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.