as well, but those hoping for a Tango & Cash reunion (are there any?) will be disappointed; Stallone and Russell have no scenes together.

There's a lot to like about this sequel, directed, again, by James Gunn. It retains the strong acting of Part One, and it's maybe even more visually imaginative and lush—I especially liked the shiny, Plasticine look of Ego's planet. The plot, which suggests elements of Lem's Solaris blended with one of David Mitchell's fevered fantasies of narcissistic, predatory immortality, had promise as well.

On the whole, Vol. 2 is reasonably entertaining, but it suffers from sequel-itis. It's too long and too grandiose, the pacing is slack, and gags which worked beautifully in Part One because they were silly throwaways are played self-consciously here, and too many of them go thud. This extends, alas, to Peter's second "Awesome Mix Tape," which, though another superb collection, is unwisely brought center stage in its psychological importance to our hero.

That said, it's hard to disapprove too much of any movie paying such heartfelt tribute to the 1972 Looking Glass hit "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)." After the two Guardians soundtracks and the use of "Sabotage" by the Beastie Boys in last year's Star Trek: Beyond, someone may get an interesting term paper out of the symbiotic affinity between space opera action and nostalgic radio standards.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

TOP RAT

Saturday evening (11:30 p.m. Phoenix time) Turner Classic Movies hosts the TCM premiere of the 1983 Canadian horror picture Of Unknown Origin, directed by George Pan Cosmatos of Rambo fame, about the battle of wills between a young urbanite (Peter Weller) and a rodent of unusual size who's trying to drive him away. I remember seeing it back in the '80s, and finding it intriguing.

So...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...our honoree is the vermin from that film, here salaciously depicted on the VHS cover art...


Tuesday, May 2, 2017

BEAGLE RAMIFICATIONS

A happy May to all! Check out the May issue of Phoenix Magazine, now on the stands...


…for my “Four Corners” column on Valley restaurants that have re-started after closing or moving.

Also…


…this is Roxy, the beloved beagle of my late pal Dewey Webb (named, of course, after Erica Gavin’s character in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls). She is sweet and affectionate, and needs a new home. I’d take her gladly, but we have three McNugget-sized Chihuahuas that make this out of the question. She’s active, and might be a nice fit for a family with older kids. Get in touch if you’d be interested in adopting her, or know somebody who would.

Her glamour has been captured here, by the way, by the great, award-winning San Francisco-based photographer Timothy Archibald, formerly of New Times.

Friday, April 28, 2017

DEMME LOVE? OUGHT TO

The masterly Jonathan Demme has departed, at 73.

His last fiction feature, 2015’s Ricki and the Flash, was a misfire, alas, but here in the Valley, Harkins Theatres hosts a well-deserved retrospective tribute this week, featuring four of the best of Demme’s direct, humane, sophisticated yet accessible films: His classic thriller Silence of the Lambs (1991), his fine courtroom drama Philadelphia (1993), his brilliant, genre-bending comedy-melodrama Something Wild (1986) and my own favorite, Married to the Mob (1988).


If you’ve never seen this buoyantly nutty comedy, in which the Long Island mob widow Angela de Marco (Michelle Pfeiffer) tries to “divorce” herself and her son from her extended gangster “family,” I highly recommend. It features a terrific cast led by Dean Stockwell (who got an Oscar nomination) as the smitten boss Tony “The Tiger” Russo, Matthew Modine as Pfeiffer’s G-man love interest, the young Alec Baldwin as Frankie “The Cucumber” de Marco, and the marvelous Mercedes Ruehl as Tony’s heartbroken and hilariously terrifying wife Connie. It also features what I think is Pfeiffer’s best, or at least most endearing, performance.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

SPINAL CORN

My friend and New Times colleague Dewey Webb passed on yesterday, at 64. New Times gave me the privilege of writing his obit.

In Dewey’s honor… 

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s acknowledge a monster from one of his favorite filmmakers, gimmick-master William Castle: the title character from 1959’s The Tingler

 
Scientist Vincent Price discovers that the multi-legged creepy-crawly forms on the human spine and awakens during moments of terror, thus causing the “tingle.” Screaming is the only defense against it, so Price is eventually able to remove a live specimen from the body of a mute woman who died of fright. But he doesn’t take proper biohazard precautions, to his misfortune… 


Saturday, April 22, 2017

BI(PLANE) CURIOUS

Out this week on DVD...



