Friday, April 30, 2010


There are plenty of fans of the Western movie who really don’t care all that much about the star, or the supporting players, or the story. They care even less about complex characterization, or allegorical social commentary, or the mythic underpinnings of the genre. They just like the horses. A Western, for them, is good or not based on how many horses we get to see, & how good a look we get at them.

Similarly, there are plenty of people, including but not limited to children, who love cute, fuzzy little animals. I’m one of them, & it is at us, presumably, that Furry Vengeance is aimed.

The makers are hoping that, because it’s packed with raccoons, skunks, squirrels, magpies & other adorable woodland fauna, we won’t mind that it’s an embarrassingly terrible movie.

Directed by Roger Kumble, Furry Vengeance stars Brendan Fraser as a developer who drags his wife (Brooke Shields) & son (Matt Prokop) from Chicago to a model home in a lovely forest area that his boss (Ken Jeong) wants to turn into a subdivision. When a highly intelligent & resourceful raccoon gets wind of this plan, he enlists an army of fellow furred & feathered pals to wage war on the poor fellow & make his life a slapstick hell.

I’ve always sort of envied Brendan Fraser. Big & hunky without machismo & with an endearing self-deprecation, he’s had some critical triumphs, among them Gods and Monsters & Crash & three of the very best episodes of Scrubs, but most of his career has been devoted simply to unpretentious fun, like the Mummy movies & Encino Man & George of the Jungle & Dudley Do-Right & Looney Tunes: Back in Action. These aren’t classics, but they look like they would have been a blast to make.

Watching Fraser in Furry Vengeance, now more beefy than hunky, gamely mugging & babbling & pratfalling as he’s repeatedly humiliated by his fuzzy costars, I found it harder to envy him. The same goes for his costars. Shields, Jeong, Angela Kinsey, Wallace Shawn, Toby Huss & Gerry Bednob are all capable of first-rate goofiness, but this material reduces them to infantile flailing about. Sad to say, the handsome, thoughtful-looking raccoon out-acts all of them.

I’m not suggesting that you should see Furry Vengeance on this basis, but the animals are charming, except when CGI animation is used to manipulate their facial expressions. Not content to reduce the human actors to pulling silly faces, the movie does the same to the little critters. Sadly, the Humane Society doesn’t seem to regard this as cruelty.

In fairness, I must admit that I chuckled a time or two at the film, & the audience with whom I saw it laughed even more. I suppose I should also note that I’m thoroughly in sympathy with the concept. Against rampant development, I’d love to see a little four-legged insurgency.

Thursday, April 29, 2010


Monster-of-the-Week: This week’s honoree is a newcomer to the ranks of Monsterdom, the pitiable title character(s) of the new film The Human Centipede (First Sequence)

Here’s my review:

Flat tires are a huge pain in the ass in everyday life, but where would screenwriters be without them? In The Human Centipede (First Sequence) two young American women get lost on a country road in Germany while looking for a nightclub. Then they get a flat. They stumble through the woods until they find a house, knock on the door & ask to use the phone. Sure enough, they immediately find themselves in the clutches of a madman.

Sound the slightest bit familiar? No doubt. This is old-school mad scientist mischief, with a seriously sick-ass modern twist. Nothing I’m going to tell you about this ghastly sick joke of a movie, now available through Video On Demand & opening tomorrow in New York, qualifies as a “spoiler” if you watch the not-for-the-squeamish trailer. Still, you may wish to stop reading now if you want to go into the film unprepared. Or if you just had lunch.

It’s rather refreshing how Tom Six, the Dutch writer/director, doesn’t waste any time playing coy about whether the girls’ host is malevolent or not. Dr. Heiter (Dieter Laser), who looks like some unholy cross between Lance Henriksen & the late comedian Richard Jeni, makes no real effort to hide that he’s a furious sadist, seethingly short-tempered yet coldly unperturbed by the suffering of his victims. Dieter Laser’s performance is phenomenal; the most despicable movie mad scientist in at least half a century.

But what’s he up to? The Doc, unafflicated with false modesty, explains to the girls (Ashley C. Williams & Ashlynn Yennie) & another captive, a sturdy-looking young Japanese guy (Akihiro Kitamura), that he was once the top man at separating conjoined twins. But for a retirement project, he decided to go the other way, to create his very own “Siamese Triplet” with—brace yourself—a gastric tract running from mouth to anus to mouth to anus to mouth to anus.

