Friday, June 23, 2017

PLUMMER'S CRACKLESS

Opening this week:


The ExceptionHas any actor since Paul Newman aged as well as Christopher Plummer? He seems to get more majestic-looking every year, and he has more wry, mischievous charm now than he did as a young man, by quite a large margin.

Having played the aged, gulled Tolstoy in 2009’s The Last Station, he now plays another washed-up historical figure, Kaiser Wilhelm II, in this roiling yarn, the feature debut of Brit stage director David Leveaux. Based on Alan Judd’s novel The Kaiser’s Last Kiss, it’s set near the beginning of WWII in the Netherlands, where Wilhelm has been living in comfortable exile with his wife, the Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer), feeding ducks, chopping wood and brooding over the loss of, you know, WWI and his throne.


The Nazis, who have just invaded the Netherlands, loathe and mistrust the Kaiser, but aren’t quite ready to eliminate a relic for whom the German people retain a fondness. So they send a young SS Captain, Brandt (Jai Courtney), disgraced by an earlier act of conscience, on the dead-end assignment of guarding the old man against the possibility—a long shot, he’s sure—of an assassination attempt.

As he glumly enters the Kaiser’s manse, Brandt catches sight of a darkly beautiful housemaid, Mieke (Lily James). She catches sight of him right back, and the two immediately develop one of those unspoken sexual passions that arise so conveniently in tales of this sort. As their intimacy increases and he learns, among other secrets, that Mieke is Jewish, Brandt’s already tenuous loyalty to the Reich is tested.

For stretches The Exception seems like potent moral drama, and for other stretches it seems outrageous, on the borderline of camp, like a sanitized prequel to The Night Porter. Either way, though, it’s a tense thriller. I found myself caring for these people whether their plight was plausible or not.

All of the acting is strong, from the intelligent hunk Courtney to James with her angry erotic avidity to McTeer’s pitiful Princess to Ben Daniels as Wilhelm’s sad, loyal aide to Mark Dexter as a vexed Gestapo man. But the anchor is Plummer, as the handsome, irrelevantly regal old Wilhelm, trying without success to mask his bitterness and guilt behind a rueful, chuckling humor.

Indeed, the only performance quite as vivid as Plummer’s comes from Eddie Marsan in the small role of Himmler, who drops by with a proposal for the Kaiser. The ever-resourceful Marsan’s portrait is deeply repellent and terrifying—a murmuring, milquetoast monster.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

FURST PRINCIPLES

Another sad pop-culture farewell this week: RIP to Stephen Furst, immortal as "Flounder" in Animal House but also remembered for his regular roles on St. Elsewhere and Babylon 5. So...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...I had considered here his memorable performance in a key role (the title role, really) in the neglected 1980 horror movie The Unseen...



...but his character, terrifying (and also peculiarly likable) though he is, doesn't really qualify as a "monster," at least not in the sense I use it here. Instead...



...here's a Zarg, from an episode of Babylon 5.

Friday, June 16, 2017

TRIUMPH OF THE GILL, 'PAC MENTALITY

Opening this week:


47 Meters Down--Sisters Kate (Claire Holt) and Lisa (Mandy Moore) are on vacation in Mexico. Lisa has recently been dumped, and wants to post pictures online that will make her ex jealous, so she lets the more adventurous Kate talk her into diving in a shark cage.

You can guess how this works out. The winch and crane break off from the decrepit-looking old boat, and the cage plunges to the title depth, where it comes to rest on the ocean floor. The scruffy captain (Matthew Modine) tells the sisters by radio to stay put, as swimming to the surface would risk the bends, always assuming they weren't devoured on the way up by the various great white sharks covetously cruising around the cage. Help, he assures them, is on the way.

It need hardly be said that the rescue operation does not go smoothly. Claustrophobic terror, in the manner of 2010's Buried, and grueling survival measures ensue. As with last year's shark siege melodrama The Shallows, an unseemly amount of the movie consists of women keening in panic and pain.

