Friday, July 30, 2010


Playing this Friday & Saturday at MadCap Theaters in Tempe is Cropsey, a 2009 documentary by Barbara Brancaccio & Joshua Zeman. The title is a name used in parts of New York state for the Boogeyman of cautionary urban folklore, the axe- or knife- or hook-wielding maniac who, in the mythos of the campfire or the slumber party, preys on children who stray into the shadowy, desolate parts of town.

The difference on Staten Island, that least glamorous of New York’s Five Boroughs, is that these stories, at least since the ‘80s, have some basis in fact, & even in their horrifyingly gothic details. The filmmakers, who grew up on the island, explore the case of the disappearance of several children & youths, most of them developmentally disabled, from the neighborhoods. The prime suspect, who was convicted & sentenced to 25 years to life for kidnapping one of the victims but has never been linked to any of the disappearances by physical evidence, was a homeless sex offender called Andre Rand.

Though dangerously disturbed himself, Rand had been an orderly at Willowbrook State School, an enormous mental institution the vile abuses of which had been exposed in 1972 by the young Geraldo Rivera in a WABC-TV expose that made Marat/Sade look like Sesame Street (some of Rivera’s nearly unwatchable footage is included in Cropsey). The place was closed & abandoned in 1987, & its graffiti-scrawled ruin, complete with a network of tunnels, had inevitably become the center of the island’s “Cropsey” legends. But it truly was linked, as it turned out, to the case of the vanishing children.

Cropsey is chilling & fascinating & bitterly sad, but it isn’t lurid or sensationalistic. Brancaccio & Zeman generate a macabre atmosphere, but they do it subtly; the overall tone is ruminative, almost like Rashomon on Staten Island. If they were trying to cast doubt on the likelihood of Rand’s guilt, for me they didn’t succeed—the case was clearly driven by community pressure, & the evidence was circumstantial, but I found it pretty persuasive for all that. But the filmmakers obtained some striking potential insights into the nightmare all the same, & they even weave in a bit of historical & social perspective. This is what true-crime documentaries should be, & rarely are.

RIP to the really fine character actor Maury Chaykin, passed on at 61. Chaykin’s films included WarGames, My Cousin Vinny, & Dances With Wolves, but I have two favorite performances of his: as the bewildered, quietly angry father in What’s Cooking? & as the low-key diner guy in Love and Death on Long Island.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


For no other reason than to mark the Friday opening of Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore... by my old pal Steve Bencich (who in 1994 co-wrote & appeared in The Best Movie Ever Made, in which Your Humble Narrator gave a brilliant performance) & his writing partner Ron Friedman...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...this week let's recognize the were-feline that Carl Esmond was suspected of being in The Catman of Paris (1946), an hour-long horror melodrama from Republic. Well, maybe for one other reason: It has a very cool poster...

The Catman looks way cooler in the poster than he does in the film. Carl Esmond, by the way, died in 2004 at the age of 102. Maybe he really did have nine lives.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


My sister sent me the link to this particularly lovely piece in Obit Magazine on the late Harvey Pekar. It's an interesting mag, too.

Friday, July 23, 2010


My pal Tom sent me this picture he took of a sign in a store in Rye, NY. He suggests reading it in your best New Yawk accent:

Another pal sent me these portraits of the newest addition to his family:

Thursday, July 22, 2010


Over the past week I caught up with a couple of pictures. With The Wife, I saw:

The Kids Are All Right—Annette Bening & Julianne Moore are an affluent LA lesbian couple with two teenage kids (Mia Wasikowska & Josh Hutcherson); they had them biologically, one apiece, using the same sperm donor. The kids get in touch with this seminal fellow, who turns out to be the quintessential California dude, a laid-back restaurateur, sweet-natured if a bit erotically reckless, sort of a minor sexual deity of the West Coast ethos. With absolutely zero ill intentions, this charmer, quite wonderfully played by Mark Ruffalo, manages to wreak all sorts of havoc in his new-found family. This comedy, directed & co-written by Lisa Cholodenko, is both livelier & more generous-hearted than the director’s 1998 High Art, & at least as well-acted: Ruffalo & Bening are both very funny, as are the kids, but Moore was the real standout for me—she has moments of knockout naturalism.