One might timidly ask at this point exactly what the practical application for this human choo-choo would be. Nothing to speak of, apparently. The Doc’s just a tinkerer, a home hobbyist. He’s tried the experiment on his dogs already—we don’t see this, mercifully, but he admires the Polaroids, & there’s even a sign outside his house that translates as “My Sweet Three-Hound”—& now he’s ready for a human trial. His three young houseguests will fit the bill nicely.

So, after the obligatory ineffectual escape attempt by one of the victims, the Doc performs the operation. The three captives are left a pathetic tandem, crawling along painfully on all fours while the Doc, enraptured at his success—he kisses his own reflection in a mirror—spews further humiliating abuse at them.

In other words, The Human Centipede (First Sequence) is pretty effed-up. It’s about as effed-up as a movie can get, I think, &…well, & still get a fairly positive review from me. I’ll admit to some mixed feelings about it—at times it seems uncomfortably close to the “torture porn” genre of the Saw ilk, which I despise.

But it was redeemed from this, for me, by the grotesque surrealism of its central image, & by a ferocious, despairing compassion underlying the pitch-black humor. Despite the classic anti-sexual cautionary tropes of the early scenes, the movie’s sympathies seemed to me to be with the hapless victims--& by allegorical extension, with all of baffled, interconnected common humanity, rather than the tyrannical forces whose whims determine how we’ll be stitched together (I don’t mean to suggest, by the way, that this was a conscious allegory on Six’s part, only that the idea resonated that way for me, & gave the film validity). As absurd as the situation is, when the two conjoined women clutch hands for comfort I found it grimly touching.

The movie, which runs less than 90 minutes, is obviously not for all tastes, & even on its own terms it’s limited. Once Six has gotten us, about midpoint, to his big payoff moment—the Hieronymus Bosch horror of the result of the Doc’s surgery—there’s really nowhere else in particular for The Human Centipede to go. Gruesome, chaotic violence ensues, but the rest of the story is clearly padding to reach feature length, & it’s anticlimactic. This is true of many horror pictures, but in this case it’s more obvious than usual.

But I found it somehow oddly comforting to know that it was still possible for even a jaded old horror geek like me to be shocked by a movie—not just revolted or saddened by the gleeful depiction of brutality, but authentically & imaginatively shocked, by the macabre notions that float up from the darker depths of the human soul.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


RIP to actor Allen Swift, who has passed on at 87. He was the voice of characters ranging from Mighty Mouse to Simon Bar Sinister from Underdog...

It turns out that Swift was also the father of the excellent actor Lewis J. Stadlen. Who knew?

Monday, April 26, 2010


Attention Werner Herzog fans--& if you aren't a Werner Herzog fan, you ought to be--check out this link to "Werner Herzog Reads Where's Waldo?"

Friday, April 23, 2010


Tomorrow night HBO premieres You Don’t Know Jack, a TV-movie featuring Al Pacino as Dr. Jack Kervorkian. According to Steve Weiss, director of the “No Festival Required” film series, it was strictly a coincidence that he scheduled his showing of You Don’t Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story, for the following afternoon. It screens at 1 p.m. at Phoenix Art Museum, & is free. Director Jeff Adachi is scheduled to attend.

Running just over an hour, the film is a documentary account of the life of actor & comedian Jack Soo, best known as Detective Nick Yemana on TV’s Barney Miller. Soo was a master of the deadpan one-liner, & I’ve been a fan since I was a kid, still the movie’s title got it right: I didn’t know Jack.

As it turns out, he was born Goro Suzuki, the son of an Oakland, California tailor. Improbably tall for a Japanese (six feet), he was an athlete—baseball was his true love—& a talent-show-champion crooner as a teenager. In his early 20s when Pearl Harbor struck, he was imprisoned in the internment camps, & staged & performed in plays there for the entertainment of his fellow detainees. He was later released when he found work as nightclub comic & radio singer in Ohio, taking the name “Jack Soo” to pass as Chinese.