But 47 Meters Down, directed by Johannes Roberts, is better than The Shallows. It doesn't have Blake Lively and her impressive all-but-one-woman-show appeal, and it doesn't have a scene-stealing seagull, but it also isn't marred by a ridiculously corny, over-the-top action picture finale. It feels plausible. Moore and Holt are touching in their sisterly support of each other, and in their guileless delivery of the simple, declarative lines: "I'm so scared!" "The shark almost got me!"

The special effects are preferable, too. The great whites, with their disconsolate, thuggish faces, come across a little more convincingly than Blake Lively's enemy in The Shallows. But only a little more. 47 Meters Down is watchable, even ingenious at times. But in the end, it lands alongside The Shallows in the same large category: Shark Movies That Just Aren't Jaws.



All Eyez on Me--The role of Tupac Shakur in this biopic is played by a newcomer named Demetrius Shipp, Jr. While Shipp's features don't quite have Shakur's weirdly Old-Masters-like beauty, the resemblance is nonetheless striking, and he's a relaxed, natural actor with a likable manner. It's a creditable debut in what could easily have seemed like a no-win role.

He's no Tupac, however. He has none of the rapper's electrically vivid presence and magnetism. But maybe that was asking too much. Under the circumstances, it's an achievement simply that he doesn't disgrace himself, that he maintains the audience's sympathy.

The movie, directed by Benny Boom, is a conventional show-biz chronicle history of the short, prolific career and appallingly violence-filled life of Shakur, who was murdered in Las Vegas in 1996 at the age of 25. We get his unstable childhood among the Black Panthers, his turbulent but intense bond with his mother Alfeni (the terrific Danai Gurira), his scary youth in Baltimore and Oakland, his early success with Digital Underground, his rise as a solo artist and movie star, the rape charge, the prison term, the partnering with Suge Knight and Death Row Records, the feud with Biggie, and so forth.

The movie doesn't quite sanitize Shakur; his amusement at Knight's brutality to others, for instance, is chilling. Still, through it all, he is depicted as, to quote one of his favorite writers, a man more sinned against than sinning. I'm not remotely qualified to say if this is fair or not, I can only say that All Eyez on Me, though possibly a hair overlong, is absorbing and enjoyable on its own terms. And the music on the soundtrack, both of Shakur and others, demonstrates how anemic is most of the stuff that currently passes for hip-hop on the radio.

Shakur was a furiously angry young man. He was also a smashingly talented, riveting performer, and the evidence of his few film roles suggests that he could have become a great movie actor as well. Because he died young, he's fixed, like James Dean, in tragic radiance. But who knows if he would have kept it?

On the other hand, who cares? Had he survived, he would be pushing 50. Maybe he would have sold out and become happy; he might be on his twelfth season in the cast of Law and Order by now. Or he might have kept his social anger but found a way to channel it productively. Or a little of both. Any of the above would be better than what happened.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

AUF WIEDERSEHEN, DE FLEDERMAUS MENSCH

RIP to the wonderful, deadpan Adam West, passed on at the surprising age of 88, older, somehow, than he seemed. I never met him, even though I was, oddly, in the same movie as him: The Best Movie Ever Made, aka Battle for the Planet of Cheese, Chris Lamont and Steve Bencich's soul-stirring epic of 1994. I played some sort of galactic big-shot, and West appeared very briefly as himself, shamelessly plugging his memoir Back to the Batcave.

West was, also, among my first heroes when I was very small, watching Batman in its original run. The character's virtuousness was absurd, but also unmistakably appealing, and I aspired to it; as glamorous as the show's bizarre, obsessive villains were, The Caped Crusader's primly civic-minded gestalt was curiously preferable to them, and the enthusiastic pedantry of West's line readings had a lot to do with this.

Anyway...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...in West's honor, this week the nod goes to...