& with Barry, I saw:

Predators—Adrien Brody, Alice Braga, Topher Grace, Walton Goggins, Danny Trejo & a bunch of other character actors find themselves marooned on a distant, pleasantly forested planet, with no idea how they got there. Most of them are career killers—mercenaries, guerillas, death row inmates, gangsters & the like—& their hosts are the hideous trophy-hunting aliens with the curiously Rasta-like helmets from Predator, the 1987 Schwarzenegger actioner. Down they go, one at a time. A Yakuza (Louis Ozawa Changchien) even takes on one of the Predators in a swordfight. Robert Rodriguez produced this sci-fi variation on The Most Dangerous Game. It’s pretty good for a while—the direction, by Nimrod Antal, is rather supple, the actors are good, & even the lean, faux-Hemingway dialogue isn’t too embarrassing. But the movie runs out of energy & ideas about midpoint. Also—at the risk of “spoilers”—why, in movies like this, do they almost always kill off the most interesting actors first?

Monster-of-the-Week: Probably the coolest scene in Predators involves a pack of bloodhound-like hunting animals sicced on the human characters. So this week the nod goes to these “Predator hounds,” seen here in a bit of production art:

Monday, July 19, 2010


RIP to the superb actor James Gammon, who's passed on at 70.

Though he's probably best known for his wonderful turn as Lou, the growly, lovable manager in the best of all baseball movies, Major League (1989), Gammon was a veteran of many Westerns & actioners in movies & on TV, & was seriously respected as a stage actor as well, especially as a Sam Shepherd crony.

RIP also to Peter Fernandez, voice actor & writer of English dialogue for the American versions of many Japanese cartoons, including Speed Racer, for which he provided the Yank voice of the title character & wrote the immortal theme song.

On a cheerier, & likewise animation-related note, MTV is reportedly bringing Beavis & Butt-head out of retirement with new episodes! High time that the 21st-Century was subjected to the lads' commentary...

Thursday, July 15, 2010


“Guilty pleasure” is a term with which I’ve lost sympathy. Over the years, I’ve come to suspect that if something gives you pleasure & doesn’t harm anybody else, you probably shouldn’t waste time feeling guilty about it.

Having said that, I can’t deny that I do have a handful of pleasures over which I feel guilty, or at least embarrassed. Most of these, you will probably be relieved to hear, I have no intention of sharing here, but there is one I’ll admit to: I like Grease.

By which I mean, I like the movie Grease. As in the musical with John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John. That Grease. Always have. Even The Wife, who loves musicals, shakes her head at my willingness to sit & watch this one.

So it was without her that I attended, & had a blast at, the screening of the new limited-release Sing-Along version of Grease, which has been selling out shows around the country, & which plays here in Phoenix at the AMC Esplanade through Saturday July 17. You can check out the trailer here.

Of course, lots of people liked this movie—it was one of the major hits of 1978. But even though I’m one of them, it’s always bugged me that I’ve enjoyed this fantasy of ‘50s high school life (I’ve always assumed that the title is a joke on the ‘60s musical Hair). It is, to begin with, shamelessly kitschy—when Travolta & ONJ's hot rod actually takes off & flies through the air in the final scene, director Randal Kleiser shows no more sign that he means this flourish ironically than does Cocteau when his lovers ascend to Heaven at the end of La Belle et le Bete.

But that’s not really what bothers me about my affinity for the picture—I like lots of kitsch. The songs are really catchy, too, & Kleiser & choreographer Patricia Birch shape numbers like “Summer Nights” & “Born to Hand Jive” excitingly. Grease is a deft, skillful piece of popular moviemaking, & my real sense of sheepishness about it comes from its sensibility: It’s a rapturous celebration social conformity, peer pressure, & the behavior of the sort of thuggish assholes that often made high school a shitty experience for me, & a far shittier one for the sorry souls even farther down the dork pecking order than I was.

Leather-jacketed hero Danny Zuko (Travolta) & his pals the T-Birds are presented as lovable lugs, but from the point view of, say, the unfortunate class nerd Eugene (Eddie Deezen) they'd doubtless seem very different. It’s true that while Grease glorifies swaggering alpha males, over the years it’s been co-opted by their victims—the drama-club dweebs, the gays, the Eugenes. But that doesn’t get me off the hook—I liked the movie even before it became the property of the Glee crowd.

I’ll also grant that slutty Rizzo (Stockard Channing) & her pals The Pink Ladies were far more to my taste than wholesome Sandy (ONJ). But even so there’s always been something unsavory about the film’s climactic moment, when Sandy has at last allowed herself to be decked out in skankwear, complete with cigarette, & presented to Danny, who promptly bursts into “You’re the One That I Want.”

& yet, there’s no way around it…there’s something thrilling about this moment, too. Poor Sandy’s been persuaded by her friends to change herself, so that she can get a boy & be accepted by the gang, yet somehow the scene feels triumphant anyway—maybe just because it’s so savagely honest about the motivations underlying the ways we dress & act & self-identify.