He starred in Flower Drum Song on Broadway, in the national road companies, & in the 1961 movie version. He costarred with Tony Franciosa on the sitcom Valentine’s Day in 1964, was a member of The Groundlings, & appeared in movies & episodic TV, eschewing &/or redefining stereotypical “funny Oriental” roles. He eventually landed the regular gig on Barney Miller, where he remained until his death, at 61, from esophageal cancer in 1979.

The message that emerges from Adachi’s film is that while being the lovably laconic member of the Barney Miller ensemble would be plenty all by itself, Jack Soo was much more than that. Jack Soo Was Cool. Jack Soo Kicked Ass. Jack Soo Rocked. Jack Soo was a hipster who exuded charisma—including, in his personal life, sexual & romantic charisma.

Adachi’s approach is straightforward, & some of his interview material—the talking heads range from costars to childhood friends—gets a bit repetitive & rambling; the speakers are understandably adoring but not always illuminating. Soo’s daughter, for instance, remarks that Soo wasn’t made bitter by his internment experiences, or at any rate didn’t show it if he was, which led me to wonder how well anyone knew Jack.

But the man’s life is fascinating, & the archival photos are wonderful. The clips of his work demonstrate how skillful he was—in a scene from Valentine’s Day we see him deadpanning his lines next to some other actor whose mugging & hamming looks embarrassing by contrast. Then Adachi shows us interview footage of actress Janet Waldo, noting that you had to be careful working with Soo, because he was so restrained & natural that if you hammed it up at all you’d look ridiculous.

Finally, here’s a showbiz tidbit that had never crossed my radar before—Soo was once under contract to Motown as a vocalist, & was the first male singer to record “For Once in My Life.” Berry Gordy eventually decided to release Stevie Wonder’s version instead, but Adachi presents two complete Soo recordings of the number, one with a schmaltzy ’50s-style orchestral arrangement, & then, under the end titles, a much better version accompanied by solo piano. It’s a strange effect: Soo’s baritone is lovely, yet it’s unmistakably Detective Yemana’s voice.

Adachi ends the film with a striking, exhilarating image—a photo of Soo with another, very different American icon, traditional racial roles reversed.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


Happy Earth Day everyone! In the day’s honor…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week let’s recognize Hedorah, better known to us Yanks as The Smog Monster, one of the costars of Gojira tai Hedora, better known to us Yanks as Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, the environmentally-minded heavyweight bout of 1971. Hedorah—whose name, I understand, derives from the Japanese word for “sludge” or “vomit”—is a titanic glob of pollution animated by an alien force:

You can see this living Superfund site facing off with our reptilian hero in this trailer for the U.S. version.

Maybe the best thing in the U.S. version, though, is the title song, “Save the Earth.” You can hear it here; it has my vote to be the international anthem of Earth Day.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Early last week the New York Times reported that Jay Leno was back in first place, ratings-wise, in network late-night. This may not be the proudest moment in the history of the American TV-viewing public. But it’s quite an achievement for Leno, coming less than three months since the departure of his ill-fated replacement on The Tonight Show, Conan O’Brien, a likable, genial fellow & brilliant writer of & performer in sketch comedy who’s never really seemed at ease as an interviewer.

It’s strange to remember it now, but in the early ‘80s Jay Leno was the hip cutting edge of stand-up comedy. I was in college at the time, & an insufferably enthusiastic fan of Late Night with David Letterman on NBC. When Leno was Letterman’s guest, as he was pretty frequently in those days... was a special occasion that I’d make a particular effort to see. I cut short a trip to Toronto with my girlfriend in 1984 because I had tickets to see Leno perform at the Warner Theatre in my hometown of Erie, Pa., & was crushed when the show was cancelled.

Leno, who at the time was a close friend of, & acknowledged influence on, Letterman, brought an irascible, cutting-through-the-nonsense tone to his often topical jokes that you didn’t see anywhere else. He was convulsively funny. It’s rare to spot more than a glimmer of this young wiseguy in the well-groomed, smiling man who now cracks safe, obvious, not-very-funny jokes in an unctuous, eager-to-please manner as the host of that TV institution The Tonight Show.

If you compare the pre-Tonight Show Leno with the post-Tonight Show Leno, it’s almost impossible not to reach the conclusion that what you’ve seen is the most spectacular sell-out in modern show-business history, a deliberate, two-decade long act of dumbing-down & emasculating an authentic comedic talent—maybe even a genius—in order to repackage him as unthreatening & easily palatable for the masses.