...the "Neosaurus," a dubious genus of dinosaur that Egghead (Vincent Price) plans to hatch in the Batman episode "How to Hatch a Dinosaur."



If any proof is required of what a trouper West was, in this episode he had to authoritatively utter the line: "You know your Neosauruses well, Robin. Peanut butter sandwiches it is!"

Friday, June 9, 2017

SHE'S WITH THE BANDAGE

Opening this week:



The MummyAfter the usual Universal logo at the start of this movie, we're shown a second, spooky logo informing us that it's part of the "Dark Universe." This seems to be the studio's attempt to start its own franchise-crossing brand in the style of DC or Marvel, drawing on its peerless stable of iconic monsters.

This is fair enough, considering that, with its multi-monster free-for-alls of the '40s like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and House of Dracula, Universal was overlapping its properties before anyone else. There are fun possibilities in the "Dark Universe" notion, but it's off to an inauspicious start with this first salvo, no less than the fourth film to go by the title The Mummy.

While last week's big opening involved a female superhero, this week's has a female monster, Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), a lethal Egyptian princess who made a deal with Set for power, committed a bunch of murders, and got mummified and buried alive, far from Egypt, for her trouble. Centuries later, two fortune hunters (Tom Cruise and Jake Johnson) from the U.S. military and an English archaeologist (Annabelle Wallis) find her tomb in Iraq, and, like any self-respecting cultural imperialists, promptly schlep her sarcophagus to England. The desiccated deadly damsel is of course awakened, and starts causing trouble, with the idea of making Cruise her Set-possesed consort.

This movie, directed by Alex Kurtzman, starts out really badly. Even setting aside how unsavory it feels to try to make raffish buddy-picture heroes out of archaeological profiteers in present-day Iraq, the attempt to create a jocular rapport between Cruise and Johnson falls embarrassingly flat on its own terms. And the attempt to generate a roguish romantic tension between Cruise and Wallis plays no better. Hope and Crosby and Dorothy Lamour these people aren't; they don't even rise to the level of Dick Foran, Wallace Ford and Peggy Moran in The Mummy's Hand, from Universal in 1940.

I make these comparisons, by which Cruise et al suffer, not to be ungenerous but because almost everything in this expensive, elaborately-produced movie feels like a hyped-up, computer-enhanced version of something from a cheaper, less elaborate, better old movie. One minute you're reminded of Valerie Leon in Blood From the Mummy's Tomb, and the next of the crows from the Omen flicks, and then of the zombie shockers, and then of Renfield's rat army in Dracula, and then of Griffin Dunne's chatty putrefying ghost in An American Werewolf in London, and so on. But this effect doesn't make this Mummy a gripping repurposing of these tropes—it makes you want to go home and watch the movies of which it reminds you.

The Mummy gets a little more engaging, at least for a while, when it gets to England and Ahmanet starts reeling around sucking the life-force out of hapless victims, because it's more of a conventional monster picture. But pretty soon she and Cruise are detained in an underground complex run by a mysterious scientist (Russell Crowe), and more gratuitous plot twists are piled on. Presumably this is in service of establishing the "Dark Universe" mythos for future films, but mostly it just dilutes whatever momentum the story was starting to develop.

None of these complaints would amount to much, of course, if The Mummy could lay claim to any true scariness. But there isn't one scene in which I can recall being drawn into any authentic, atmospheric dread—as with Alien: Covenant a few weeks ago, everything's too virtual, to insubstantial, too lacking in tactility.

It should be said, though, that the closest the movie gets to any genuine chills is in the performance of  Sofia Boutella as the lithe, malignant, slyly smiling Ahmanet. Boutella was probably the best thing about last year's Star Trek: Beyond, and she's definitely the best thing about this movie.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

MOUTH TO HAND

Check out the June issue of Phoenix Magazine...


...for my "Four Corners" column on Back-East-style dining this summer for grounded snowbirds. It's on the stands now, or you can read it here.