This scene, & Grease as a whole, would probably come across a lot creepier if the actors really seemed like high school kids; most of them look more like they’re ready for their 20-year class reunions. The wryly sexy Stockard Channing is especially well-served by this incongruity; when she sings “Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee” or “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” her, shall we say, maturity poignantly suggests that no matter how old we get, most of us can never flush all the high school out of our souls.


So The Netherlands didn’t win the World Cup this past weekend, but maybe their national disappointment will be mitigated by the fact that…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week’s honoree is of Dutch origin: The title character in The Lift (De Lift, 1983), an elevator in a high-rise building that appears to be haunted or possessed. It’s malevolent, in any case, luring folks into the open shaft or baking them alive or snipping off their heads. It’s up to a canny elevator-tech (Huub Stapel) & a rather chic investigative reporter (Willeke van Ammelrooy) to probe the mystery behind this vertical violence.

Written & directed by Dick Maas (who also composed the music), this snappy, amusingly Luddite little horror picture—at one point a police detective notes that he prefers to take the stairs, because every year 250,000 people get stuck in elevators “…in our country alone!”—doesn’t appear to be available on DVD yet. I have it on (badly) English-dubbed VHS. But it’s worth seeing if you get the chance.

I hope this recognition gives the people of The Netherlands a…well, you know, a lift.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Possibly the finest hour onscreen for Mickey Mouse was “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” the segment of 1940’s Fantasia in which he played the title role.

The episode is a wordless pantomime, which helps a lot for those of us who find the voice of Disney’s signature rodent grating, to the 1897 orchestral program piece by Paul Dukas, which in turn is based on Goethe’s classic poem, the story of a fledgling wizard who uses his magical powers to animate a broom to do his chores for him, then finds himself in over his head.

Not given to missing a trick when it comes to exploiting a property with name recognition, Disney now offers a big-budget, feature-length, live action version of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, with the young Canadian Jay Baruchel in the title role, & Nicolas Cage as the master sorcerer. After one of those long voice-over prologues full of trumped-up expository lore, the tale is reset in modern-day Manhattan.

Cage plays Balthazar, a student of Merlin, who has been looking for a protégé for centuries to help him defend humankind against his rival Horvath (Alfred Molina) & the wicked sorceress Morgana (Alice Krige). He finally finds him in the form of Dave (Baruchel), a physics nerd at NYU. All sorts of opportunities for elaborate special-effects sequences arise from Dave’s training, & from the big showdown with the evil sorcerers.

Several of these involve iconic NYC figures coming to life—a dragon runs amok in the middle of a parade in Chinatown, Balthazar domesticates one of the steel deco eagles from the Chrysler building to ride on, & Dave is terrorized by the bronze Wall Street bull statue outside Bowling Green Park. Dave even brings mops & brooms to life to clean up at one point, with results similar to Mickey’s.

These are all good, whimsical ideas, & they probably make the movie sound a lot more fun than it is. Somehow the CGI effects feel cold and soulless, & director Jon Turteltaub, of the National Treasure flicks, throws them at us in such a hasty, impersonal manner that they don’t stir much sense of wonder. The script is no help either; once again the plot is by-the-numbers out of the Disney playbook, with a misfit-underdog hero learning he’s been chosen by Destiny not only to Save The World but to Get The Girl.

That The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is tolerable is mainly due to the acting. The dark, slender Barcuchel, with his kvetchy, quavering voice, is good company, though he’d be hugely served by some better dialogue. Molina doesn’t even need good dialogue to bring off this dapper villain, & though she’s wasted in a zero role, Monica Belluci, as Balthazar’s long-lost love, is always welcome just because she’s ravishing.

As for Cage, despite his many career follies, he’s still unmistakably a movie star, & he’s a glamorous presence to watch even when, as here, you don’t buy for a minute that he’s who he says he is.

Monday, July 12, 2010


A major RIP for Your Humble Narrator: Harvey Pekar, curmudgeonly Cleveland chronicler & author of the brilliant neo-realist comic American Splendor as well as such graphic novels as Our Cancer Year & The Quitter, has passed on at 70.

I was lucky enough to spend a day with Harvey in the mid-‘80s, when I interviewed him for the Erie Times-News. With my pal Stan, who took pictures, I drove to the Veterans Hospital where he worked & met his friends Toby & Greg, then drove him to his apartment in Coventry where we met his wife Joyce.

He was gruffly cordial to us, & gave a great interview. I did a second version of the story as a comic in imitation of Harvey’s style, illustrated by Gary Hardman, which ran in a short-lived magazine called Lip Mechanics. Pekar later sent me a nice postcard complimenting me on both stories.