About a decade ago I spent a little over a year as a publicist for a major comedy club, driving many of the top stand-ups in America around to radio & TV interviews, & (in private conversation of course; they weren’t likely to commit career suicide by saying so publicly) the sneering contempt in which they held Leno for his phoniness & opportunism knew few bounds. Even allowing for the envy & spite to which stand-up comedians tend, severe even by show-business standards, I found it unlikely that there could be no truth in this at all.

As you probably remember, Leno ended up with the Tonight Show job—traditionally the most prestigious in American comedy—after a bitter struggle with David Letterman’s camp, when Johnny Carson retired in 1992. As you certainly remember unless you were in locked in an attic somewhere a few months ago, Leno is now back because of NBC’s rather unceremonious dumping of O’Brien after a 7-month run at the desk. O’Brien will now host a late-night show on TBS starting in November.

It’s all been one more chapter in the dramatic & sometimes ungracious history of The Tonight Show, a program once synonymous with the gold standard of show-biz graciousness. Despite the talent of the various hosts involved in these power struggles, none of them could hope to bring the same old-school class that Carson did to the show.

Carson’s persona was one-of-a-kind—somehow both unpretentious & sophisticated, both middle-American & West Coast hip, & it’s hard to imagine anyone ever approaching it. Letterman comes closest (Carson reportedly agreed, & would have preferred Letterman as his successor), but Letterman’s Midwestern everyman routine is complicated by his unconcealed neuroses. He’s arguably funnier than Carson was at times, but his company isn’t the same simple pleasure. Nobody’s is.

Still, you can watch clips of Carson’s Cellar...

...a show that Carson hosted on an LA station in the early ‘50s, & see him doing sketches about as odd and scrappy as those of Letterman’s early days, & far less funny. Somehow Carson, Letterman & O’Brien all managed (with varying degrees of success) to let their styles mature with their audiences, while Leno’s style has amounted to a lucrative insult, to which the public refuses to take offense.

Monday, April 19, 2010


Last night The Wife & I went to Death at a Funeral, the new remake of the 2007 British farce in which shocking revelations & wacky shenanigans disrupt an elderly gentleman’s funeral. The new film resets the action in L.A. & recasts most of the roles with African-American stars like Chris Rock (who also produced), Martin Lawrence, Tracy Morgan, Columbus Short, Loretta Devine, Zoe Saldana, Danny Glover & Ron Glass, among others.

The original wasn’t a classic, but it had some raucous complications & a touching performance by Matthew MacFayden as the departed’s befuddled son. Sadly, despite the great cast the new version, directed by Neil LaBute, just doesn’t work up much of a head of steam; the complications feel tedious rather than comically frenzied.

Part of the shortfall, it pains me to say, is probably Chris Rock. Arguably the best living American stand-up comic, & inarguably one of the two or three best, Rock just isn’t a movie star. He’s occasionally been strong in supporting roles, in films like New Jack City, Nurse Betty & Lethal Weapon 4, but in his starring roles he seems to lose his exciting presence & verve. Mysteriously, he becomes boring—a scrawny, pleasantly smiling young man with none of his stage charisma.

Still, the movie has its moments, including a hysterical scatological flourish featuring Glover & Morgan. Peter Dinklage reprises his role from the first film & is very good, again. Also, it was great to hear “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” under the end credits.

Friday, April 16, 2010


Andy Garcia has been around movies since the mid-‘80s, playing gangsters, cops & other steely tough guys. The Wife has always had a strong aversion to his work, & while I liked some of his early roles—in The Untouchables, for instance—he’s never been a special favorite of mine, either. There’s something generic & unexciting about the Mr. Cool persona he’s offered in so many films. He’s like a bland knockoff of the Brando/Pacino/DeNiro school; the look, the voice, the manner are all there, but somehow the passion we get from these other actors seems either absent or forced from Garcia.

His starring role in the comedy City Island, which he also co-produced, seems to have liberated the actor from his uncomfortably-held pose, however, at least for one movie. The ingenious premise of the film, which starts today here in the Valley, allows Garcia to play an ordinary guy, comically cowed, & also to gently spoof the kind of ethnic-tough-guy stereotyping that allowed him an acting career to begin with, & which has largely defined the parameters of that career.