...from The Sprocket Vault is The Mysterious Airman, a serial from 1928 about industrial intrigue between aircraft companies. The 10-Chapter tale from the Weiss Brothers, featuring fights and chases and cliffhangers and lots of cool Waco 10 airplanes, is of interest to both silent film and aviation buffs. My pal, film historian Richard M. Roberts, provided the audio commentary, and I may also be heard, briefly, doing an announcer voice during the commentary for Chapter 9, part of which is missing. This amounts to the best performing gig I've had in quite a few years.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

TO SAUCER, WITH LOVE

Kudos to the observant and resourceful employees of the McDonald's in Harborcreek, Pennsylvania, who spotted and detained the "Facebook Killer." That's the McDonald's three or four miles from the house I grew up in, the McDonald's at which I ate in grade and high school. Strange to see it on the news.

With the "Phoenix Lights" thriller Phoenix Forgotten opening this weekend, check out my story on the New Times blog showcasing freaky flying saucer flicks. And...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...let's acknowledge one of Paul Blaisdell's unforgettable saucer men...



...from 1957's Invasion of the Saucer Men, number two on the list.

Friday, April 14, 2017

SEOUL TRANSFER

Opening this weekend:



ColossalManhattanite Gloria (Anne Hathaway) isn't a bad sort, but she's gotten into the habit of drinking and partying and neglecting her boyfriend. When he pretty justifiably gets fed up and dumps her and kicks her out of the apartment, she moves back to her small hometown upstate, gets a job in a bar owned by her old classmate Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), and starts trying, vaguely, to regroup her life.

While this is happening, on the other side of the world, a horned, glowering, Godzilla-sized monster suddenly materializes, seemingly out of nowhere, in downtown Seoul, South Korea. The beast appears every day or so at the same time, behaving sometimes destructively, sometimes just peculiarly, and then vanishes just as inexplicably. The locals are terrified, and the world's sense of reality is shaken, yet back in the upstate New York bar, things settle back into routine soon enough.

How these two story strands very specifically connect, and how it leads to a second titan appearing in the streets of Seoul, is the subject of Nacho Vigalondo's brilliant, off-the-wall exploration of the psychological underpinnings of the giant monster movie. In many films of this sort, the subtext is environmental or social, but here it's rooted in petty personal weaknesses and acrimonies that seem entirely convincing. It's about the micro of human resentfulness, expressed in the macro of rampaging colossi.

This is the most imaginative use of the giant-monster form since the Korean movie The Host, back in 2006. In some ways Colossal also resembles the sort of surrealist-lite comedies that started showing up more than a decade ago, like Being John Malkovich and Cold Souls. But Vigalondo gives it a fairly rigorous internal consistency. About the only lapse in believability that the movie asks us to overlook is the idea that if this was happening, Seoul, or at least that part of Seoul, wouldn't be evacuated, that shops and restaurants would still be open and the streets would still be teeming with people. Otherwise, the movie ison its own terms, of coursequite logical.

It owes much of its authentic feel to the acting. Sudeikis, always reliable, brings an impressively subtle tension to Oscar, and Tim Blake Nelson and Austin Stowell add warmth as his buddies. At first these guys seem meant only to give us easy-going small town banter, but Vigalondo gradually takes even this side of the material into uncomfortable, unsentimental realms.

The real force in Colossal, however, is Hathaway's funny yet stingingly honest underplaying as the intelligent, sheepish, emotionally bedraggled Gloria. It may be her best performance.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

STOMP COLLECTION

Check out my rundown, on the New Times blog, of Korean giant monsters. It's in anticipation of Nacho Vigalondo's fascinatingly weird movie Colossal, opening here tomorrow...



so...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...the nod goes to this titan...


...from that film.

Friday, April 7, 2017

EVEN BLUE GIRLS GET THE BLUES

Opening this week:


Smurfs: The Lost VillageThe third entry in Sony's Smurf series focuses on Smurfette, the lone female among the tiny blue-skinned residents of Smurf Village. The first two films in this series, from 2011 and 2013, were both directed by Raja Gosnell and mixed animation with live action. The Lost Village is all animated, and eschews any visits to the human world. The plot concerns the discovery of a previously unknown neighboring Smurf village, and the quest by Smurfette and some of her friends to warn its inhabitants of a threat from the sinister wizard Gargamel and his much more observant cat Azreal.