Universal's new version of The Mummy opens this weekend. The movie shares elements with the 1971 Hammer schocker Blood From the Mummy's Tomb, so...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...let's give the nod to the severed, but still busy, hand from that movie...




...adapted from Bram Stoker's The Jewel of Seven Stars and featuring the not-unfetching Valerie Leon as the resurrected Egyptian princess.

Friday, June 2, 2017

I AM WHAT I AMAZON

Opening this week:


Wonder WomanDC's pioneering superheroine finally takes the lead in a feature film with this lavish origin story, set in the World War I era. The title character, Diana by name, has grown from a feisty little girl into the impressive adult form of Gal Gadot on the secret, hidden island of the Amazons, under the watchful eye of her Mom Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). Against Hippolyta's wishes, she's secretly trained as a warrior by her aunt, Antiobe (Robin Wright, sporting an accent to vaguely match Nielsen's and Gadot's).

One day Diana rescues daredevil American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who happens upon the island while escaping from the Germans. She's appalled when she learns of the ubiquity of war in the outside world, and she's convinced it's the malicious work of Ares the war god. She decides, again over Mom's objections, to let Trevor take her to the Front in Europe, where she plans to identify Ares, kick the crap out of him, and end war on Earth once and for all. She's not ambitious or anything.

With Trevor, she travels first to London and then, with a ragtag group of ethnically mixed sidekicks, to Belgium, and learns that shutting down war isn't as simple as it ought to be. She also runs afoul of various villains, among them a scarred chemist known as Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya, masked much as she was in Almodovar's superb The Skin I Live In).

Setting this movie during WWI, rather than having Wonder Woman battling the Nazis as she was originally created to do (the character debuted in the comics in 1941), initially seemed wrong to me, and there were moments where the dialogue and other details seemed off, period-wise. I'd guess that, among other reasons, the filmmakers wanted Diana to enter civilization at an even less emancipated time for her gender; they wanted her to encounter corsets and petticoats. They may also have wanted less familiar, less easily loath-able bad guys than the Nazis, so as to spread around the blame for warmongering more equitably among all humankind.

In any case, as the movie progressed my resistance to it quickly wore off. Wonder Woman isn't quite as slick as last year's Dr. Strange, but it's more touching, and like Dr. Strange, it's a non-facetious superhero flick that it's possible to wholeheartedly enjoy, almost from beginning to end. The movie is colorful and playful, even sunny at times, but better still there's a lack of cynicism to it, an openhearted, unembarrassed sense of decency and heroism that's highly gratifying after years of self-consciously "dark" comic-book sagas.

This tone is reflected in the warmth and emotional directness of Gadot's performance—she has a quick throwaway scene involving an ice cream cone that made me fall in love with her. The lack of coyness between her and Pine's Trevor is likewise refreshing. They don't tediously bicker or one-up each other.

Diana is so preoccupied with her mission that she barely seems to notice how she scandalizes the male authority figures she meets, ignoring their shock at her outspokenness as if it's too unimportant to acknowledge. And when she expresses disbelief at the matter-of-fact acceptance of war, she doesn't seem infantile, because director Patty Jenkins and the writers (Allan Heinberg among other hands) have structured the story so that we see our own civilization from her point of view.

The filmmakers grapple, while staying within a conventional template for this kind of movie, with the persistent limitation of superhero stories: The tendency to reduce all conflicts to a climactic brawl. That they don't prevail—the movie does indeed climax with a brawl, and one that's of questionable relevance to the vexing problem of the human tendency to make war not love—doesn't make the attempt any less honorable. 

Also opening in the Valley this week...


...is the historical drama Churchill, with the great Brian Cox playing the title role. I had the chance to chat with director Jonathan Teplitzky; you can read my interview on the New Times blog.

And Sunday evening at FilmBar Phoenix...