Written & directed by Raymond De Felitta (son of the late, interesting novelist & filmmaker Frank De Felitta), City Island is set in the fascinating Bronx beach neighborhood of the title. Garcia plays Vince Rizzo, a prison guard (or, as he prefers, a Corrections Officer) whose one-night-a-week absence from his high-strung family, under pretext of a poker game, hides a dark & shameful secret: He longs to be an actor, & is sneaking off to a class. His prickly, perplexed, percolatingly sexy wife Joyce (Julianna Margulies) is sure he’s having an affair.

He has a potentially scarier secret, too: He has a son from an ill-advised relationship before he was married. When the grown kid, Tony (Steven Strait), shows up as an inmate in Vince’s prison, he gets him sprung to his custody & brings him home, telling his family only that he knew the boy’s mother by way of explanation.

The other people in Vince’s life have secrets of their own, however. His daughter Vivian (played by Garcia’s lovely real-life daughter Dominik Garcia-Lorido) pretends to be away at college, but she’s lost her scholarship, & is working as a stripper. His wiseguy teenage son Vince Jr. (the terrific Ezra Miller) is a budding fetishist. Vince’s acting-class partner and career adviser (Emily Mortimer) has a mysterious side, & even his curmudgeonly acting teacher (a fine brief turn by Alan Arkin) is glimpsed in a moment of stinging vulnerability.

That’s the theme of City Island: That family life is almost inevitably conducted through a web of lies, poses & concealments. Played just a touch more heavily, & it could easily be an Arthur Miller tragedy, but De Felitta isn’t beating his breast over the Rizzo’s deceptions; he finds them a cause for relaxed, unhurried amusement. The best scenes in the film are the family-group sequences, in which sarcasm & squabbling keep bubbling up during the attempts at friendly conversation. It’s a reflexive self-defense mechanism, & while the constant sniping has clearly taken a long-term toll on the Rizzo’s psyches, it’s also clear that they don’t really mean anything personal by it.

The film could use more of these scenes; you can feel the audience responding to the hum of the comedic ensemble work, & when the characters break into smaller groups some of the power is dispersed. But even if it’s not quite a knockout, City Island is an Andy Garcia movie that even The Wife would like, I think. Good luck talking her into going, though.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


Friday night at 10 p.m. (Phoenix time) Turner Classic Movies is showing The Silencers (1966), one of the Matt Helm movies starring Dean Martin. It's a silly film, but it does have a sequence I've never been able to shake: Cyd Charisse, in her mid-40s, dancing under the opening titles (the singing voice is Vicki Carr's). Ever wonder about the health benefits of a life spent dancing? Check it out.

Monster-of-the-Week: This one! I remember this monster very well...

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Somebody linked me to this short animated film, a truly inspirational sports story. Seriously, it's worth the five minutes...

Monday, April 12, 2010


RIP to the lovely Dixie Carter, who has passed on at 70...

She always brought a fine comic high dudgeon to the role of Julia Sugarbaker on Designing Women.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


Last July The Wife & I saw our only regular-season Arizona Diamondbacks game of '09. We sat in the All You Can Eat section, & watched my Dad's beloved Pittsburgh Pirates spank The Snakes 10-3. Earlier tonight we sat in the All You Can Eat seats & watched the D-bax take on the Pirates again.

Maybe we need to sit somewhere else next time.

We really thought the local lads had a shot tonight, as the starter was the usually brilliant Dan Haren...

But alas, Haren had a dismal night, & the starter for the Bucs, Zach Duke, massacred the D-bax lineup. The proceedings began to resemble a baseball game in the later innings, starting with a majestic two-run homer by Mark Reynolds in the 7th. The D-bax actually got the tying run to the plate in the 8th, but to no avail; the final was 6-3. Plus, the excellent catcher Miguel Montero came out early with a knee injury. Groan!

Ah well, the hot dogs, peanuts, chips, popcorn & pop were tasty...

Oh yeah, one more thing: I still think Pirates outfielder Lastings Milledge has the coolest name of anyone now in baseball, with the possible exception of Team South Africa's Gift Ngoepe...