In case you've managed to remain unfamiliar with the elfin race created in the late '50s by the Belgian cartoonist Pierre "Peyo" Culliford, the Smurfs (originally "Les Schtroumpfs") are named according to their defining characteristic, as in Brainy Smurf, Clumsy Smurf, Nosey Smurf, Paranoid Smurf, etc. Only Smurfette lacks a signature trait. She has a rather Manichaean backstory, having been created by Gargamel as an agent against the Smurfs, then won over to the side of light by exposure to their relentless niceness. But she feels incomplete without her very own adjective.

The movie's acknowledgement of the presumption, longstanding in the narrative traditions of our culture, that Smurfette's gender is sufficient by itself to define her, is potentially interesting. But nothing much is done with it, beyond acknowledgement, and otherwise this is a pretty by-the-numbers animated kid flick. It's watchable enough, but about the most that can be said for it is that it's inoffensive.

Demi Lovato replaces the earlier film's Katy Perry as the voice of Smurfette, while Rainn Wilson does his usual droll work as the voice of Gargamel, replacing the live-action version of Hank Azaria. Mandy Patinkin replaces the late Jonathan Winters as Papa Smurf, while the leader of the newly discovered village is voiced by Julia Roberts. Strange to think that the Pretty Woman herself is ready for matriarch roles.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

DIE-HARD FANG

Since the title character of the Jim Jarmusch film Paterson (out on DVD and Blu-ray this week) and his wife go to see the great 1932 shocker Island of Lost Souls...



Monster-of-the-Week: ...this week let's honor this fellow...


...played by Tetsu Komai, from that film.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

PRAISING RAISING

Happy April everybody! I hope everybody had a great April Fool's Day, although that holiday seems a bit gratuitous these days.

Check out the April issue of Phoenix Magazine...


...featuring my article on the Coen Brothers movie Raising Arizona which, believe it or not, turns 30 years old this month. It's on page 236, or here.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

NEO-FATAL

Opening this weekend is the animated feature The Boss Baby, with Alec Baldwin, currently busy playing another infantile boss on TV, providing the voice of the title role.

So...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...let's acknowledge the unusually cranky baby from Larry Cohen's 1974 It's Alive...


Friday, March 24, 2017

TRIUMPH OF THE WILSON

Opening this week:

 
WilsonWoody Harrelson plays the title character in this adaptation of the 2010 graphic novel by Daniel Clowes of Ghost World fame. Wilson is long divorced and all but friendless, and it's not hard to see why—he's appallingly socially inappropriate, cheerfully making unsolicited, often bluntly insulting pronouncements to total strangers as he galumphs around Minneapolis. He lives over a karate school, in a small apartment cluttered with popular paperback novels—including, for some reason, two copies of QB VII—and alienates almost everybody he meets.

His only companion is his little dog Pepper—Umberto D is seen on a movie marquee, and Pepper looks very much like Umberto's dog Flike in that film. But when Wilson, even more emotionally adrift than usual after the death of his distant father, tries to broaden his social circle a bit, he reconnects with his ex-wife Pippi (Laura Dern), a recovering addict, and their dour seventeen-year-old daughter Claire (Isabella Amara) that she gave up for adoption after leaving him. Finding himself the head of this forlorn little family unit gives him a sudden giddy, reckless euphoria.

Chaos ensues, both hilarious and painful. Hilarious because of Harrelson's delivery; he makes Wilson's unfiltered assertions rude yet bright and outgoing and friendly (not to mention that he often seems right on the money). He genuinely wants people to benefit from his perspectives, and his smiling manner suggests a congenial warmth and intimacy, as if to say ''no need to thank me."

It's painful because of his utter obliviousness, not only to the offense he gives but to his atrocious bad judgement and its consequences. The rambling story, which covers years, takes turns that are completely unpredictable, yet entirely and cringe-inducingly believable. Director Craig Johnson (of The Skeleton Twins), working from a script by Clowes, unfolds the narrative cleanly and gets strong acting not only from Harrelson but from Dern, Amara, Judy Greer, Cheryl Hines and others.

Not everything about Wilson works, even on its own cracked terms. A couple of scenes that escalate into slapstick violence seem forced and overbearing. And as it progresses, the movie seems to invite us to laugh at Wilson's intolerable behavior at the same time it's asking us to recognize his very real pain in a way that makes our laughter feel ungenerous. But even this response, though possibly unintentional, makes the film complex and interesting.