Even before I met him, though, Pekar’s work was an inspiration to me—the presentational, or as he called it, “didactic” straightforwardness of his narrative style has a wonderful, unpretentious simplicity, but is also capable of surprising subtlety, complexity & variety, & it leaves you feeling like you know him. He brought out the beauty & mystery in everyday life; his comic’s title seems ironic at first, but Pekar really did find splendors on the streets of Cleveland’s east side.

As Stan noted when we talked about our visit this afternoon, it was great to read the reflections of a Rust Belt working man who was also a largely self-educated intellectual & who was able to share his outlook on life in his own way, even after he was somewhat accepted by the mainstream. His work rewards repeated readings, too—tonight I pulled down the five volumes of Pekar from my shelf, & noticed that they’re pretty well-thumbed. I’m proud to say that my 1987 edition of More American Splendor was given to me by Harvey himself.

Friday, July 9, 2010


Superheroes are absent from Despicable Me; the supervillains appear to operate with impunity. In this movie’s world, the activities of the big leagues of villainy seem almost like some sort of conceptual art—the focus is on stealing major world landmarks. In the opening minutes, for instance, we learn that the Great Pyramid at Giza has been kyped.

The “Me” in Despicable Me is Gru, a tall fellow with a bald dome, a leering, long-nosed face and a down-in-the-throat Eastern European accent (provided by Steve Carell).

He lives in a handsome if forbidding suburban house sitting atop a palatial underground laboratory. It’s run by Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand) and staffed by hundreds of Minions, cheerful little guys resembling ambulatory yellow Tic Tacs in dungarees, some with one goggled eye and some with two, who chatter and giggle energetically in an unidentifiable patois.

On the whole, Gru doesn’t seem to have it so bad, but he’s nagged by feelings of inadequacy common to middle-aged men: His career has fallen short of his ambitions. Sure, he’s stolen the Statue of Liberty, but only the small one, from Las Vegas. Plus, he never received the approval he craved from his brusque, dismissive mother (Julie Andrews). The Pyramid caper, performed by an insufferable up-and-coming supervillain who calls himself Vector (Jason Segel), makes Gru desperate to top it. So he decides on a pretty grand gesture: Stealing the Moon right out of the sky.

When Gru sees three cute little orphan girls out selling cookies, it occurs to him that he can use them to solve a snag in his scheme (“Light bulb,” he says out loud, with a sinister smile, when he gets an idea). So he adopts the lot of them, temporarily he thinks, and you can see where the movie is heading from there. Gru quickly learns that parenting three girls easily requires as much energy and resourcefulness as stealing the moon.

This charming & truly funny computer-animated effort from Universal is one of the bright spots of this summer’s so far mostly unappealing blockbuster season. Despicable Me is loaded with visually inventive, often riotous gags. The plot is preposterous but wildly imaginative—the stealing-the-moon bit is worthy of Voltaire—& the sentimental side of the story is sweet but not sticky.

Want to know one of the best things about this movie, though? It’s short. It’s not skimpy short, just not needlessly overextended in the manner of so many blockbusters. A friend of mine theorizes that with ticket prices so high, studios feel that they have to give us plenty of length, to create the sense that they’re giving us bang for our buck. Despicable Me demonstrates that if this is indeed the strategy, it’s misguided—this movie covers everything from multigenerational parent-child dynamics to the purloining of celestial objects, all at 51 minutes shorter than Sex in the City 2.

Thursday, July 8, 2010


Happy Birthday Kevin Bacon!

In honor of the star famed for six-degree ubiquity…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this time around let’s honor Stumpy, the most recognizable of the “Graboids,” the predatory subterranean terrors from 1990’s Tremors.

Graboids are giant wormy creatures who can tunnel through the desert at alarming speeds a few inches below the surface, like Bugs Bunny. They’re equipped with awful beaky maws &, as the name implies, grabby tentacle-like appendages, with which they can yank unsuspecting people—their favorite snack—under the sand.

Stumpy—so dubbed because he (she?) lost a grabber in the course of the story—& pals lay siege to the hapless residents of Perfection, Nevada, & it’s up to Bacon & Fred Ward, as two scruffy handymen, along with cute seismologist Finn Carter & husband-&-wife survivalists Reba McEntire & Michael Gross, to do battle with the ghastly desert landscapers.