Friday, April 9, 2010


Your Humble Narrator still isn’t quite done with Clash of the Titans, I’m afraid. As I noted yesterday, I’ve been on one of my periodic stop-motion animation jags ever since I found myself defending the original 1981 Clash, a showcase for Ray Harryhausen’s animated creatures, over the remake now in theatres, which offers its wonders in CGI.

A high-school (& now Facebook) pal of mine—the guy who got me my first movie-usher gig—recently posted on FB that he’d seen the new Clash, & thought it clearly superior to the original. So I dug the old movie out & watched several of the key sequences for the first time in some years, & my opinion still holds—the seamlessness & scope of the new technology is no match, artistically, for the far less literally convincing but far more humanly beautiful feel of the old craft.

But that’s not what I want to discuss about the original this time. No, I want to talk about Laurence Olivier, & about the stupid owl.

Probably the most grumbled-about of all Harryhausen’s characters was Bubo, the little comic-relief clockwork owl...

...sent by the goddess Athena, on orders from Zeus, to assist the hero Perseus in his adventures. This chirping, whistling, clicking, zigzagging rara avis (who gets a snarky cameo in the new film) has been reviled as an attempt by Harryhausen or the producers to emulate R2-D2, despite claims that he was conceived before Star Wars came out.

I can’t say that I found Bubo’s scenes—which were, Harryhausen says, mostly the work of assistant animator Steven Archer—especially rib-tickling, but if his presence in the original movie did nothing else, it provided a demonstration of Laurence Olivier’s way with a line of dialogue. When Olivier’s Zeus...

...orders Athena (Susan Fleetwood) to send her pet owl to Perseus (she sends him the mechanical version instead), his line is “It is my wish…my command.

Now for your typical slumming limey character actor, it would be enough to say that line in a firm, authoritative voice. But not Sir Larry—he turns those six words into a tiny aria. “It is my wish…” he says, and then he puts a sheepish smile on his face, turns, & strolls away, adding “My…” and then, with high-register nonchalance “…command.” The subtext is unmistakable: “I really hate to pull rank, but after all I am…well, you know, the King of the Universe.”

The new film’s Zeus is played by Liam Neeson. Wonderful actor. But for all Neeson’s beefy, melancholy warmth, he offers little of Olivier’s Almighty Grandeur & Caprice.

Sure, I know the counter to this—that I’m gushing about a self-conscious, artificial effect, that I’ve been suckered by a display of technique. Throughout his long career, Olivier had his elaborate detractors. Germaine Greer said he was “too actorish by half” (in Rebecca!); in Catcher in the Rye Holden Caulfield complains that Olivier plays Hamlet too much like a “goddam general” instead of a “sad, screwed-up guy.” David Mamet sniffed that with Olivier, “I’m hungry for lunch, and all he’s serving is an illustrated menu.

Each of these observations is true. The trouble is, in order a.) complaining that Olivier is actorish is like complaining that Leonardo da Vinci is painterly, 2.) sometimes sad, screwed-up guys are like goddam generals, & 3.) yeah, but when the illustrations in that menu are that beautiful, you can wait for lunch. Olivier was indeed a knowing, showoffy actor, but to dismiss him on that basis is to suggest that showing off can’t be high art & marvelous entertainment. Watch him in the title role of his self-directed film of Richard III, & you’ll see the heights that a phenomenally gifted showoff can attain.

But it isn’t just in Shakespeare that you can see his chops. Olivier appeared, for quick paychecks, in stuff like Bunny Lake is Missing & Marathon Man & The Betsy & The Cassandra Crossing & The Boys From Brazil & the original Clash & others, farther down the schlock scale, & conferred something like classic status on them with his very presence. Movies like Clash of the Titans aren’t supposed to be about the acting, but there’s Olivier, obviously dropped into the movie just to add a little marquee prestige, & instead of just walking through the part, he’s drawing witty illustrations, all over the menu.

OK, now I think I’m done with Clash of the Titans. For the moment.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


RIP to actor Christopher Cazenove, who has passed on at 64.