Personal ShopperBy day, our heroine Maureen works in the title capacity for a famous fashionista in Paris. Maureen’s twin brother Lewis has recently died, and so she’s taken to staying in the beautiful house he shared with his girlfriend by night, in hopes of receiving word from The Great Beyond—she’s a medium, as was he.

Eventually Maureen sees some fairly goosebump-raising ghostly manifestations, and she also starts receiving disturbing, provocative texts on her phone, and wonders if they might have a paranormal origin. Then matters take a more sinister turn.

It’s all very cool and chic and sexy and ambiguous and European. Writer-director Olivier Assayas manages to get Kristen Stewart, who plays Maureen, into some of the haute fashion items she’s been sent to fetch, and also out of them, which does no harm to the picture’s marketability.

But it should also be said that Personal Shopper transcends mere glossy glamour. Stewart comes to life here in a way that I haven’t seen from her in the past. Assayas gets past the blank, slightly slack-jawed quality she showed in the Twilight movies and finds a directness and a sullen, skittish bravery that’s quite touching. She’s in almost every scene of the picture, and she carries it convincingly.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

INALIENABLE WRIGHTSON

RIP to a true master of the macabre: the great horror and fantasy artist Berni Wrightson has passed on, at 68. Among many achievements, Wrightson is known for his superb illustrated edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1983) and as the creator (with writer Len Wein) of the DC Comics hero-monster Swamp Thing in 1972 (a character later brilliantly expanded upon by my fellow Erie-ite and pal John Totleben, in collaboration with Stephen Bissette and Alan Moore).

Obviously…

Monster-of-the-Week: …a Wrightson creation is in order, so how about…


…the lycanthrope from Cycle of the Werewolf, the Wrightson-illustrated Stephen King tale from 1983.

Friday, March 17, 2017

INTERN-AL COMBUSTION

Check out my story, on the New Times blog, about the upcoming indie film Car Dogs and the ASU "Film Spark" internship program connected to it.


Also, check out the March issue of Phoenix Magazine...


...for my "Four Corners" column on Valley steakhouses; it's on page 134, or here.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

TUSKMASTER

Your Humble Narrator wasn't able to get to the screening of Disney's new live-action version of Beauty and the Beast, opening this week, but in its honor...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...let's give the nod to this cool, warthog-ish looking incarnation of the Beast, played by George C. Scott...



...opposite the undeniable Beauty of his real-life wife Trish Van Devere, in a 1976 Hallmark Hall of Fame production of the tale...


I saw it at the time, and remember it being pretty good.

Friday, March 10, 2017

THERE'S AN APE FOR THAT

Opening this week: 

 
Kong: Skull IslandIn 1973, just as the U.S. is bugging out of Vietnam, the Military-Industrial Complex mounts a secret but really obnoxiously intrusive expedition, via a swarm of helicopters, to the title island. Within minutes of arriving, the invaders find themselves getting the crap very justifiably beaten out of them by the title resident.

The survivors of the initial attack then squabble and try to regroup, and to survive further attacks by this skyscraper-sized primate as well as other gargantuan abominations. Notable among these are the “skull-crawlers,” a species of voracious reptiles that resemble two-legged monitor lizards with squalid, skull-like heads. The party also encounters human natives, and an American airman stranded there since WWII.

The original 1933 King Kong is my favorite movie, and giant monsters have been cinematic comfort food for me since I was a small child. So when I tell you that it’s been a while since I’ve had this much fun at a movie, I’ll understand if you take it with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, it’s been a while since I’ve had this much fun at a movie, and many people around me at the screening seemed to have the same response.

American popular moviemaking has been on a bit of a roll recently—two weeks ago we had the chiller Get Out, last week brought us Logan, and this week we get this boldly preposterous saga. It would be great if we could count on entertainment at that level every weekend.

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts stages monster action with a true Brobdingnagian grandeur, and he and the special effects folks offer us a Kong who is brooding, irritable and lovable. Part of the pleasure of the movie is that he’s so much more sympathetic than the human visitors that one feels little compunction about wholeheartedly rooting for him.

There’s a tongue-in-cheek nerviness to the script, and the cast is full of character vets that can handle it. The supporting soldiers and researches are forgettable monster fodder, and the nominal hero and heroine, Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson, seem to have been cast for their ability to look great in t-shirts. But John Goodman, as the contractor leading the search, and Samuel L. Jackson as the Army Colonel who goes all Captain Ahab toward Kong, and John C. Reilly as the marooned pilot, ensure that the movie isn’t just an empty spectacle devoid of personality.