...is a showing of The Quiet Earth, the 1985 sci-fi classic from New Zealand, with an introduction and Q&A by co-writer and co-producer Sam Pillsbury. You can read my short article on this memorable flick on the Phoenix Magazine blog.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

BRIDE SHARE

Happy June everybody! In the month's honor, something bridal seems in order, so...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...here's Divine as the Bride of Frankenstein...



It's a poster, unearthed from the Dewey Webb Collection, of a live Halloween show at the GiftCenter Pavilion in San Francisco back in 1985. Wish I'd been there.

Monday, May 29, 2017

TRAILER IN A TRAILER

Hope everybody is having a fun, safe, grateful and reflective Memorial Day weekend. My holiday wish is that fewer and fewer honorees for the day be created in the years to come.


Today also marks an infinitely less auspicious occasion: This is the tenth anniversary of Less Hat, Moorhead. Yes, it was with this post on this date ten years ago (on livejournal, I moved it to blogspot early in 2010) that Your Humble Narrator began enriching humankind with my reviews, musings, platitudes, timid suggestions, milquetoast ditherings and passionate sermons to the choir. To anyone who has stopped by my little corner of the web and taken the time to read my stuff during those eventful years, I'm genuinely appreciative.


This weekend I had the pleasure to sit on two panels at Phoenix Comicon, one, on Friday morning, about the legacy of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and another, on Saturday morning, about the ape in pop culture. The panels were great fun; getting into Phoenix Convention Center wasn't. After a disturbing, potentially horrifying incident Thursday, thankfully resolved without injury, security was massively tightened, and lines of thousands of people curled around the building.

But the crowds mostly kept their good humor, the people-watching was lively, and considering the curve they'd been thrown, I thought the Convention Center security staff handled the matter more courteously and efficiently than might have been expected. And at least I wasn't dressed as Groot, or in some other heat-stroke-inducing get-up. The outfit for my cosplay character, Paunchy Bald Middle-Aged Arrested Adolescent Man, remained surprisingly comfortable.

While I was there, I also got to see the trailer for Christopher Nolan's upcoming Dunkirk, in a literal trailer...


...equipped with some sort of special sound system that created a dreadful, seat-shuddering sense of being immersed in the event. Potent.

Friday, May 26, 2017

THE SAND AND THE FURY

Opening this weekend:


BaywatchIf memory serves, I had never seen so much as one episode of the TV series Baywatch, which ran for one season on NBC in 1989 and 11 much more successful seasons, all over the world, in syndication thereafter, with various changes of setting and spin-offs. So I recorded and watched a couple of sample episodes from one of the retro cable channels to prepare myself for this movie adaptation.

Man, what an insipid show. The new movie version is, make no mistake, about as dumb and crass as American comedies get, but compared to its source it seems Pulitzer-worthy.

For those who, like me, had managed to remain unfamiliar: Baywatch revolves around a group of lifeguards who keep an eye on the beaches near Malibu Pier. Over the course of more than 200 episodes, the lifeguards got caught up in all manner of adventures which extended well beyond the traditional duties of rescuing swimmers in distress and blowing their whistles at roughhousing kids.

No, the Baywatch gang was routinely involved in disasters, criminal investigations and international intrigues, and were instrumental in cracking the cases. The real meat of the series, however, seems to have been lengthy montages of the pneumatic cast running the beaches, or riding jet skis in formation.

In the movie (shot in Florida despite the L.A. setting), Dwayne Johnson takes over the role of top dog Baywatcher Mitch Buchannon from David Hasselhoff. Zac Efron, sporting a startlingly mesomorphic torso, takes over for David Charvet as Matt Brody, here a scandal-plagued Olympic champ turned lifeguard trainee, and Kelly Rohrbach steps into Pamela Anderson's red one-piece as the slow-motion blonde C. J. There are a variety of supporting players, like Ilfenesh Hadera and Alexandra Daddario, who look great in bathing suits, and, as a surrogate for the rest of us, Jon Bass as Ronnie, a tech whiz and aspiring lifeguard of more ordinary physique.