In response to my Ikea post Monday, someone sent me these revised Ikea instructions of a slightly more lascivious nature:

Monster-of-the-Week: I’ve been on quite a stop-motion kick since the release of (the non-stop-motion) Clash of the Titans last week, which got me jazzed up to see Ray Harryhausen’s 1981 original again (about which more soon). So this week let’s give the nod to a stop-motion beastie from Flesh Gordon, the silly 1974 porn spoof.

This week’s honoree is a giant, animated by David Allen & Rob Maine, & known as “The Great God Porno,” or “Nesuahyrrah” (spell it backwards), or simply “The Monster.”

Brought to life in the climactic scenes of the film, this ogre, who bears some resemblance to Harryhausen’s Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth & to the Kraken from the original Clash, makes off-the-cuff remarks like “A Monster’s work is never done” in a casual, lounge-lizard voice provided by Craig T. Nelson, near the beginning of his career.

The wonderful sequence can be viewed here. I love the moment when The Monster, trying to impress the lovely Dale Ardor, tells her “This is the Tower of Murder, and…it’s where I hang out.”

Monday, April 5, 2010


This past Saturday The Wife & I ventured out to Ikea in Tempe. Along with a carry-out order of meatballs—the principal reason for the trip, as far as Lily was concerned—we also picked up some long-needed new furniture: Three bookcases of the “Billy” variety, & two DVD cases of the “Benno” variety.

Then yesterday my pal Dave came over & we spent the afternoon putting them together. Dave has a bit more Ikea experience than I do (& probably just more manual skill & competency in general) & it would have been pretty miserable if he hadn’t been there. As it worked out, though, in about two hours we had a fine new set of shelves.

One of the most valuable lessons that Dave imparted to me in the course of the afternoon was the importance of technical nomenclature in the Ikea assembly process.

For instance, Dave informed me, the second item from the left in the top row on this panel…

…is referred to as a “screwy-innie thingy,” while the third item from the left is properly referred to as a “dealiebopper.”

You won’t get any of this from the pages themselves; this knowledge is passed on only by oral tradition. Ikea instructions are wordless picture-dramas starring a character who Dave dubbed “Mr. Blobby”—all too aptly in this case, since he was an allegorical representation of me:

Note how Mr. Blobby is unhappy when he’s working on a hard floor, but happy when he’s working on a rug. Note also how if Mr. Blobby is perplexed, all he need do is call Ikea on the phone & his blissful smile of enlightenment is restored.

But note, most of all, how unhappy he is when he tries to do the job by himself, & how happy he is when a friend helps him. To the truth of this I can certainly attest.

In the midst of the afternoon, The Wife felt a tremor which she thought might be an earthquake, but since neither Dave nor I mentioned it, she assumed she was just feeling a vibration from the dryer, which was humming away in the laundry room next to where she was sitting. But later she turned on CNN & there was the news of a powerful quake in the northern Baja.

Baseball! The Diamondbacks kicked off their season this afternoon with a 6-3 win over San Diego. Hope that this proves a harbinger of the months to come! It was good to have baseball droning on my radio again.

Sunday, April 4, 2010


Here's some Albrecht Durer for Easter Sunday, his soul-stirring Young Hare (1502):

The noble creature brought me Peeps, the greatest Easter candy ever. Thanx!

We seem to be losing quite a few vintage TV heroes lately--Peter Graves, Fess Parker, Robert Culp & now John Forsythe, who has passed on at 92. He will perhaps be longest remembered as Charlie in Charlie's Angels, who gallantly sent young cutiepies into harm's way while he remained a safely disembodied intercom voice. RIP to him.

Friday, April 2, 2010


The original Clash of the Titans, released in 1981, was the last film to date to showcase the work of stop-motion animation master Ray Harryhausen. It was a loose retelling of the Greek tale of Perseus, slayer of the Gorgon Medusa, with such other mythological wonders mixed in as Pegasus, the Graiai or “Stygian Witches,” & even the Kraken, a sea-monster borrowed from Scandinavian folklore.

It wasn’t Harryhausen’s best movie (that impressive honor, I think, goes to The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) but the creature effects were superb nonetheless, & the script, by Beverley Cross, struck a fine fairy-tale tone, playful but not campy. Harry Hamlin played the valiant Perseus, & the cast was full of the slumming likes of Burgess Meredith, Maggie Smith, Claire Bloom, Ursula Andress & even Sir Laurence Olivier, as Old Man Zeus himself.