Kong: Skull Island is not, I suppose, a movie of particularly mature or wholesome sensibility. But it can’t fairly be called dumb, either—it’s made with skill, wit and imagination, and it has moments that could be called magical. 

 
The Ottoman LieutenantCall the title character Ismail, a dashing young Turk in the Ottoman army. He's played by a Dutch actor named Michiel Huisman, previously unfamiliar to me but very appealing. Our heroine, played by the Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar, is Lillie, a high-minded nurse from Philadelphia who goes to work in a clinic in Anatolia in the early days of World War I. She and Ismail fall in love, even though he's a Muslim and she's a Christian, even though the dull doctor at the clinic (Josh Hartnett) also loves her, and even though the Armenian Christians she cares for are in big trouble from the Turks.

This star-crossed interfaith romance tries to be sexy and swoony in the manner of a check-out line romance novel of the old school. The direction is by that excellent journeyman Joseph Ruben, who back in the '80s made three classic thrillers in a row: Dreamscape, The Stepfather and True Believer. The poor fellow hasn't been able to get a script worthy of his abilities since, but that doesn't stop him from bringing the best out of what he has to work with, like efficiently staging some exciting action scenes here, or from capitalizing on the expansive scenery.

Ben Kingsley easily nails his few scenes as another American doctor with whom Lillie bonds, a sick and bereaved man who labors on in spite of despairing doubt that life has any meaning. But crisp direction and a strong supporting turn can only take the movie so far, especially when there may be an unspoken agenda beyond the mild love story.

With its insipid dialogue and nagging, generically epic music, The Ottoman Lieutenant comes off as trite but watchable and harmless enough, on the surface. It would be remiss, however, not to note that the film, a Turkish-backed production, is grotesquely evasive about the Armenian Genocide that started in 1915, in which about a million and a half people perished.

The movie doesn't exactly deny the event, but it treats it obliquely, in bland passages from Lillie's narration like "the Ottomans took measures to stamp out the Armenian rebels, and the Armenians fought back," or "...some Armenian men were taken from their homes and conscripted to serve in the Ottoman army, while the round-up of Armenian women, children and the elderly had begun..." She never quite spits out what those "measures" were, or what the people were being rounded up for.

It's true that we're shown a small number of Ottoman soldiers massacring some Armenians on a country road. But there's no sense of the scope and sanction of the horror from this scene, the real point of which is that our valiant hero Ismail intercedes on the Armenians' behalf.

To be fair, this probably isn't much more outrageously disingenuous than, say, the classic John Ford epics are toward the real-life genocides of the American West. Still, behind all of The Ottoman Lieutenant's pieties and platitudes and tender longings and noble sacrifices, it's hard to miss a distinct whiff of whitewash.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

COVER VERSION

With Kong: Skull Island opening this weekend…

Monster-of-the-Week: …it only seems right to acknowledge one of the greatest pop-culture monsters of all time, so how about…


…this rendering of the Eighth Wonder of the World by the great Frank Frazetta, on the cover of this 1976 paperback edition of the 1932 Delos Lovelace novelization of the original movie. It was reprinted in 2005…



…by The Modern Library. I wonder if it was the first novelization ever to have that distinction?

Friday, March 3, 2017

EXIT CLAWS

Opening this week: 


Logan The Marvel superhero Wolverine, a Canadian mutant with regenerative powers verging on invincibility and long, claw-like blades he can distend from his knuckles, has been around in the comics since the ‘70s. He’s been played in the movies by Hugh Jackman since 2000, and this latest, which goes by his walking-around name of Logan, is said to be Jackman’s last.

This one finds Logan, haggard and careworn, working anonymously as a chauffer in a U.S./Mexico border town and supporting the dementia-afflicted Professor X (Patrick Stewart). The two men become guardians of Laura (Dafne Keen), a little girl with mutant powers remarkably similar to Logan’s, right down to the claws and the tendency to use them. Soon they’re all on the run from corporate forces led by a drawlingly evil security chief (Boyd Holbrook) and a mad scientist (Richard E. Grant).

The director is James Mangold, who previously helmed The Wolverine in 2013, and whose earlier movies include the 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma and 1997’s High Noon-ish police drama Cop Land. His work often shows the influence of the classic westerns—the underdog facing powerful enemies with moral rectitude on his side. With Logan, Mangold overtly indentifies his hero with the title character in Shane, but he also infuses a strong, even heavy-handed streak of religious allegory into the story—this is Shane meets The Last Temptation of Christ. With extendable claws.