It's rated R, thus allowing director Seth Gordon and the writers, of which seven are credited, to deploy raunchy set-piece gags in the Hangover style. Other than that, about all they can do is make poor Efron keep repeating the same joke about how hey, this seems like a job for the police, not lifeguards, even though it isn't exactly a riot the first time.

A drug-smuggling club owner, who wants to privatize the beach, is played by the stunning Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra, but she and her henchman fail to come to life as either serious or comic villains. The movie works, to the extent it does, thanks to the charm of the leads. Johnson comes across the best, shrewdly playing Mitch with a gee-whiz earnestness that's Hoff-worthy.

So this Baywatch is sort of cute, silly and sometimes inept as it is. But it should be noted that this type of lowbrow spoof can be done much better, and indeed has been: Son of the Beach, a Baywatch send-up created by and starring Timothy Stack, ran on FX for two seasons, from 2000 to 2002. If the old Baywatch makes the new Baywatch look like Arthur Miller, the new Baywatch makes Son of the Beach look like Rabelais or Chaucer. Its jokes were crude and often tasteless, but they were also remarkably dense and complex. Almost every line was a double-entendre of some sort, and they interconnected in ways that can fairly be called brilliant. Any half-hour of that show had more, and wittier, laughs than all of Baywatch.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

SIR ROGER, KING ARTHUR

RIP to Roger Moore, passed on at 89. My pal Barry Graham would roll his eyes whenever I admitted, while fully acknowledging the superiority of Sean Connery and some other 007s, that I always liked Moore, and enjoyed his droll, campy Bond pictures. I also remember liking him in an odd thriller from 1980 called ffolkes (aka North Sea Hijack). So last night I took down this august volume from my shelf...


...and spent some time reading from Moore's adventures on the set of Live and Let Die.

I had skipped the screening of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword a few weeks back, then heard it pronounced the first really big flop of 2017. But a friend of mine who had seen it and given his review ("Meh") nonetheless requested that I go see it, as he wanted my thoughts. So I did.


I suppose wouldn't want to argue too hard with anyone whose reaction to this very, very freely adapted origin story for the legendary King of Britain and his pals was "meh." Purists of Arthurian romance should certainly steer clear of it. The director, Guy Ritchie, has essentially just made another of his cockney gangster pictures, like Snatch or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, with fractured, forward-lunging, whip-pan-driven action scenes and shady caper planning and bad boy bantering, all dressed up in a vague fairy-tale drag.

This movie's Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) has been found drifting down the river, Moses-like, and grown up as a bouncer in a brothel, unaware that he's been cheated of the throne by wicked usurper Jude Law. When he pulls a certain sword from a certain stone, it gets Law's attention, and also that of a motley resistance and a freaky, Morgana-like Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey; Merlin is mentioned but not seen) who try to train him for the battles to come.

Without proclaiming it a work of great art, I have to say that I enjoyed this funky, nervy, defiantly anachronistic and diverse film more than I expected to. Structurally, by making Arthur undiscovered royalty, the narrative insists on perpetuating that same toxic notion on which so much western storytelling is built, from the actual Arthurian myths to the Tarzan tales to Star Wars to The Lion King to the real-life electoral politics of the U.S.: That political power is, and ought to be, a heredity birthright. But when the "chosen one" is the likable, unassuming Hunnam, and he's surrounded by such a jolly disreputable lot, it's easy enough to overlook this.

Plus, the movie is full of cool monsters, from the tentacled sea-horror with whom Law has a Faustian relationship to the giant bats and rats and snakes and wolves against which Arthur must prove his valor to...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...this week's honoree, one of the gargantuan, destroyer-sized elephants...


...that rampage through the battles. Yeah, that's right, giant elephants, in ancient Britain. You got a problem with that, mate?

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.