The film has been remade, with Sam Worthington of Avatar taking over the role of Perseus, & Liam Neeson stepping into the omnipotent sandals of Zeus.

The remake also features fantasy creatures realized by the computer-generated special-effects technology that rendered Harryhausen obsolete.

Or did it? There are those of us who feel that even the best, most rock-solid-convincing CGI effects (& the best, like those in, say, Jurassic Park, are very good indeed) lack the whimsical charm, & the human warmth, of Harryhausen’s painstaking stop-motion technique. I suppose the attitude is the cinematic equivalent of being a vinyl record buff in the age of the CD, but I can’t help it; there’s nothing like the jerky stylization of stop-motion for me.

Since the new Clash of the Titans movie checks off most of the original’s high points, & since its CGI effects are at the most lavish & extravagant level, it was a nice chance to compare-&-contrast the Old School & New School in state-of-the-art special effects.

Old School wins for me, I’m afraid. The special effects here are grand enough, but there’s also a phantom chilliness about them, a lack of tactility. The original film’s monsters bristled with personality: Harryhausen’s personality. In a sense, he was an actor, performing through his minutely poseable puppets. The creatures in the new film, even though some of them are clever in design, are digital shadows lacking this humanity. There’s an exception to this, a lovely moment in which a giant scorpion, carrying a howdah on its back, slips a little while climbing up a rocky path. It’s the briefest of fleeting details, yet it gives a sense of reality to the fanciful that is lacking elsewhere. It’s a true Harryhausen touch.

These personal preferences aside, the film is solid enough on its own terms. The French director, Louis Leterrier, does much the same job here that he did on 2008’s The Incredible Hulk: impersonal but efficient. This Clash is less of a kids movie than the original, however. It’s been made grimmer, gorier and more macho, in the manner of 300, & it has some patches of nice writing.

The male-bonding banter between the hunks who accompany Perseus on his quest is sort of amusing, & Perseus is given a fine, short-&-sweet pep talk to give the lads before they take on Medusa. The new Clash isn’t a classic, but as a total-immersion fantasy spectacle, I’d say it gave me, on balance, more fun for less of a tired backside than Avatar.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


This year the Razzie Awards declared Battlefield Earth the worst movie of the decade. The screenwriter, J.D. Shapiro, wrote a Catskills stand-up style “apology” for the New York Post; you can read it here.

Here’s a poem I wrote a couple of years ago:

Have more than you show
Speak less than you know
Lend less than you owe
Learn more than you know
Bet less than you throw
Lay off the booze and whores
Keep yourself indoors
And you shall have more
Then two tens to a score

Well, OK, I didn’t write it, exactly. The Fool speaks it in King Lear. I just, you know, jazzed up the language a little. April Fool.

It’s still good advice, though, wouldn’t you say?

But here’s a sonnet I really did write a couple of years ago, appropriate to the day…


Every supper is a final meal,
A formal celebration of betrayal,
A leave-taking before a dirty deal,
A maintenence of meat for wood and nail.
The body breaks itself upon the world,
Then builds itself again with wads of bread;
The purple treasure down the throat is hurled,
And mulls the spirit waiting to be shed.
Every Thursday dinner, we devour
Each other’s flesh, in weakling company;
We hold our peace throughout that hungry hour;
To show our teeth, we smile cordially.
Grant supper, now and then, may trace a line
To blood and love, from self-preserving wine.

Monster-of-the-Week: What to pick? Today is April Fool’s Day, on the other hand the remake of the monster-studded epic Clash of the Titans opens tomorrow, on the other hand this is Easter weekend. I think we’ll use the latter occasion as our theme, & give the nod to a bunny monster. There are still plenty of choices—there are monster rabbits in Donnie Darko, Sexy Beast & the rib-tickling late-night fave Night of the Lepus.

But of all the beastly bunnies, possibly the greatest is the Rabbit of Caerbannog from one of the greatest movies ever made, Monty Python and the Holy Grail

…whose sweet & innocent appearance hides its ability to leap through the air & remove the head of an Arthurian Knight in nothing flat, & who can even send a frontal onslaught by the Knights of the Round Table into retreat with cries of “Run away! Run away!”

Happy April Fool’s Day, & Happy Easter, everybody….