Mangold creates an atmosphere of dusty, ochre-toned defeat, and the actors match it. Jackman may never have done better work onscreen than this portrait of grudging, exhausted compassion, and Stewart’s enfeebled warmth is touching. Both have a rapport with silent, spooky Dafne Keen. Among the supporting cast, both Stephen Merchant as Caliban, a sort of mutant-bloodhound who has become Professor X’s caregiver, and Elizabeth Rodriguez as a desperate nurse add to the movie’s tragic flavor.

As with the other Wolverine flicks, I greatly enjoyed this gritty, gripping, melancholy chase picture, even though I was never a devotee of these comics. Be forewarned, though: With severed limbs and heads and bloody shootings and impaled henchmen from beginning to end, Logan is probably the most gory superhero movie I’ve ever seen (though I missed last year’s notorious Deadpool).

Despite this splatter, I was prepared to appreciate any superhero flick that didn’t climax with a bunch of skyscrapers collapsing into rubble, not to mention any movie that closes with Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around,” in its entirety, under the end credits. With superhero flicks, one should never assume anything is final, but if this truly is Jackman’s farewell to the role, then Cash gives him the perfect swansong.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

EGGCEPTIONALISM

The new chapter in the Alien saga, Ridley Scott's Alien: Covenant, is due in theaters May 19. A poster has been released, so...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...this week's honoree is...


...whatever is in there, I guess...

Monday, February 27, 2017

OSCARRED

Best Picture is usually the least interesting of all the awards at the Oscars. At least, that’s how it seems most years. Which film will win often feels, after the results of all those other awards shows, like a fait accompli going in, and even when it doesn’t, by the time we’ve arrived at the last award of the night, you typically have a sense of how things are leaning. There are exceptions, of course—Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan in 1999, for instance—but as a rule, Best Picture tends to be an anticlimax.

That sure wasn’t the case this year, however.



The show Sunday night began in normal fashion. Host Jimmy Kimmel, not being of the Neil Patrick Harris, Seth MacFarlane or Billy Crystal mold, didn’t try to wow everybody with a big semi-ironic song-and-dance production number, so that duty was managed by Justin Timberlake, extravagantly performing “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” his nominated song from Trolls.

Kimmel took over from there, and handled himself well, with some relaxed, mostly uncontroversial but quite funny standup and an unobtrusive modesty. There were oddball routines—like concessions dropping from the ceiling in tiny parachutes, or a group of Hollywood-star-home tourists being led through the Dolby Theatre by surprise—that seemed, as such bits often do, like more laborious trouble than they were worth, but they still had some charm.

There were touching moments as well, like the real-life, 98-year-old NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson in Hidden Figures, being wheeled onstage to a thunderous ovation. And a friend called me, convulsed with hilarity, after a segment in which Seth Rogen, discussing 1985’s Back to the Future, observed that “They really, like, captured future clothing pretty well, ‘cuz if you saw, like, Tilda Swinton wearing that exact outfit, you would not think it was weird.”

For most of its length, the show chugged along agreeably, if without any particular excitement. Casey Affleck winning Best Actor for Manchester by the Sea was perhaps a slight surprise, as Denzel Washington had taken the SAG Award for Fences. But on the whole, nothing suggested that La La Land wouldn’t win Best Picture as expected.

That Moonlight took the award instead would have been a surprise to begin with, but what made the upset great TV was an unfortunate mix-up: Presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were somehow accidentally given the wrong envelope, a duplicate of the one reading Emma Stone for Best Actress in La La Land. Beatty was confused, paused, and showed the card to Dunaway who, thinking that Beatty was just clowning, glanced at it and announced La La Land as the winner.



The cast and producers of that film came onstage and were in the midst of their acceptance speeches when the error was pointed out to them. Producer Jordan Horowitz stepped to the microphone, announced the mistake, and graciously called the Moonlight team to the stage, saying he was proud to present the award to them.

While I was less enthusiastic than most critics about La La Land, and while the stirring Moonlight topped my Top Ten List this year, it was hard not to feel for the La La Land gang, and harder still not to admire the grace with which they handled the situation. It was painful, but it sure wasn’t dull.

Another friend called me after the show to tell me he had the inside scoop on how the practice of two sets of envelopes originated. He claims that at the 1964 Oscars, the agent for Pricewaterhouse (then still known as Price Waterhouse) suffered a fatal heart attack just before showtime. These being the days when, probably mostly for the sake of showmanship, the operative would be presented onstage handcuffed to the briefcase containing the winners, the misfortune created an obvious problem for the ceremony, and the need for a backup became clear.

But there was another twist to the tale, according to my friend (who claims he knew the Price Waterhouse man's family as a kid in Reseda, California). He says the guy's heart attack was brought on by stress because he was related to Governor John Connally of Texas, who had been wounded a few months earlier in the Kennedy assassination. So there you have it: Last night's Oscar telecast was one more casualty of that fateful day in Dallas.

I have been unable to find any independent confirmation whatsoever for this. But hey, if you can't trust the testimony of a guy who calls you late at night after playing bar trivia, what can you trust?

Friday, February 24, 2017

GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER 2

Opening this weekend:

 
Get OutChris (Daniel Kaluuya), a young, gifted and black art photographer in New York City, goes upstate for a weekend in the country with his white girlfriend of four months, Rose (Allison Williams), to meet the affluent parents. Dad (Bradley Whitford) is a neurosurgeon, Mom (Catherine Keener) is a hypnotherapist, creepy brother (Caleb Landry Jones) is a med student.

They seem, initially, like nice folks, a little awkward and self-conscious about Chris’s race, but well-intentioned, even compensatorily over-friendly. But small weirdnesses crop up at once, first with the mannered, inauthentic behavior of the family’s black domestic help (Marcus Henderson and Betty Gabriel) and of another black man who shows up at a party (Lakieth Stanfield), and then with other hints of the sinister.

To say much more would be to give away too much about this horror tale, written and directed by Jordan Peele (half of the comedy team of Key & Peele) in his directorial debut. Suffice to say that it’s a splendidly successful, witty shocker, in large part because Peele is disciplined about playing by the rules, using the theme of racial unease to generate terror along a wonderfully old-fashioned, Ira-Levin-ish Gothic structure.

Kaluuya, a Brit, easily pulls us into his gradually-rising paranoia and makes us root for Chris. The white actors are flawless, from the subtlety of Williams, Whitford, Keener and Stephen Root as a blind gallery owner to the ripe caricature of the unwholesome party guests. And the wide-eyed servants, with their stilted unctuousness, can raise the hairs on your neck. There’s overt comic relief, too, in the form of the ebullient LilRey Howery as Chris’s worried TSA agent pal.

Best of all, while Get Out is sincerely meant to scare, Peele still brings his comic sensibility into play here. There are well-crafted jolts and jumps, and the climactic clashes are conventionally gruesome, but the movie never loses a sense of audience-pleasing fun. Peele connects the film not only to classic horror templates but also to hardwired racial beliefs, both black and white. The plot partly hinges, for instance, on the familiar white conviction, recently displayed by our president, that all black people know each other.

Opening at Sonora Cinema at Desert Sky Mall:


You're Killing Me SusanaEligio is a Mexico City soap actor who likes to stay out late, drink, and fool around with women from the set. One morning he wakes up to find his stunning writer wife Susana (Veronica Echegui) absent from bed and apartment. Her clothes are absent from the closet, too.

Stunned and shaken—he thought they were doing great—Eligio traces Susana to a writer's workshop at a college in Iowa. He drops everything and follows her there, where he finds her involved with a virile, silent Polish poet.

From here on, You're Killing Me Susana (Me Estas Matando Susana), directed by Roberto Sneider from a Jose Agustin novel, becomes both a romantic comedy with serious overtones and a spiky look at U.S. culture through an outsider's eyes. In both functions it's charged up by the performance of Gael Garcia Bernal—probably best known to U.S. audiences as the young Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries—as Eligio.

With his insolent sexual confidence and persistent (if mostly ineffectual) machismo, Eligio is the sort who can smirk at his own infidelities yet throw wailing, floor-pounding tantrums at Susana's without seeming to notice the incongruity. The breathtaking Echegui makes you see how the combination of Eligio's oppressive selfishness and his unshakable lovability could make sneaking away while he's asleep seem like the only escape.

This wry, absorbing, unpredictable movie can truly be called a comedy-drama, deftly tipping from near-farcical to poignant without losing its balance, on either side of the hyphen.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

REVENGE WATCHING

Since we were discussing MeTV last week, allow me to point out that the vintage network's old-school horror host Svengoolie, who's been on a welcome Godzilla kick lately, shows Godzilla's Revenge this Saturday.



I have exceptionally fond memories of that one (released in the U.S. in 1971), as my sister Priscilla took me to see it at the Warner Theater in Erie when I was about nine.

So...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...let's acknowledge Gabara, the monster who acts like a jerk to Godzilla's kid Minya in that film...


Excuse the spoiler, but needless to say, both Godzilla and son get their revenge...

Monday, February 20, 2017

CAMPAIGN KILLER

Happy President's Day everybody!

In observance of the day, check out Your Humble Narrator's story, on the New Times blog, about my adventures campaigning in my neighborhood for our current President's opponent. Also...


...check out the February issue of Phoenix Magazine for my review of North Mountain Grille (page 152, or here) and my "Four Corners" column on Indian food joints (page 153, or here).

Friday, February 17, 2017

DODGE BRAWL

Opening this week:

 
Fist FightCharlie Day is Andy Campbell, a milquetoast English teacher at an underfunded, underachieving, metal-detector-enclosed high school. Ice Cube is Strickland, a tough history teacher. It’s the last day of school, the odious, arrogant students are playing outrageous pranks, and the teachers are re-interviewing for their jobs in the face of layoffs. Things are tense.

Andy witnesses Strickland violently lose it front of his class, and faced with the prospect of losing his job if he doesn’t, he “rats out” Strickland to the principal. On the familiar grounds that “snitches get stitches,” Strickland then challenges Andy to the title combat after school.

The rest of this broad, crude, foul-mouthed comedy, directed by Richie Keen from a script by Van Robichaux and Evan Susser, involves Andy frantically resorting to ever more dishonorable and humiliating tactics in an attempt to avoid this fight. In outline, the plot is very much like that of 1987’s Three O’Clock High, except featuring teachers instead of students. Ultimately, of course, in the grand tradition of movies, Andy and Strickland must face off—if they didn’t, the title would be a cheat.

It’s an indefensibly stupid, ill-conceived, mostly unfunny, often offensive movie. So of course, I feel compelled to defend it a little. A very, very little.

First of all, the actors are good. Day, a veteran nitwit from the Horrible Bosses movies and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, fearlessly plays shamelessness. He isn’t the customary cinematic comical coward, like Bob Hope or Woody Allen, making his avoidance of peril into a self-deprecating dignity—he’s palpably willing to abase himself, and the effect is painful, verging at times on poignancy.

Tracy Morgan brings his querulous, imploring tones to the part of the perennially losing football coach, and he’s pretty funny. Jillian Bell is even funnier as a guidance counselor who seems desperately in need of guidance herself. Only Christina Hendricks, as a possibly psychotic French teacher, seems wasted, although I suppose no footage which features Christina Hendricks walking down the hallway in a form-fitting black dress can be considered a total waste.

Ice Cube is always effortlessly commanding, even in a role like this, which aside from being one-note is saddled with a major idiocy at its core. The moviemakers try to sell us on the idea that Strickland’s rage is because he’s fed up with the disrespect of students and the indifference of his colleagues, and that he’s insisting on going through with his challenge to Andy on the grounds that a fight between two teachers will somehow showcase the problems faced by those in their profession.

This is ludicrous, certainly, but it may point to the reason why, as terrible as Fist Fight is, the movie can’t be called dull. It draws a certain degree of dramatic potency from the near-impossible situation in which public school teachers in poorer districts find themselves—constant frustration if they care about their jobs and their students, soulless defeat if they give up. The dumb fight-between-teachers plot, even though it was probably the inspiration for the picture, is also a weight around its neck. It’s possible to see how, with the same cast and setting, something could have been made that was at least equally funny but genuinely trenchant.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

TUNNEL VISION

Your Humble Narrator is a fan of the vintage network MeTV, in no small part because they play silly, nostalgic old-school ‘60s and ‘70s sci-fi on the weekends, including Irwin Allen’s ridiculous The Time Tunnel.

This week’s scheduled episode is “Chase Through Time,” in which our epoch-hopping, stock-footage-fleeing heroes James Darren and Robert Colbert find themselves, among other eras, back in prehistory. So…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s acknowledge the primordial titan that threatens them in that episode…


…obviously played by an unfortunate alligator with fins and horns attached. It appears to have been recycled from Allen’s own 1960 version of The Lost World.