This lighthearted chiller, by the way, is The Wife’s favorite monster movie. I like it too; if you've never seen Ron Underwood’s goofy yet occasionally creepy picture, which spawned a number of sequels & a TV show, I recommend.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


The Wife & I dined Tuesday evening at D'Arcy McGee's, a chain Irish pub in Tempe. The place has half-price appetizers between 3-6 p.m. Monday-Thursday, so I had a Scotch Egg. I confess that I was unaware of this delicacy: a hard-boiled egg in four quarters, each quarter in a cradle of fried banger sausage. It looked a lot like this...

...& was freakin' delicious.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


...Uruguay was eliminated from World Cup contention today. Sorry Pablo!

Also: Very late-in-the-day happy birthday to the Dalai Lama, & to Frida Kahlo.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


Hope everybody had a great Fourth! Also, Happy Birthday to my pal Pablo, who’s already received his present—his beloved home country, Uruguay, is one of the final four teams in the World Cup.

My pal Tom was kind enough to send me this cheering item.

Friday, July 2, 2010


Two opening in the Valley Friday:

Cyrus—John (John C. Reilly) is an LA video editor who’s been divorced & seriously depressed for a few years now. His ex (Catherine Keener), concerned about his funk, drags him to a party where, wonder of wonders, he actually meets somebody. Indeed, he meets the woman of his dreams, Molly (Marisa Tomei)—gorgeous, eccentric, sexually avid. If you’re guessing that this isn’t the end of John’s troubles, you’re no fool. Before too long he meets Molly’s grown son Cyrus (Jonah Hill), a chubby experimental musician with a soft-spoken manner & an aggressive, wide-eyed stare.

Cyrus still lives at home, & he & his mother have an unnervingly boundary-free relationship. Though he feigns supportiveness of her new relationship, he’s enraged at John’s encroachment, & privately wages war on him.

This indie was written & directed by Jay & Mark Duplass, the brothers behind the interesting if uneven 2008 horror comedy Baghead. At times Cyrus seems like it, too, may take the plunge into all-out psychothriller territory, but the Duplass Brothers once again keep it light & unpredictable, & focus on the performances. Reilly has gradually become one of the great screen everymen—I found myself worrying about poor John the same way his ex-wife does—& Tomei is sexy & poignant. Hill, part of the Judd Apatow Mafia that has taken over popular movies the last few years, is first-rate, too. I thought he was a scream in The 40-Year-Old Virgin & Knocked Up & in his scene opposite Ben Stiller in Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. But as Cyrus—maddening & creepy, yet also pitiable, yet also smart & funny—he shows a range I might not have guessed.

The Last Airbender—Channel-surfing last week I happened upon M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, about 20 minutes in, & stopped to watch a while, marveling again both at the cunning structure & at the heartfelt punch of the performances. It’s a classic, I thought, & if Shyamalan never makes another good movie, he’ll still have earned his place in movie history.

But it looks like he really might not, alas. Almost every movie he’s made apart from Sixth Sense has been an interesting but severe misfire. My favorite of his subsequent efforts is one that everybody else seemed to particularly hate—The Village (2004). I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece, certainly, but it’s coherent, well-acted &, for me at least, not without chills.

His latest, The Last Airbender, is a sort of martial-arts action-fantasy based on some animated show I’ve never seen. It’s in an alternative Earth, maybe the far future or a fairy-tale past, in which the world is divided into feudal realms based on the traditional “elements”: Earth, Water, Fire & Air. These kingdoms are policed by “Avatars” (the original title was Avatar: The Last Airbender, which had to be dropped for obvious reasons): warriors who can manipulate their elements through Tai-Chi-like moves, flinging them at their enemies as offensive weapons or summoning them up as defensive shields.

At the beginning, a brother & sister living in an arctic, Inuit-like culture—though they look like junior-high kids from Appleton, Wisconsin or someplace—are out hunting & find a boy frozen in the ice, along with a gigantic mammal. They thaw them out, & the kid (shaven-headed, pained-looking Noah Ringer) turns out to be a.) not dead, & b.) the title character, an air-bending avatar with the power to overthrow the cultural dominance of the Fire-bending kingdom. The mammal turns out be a sort of cross between a yak, an otter & a Pekingese, except he can also fly.

A complicated plot involving the intrigues of the Fire Kingdom’s royal family ensues, along with many attempts on the poor little airbender’s life, lots of choreographic martial arts moves, & loads of New Agey bromides. There’s a big battle finale in an ice city that looks like a blend of Maxfield Parrish & Thomas Kinkade.

Maybe some kids will get into this; I confess it just seemed too dumb for me—like Tolkien infused with Hannah Montana or the Beach Party movies. Or something.

All I can say is that there were moments of splendor in the design & captivating fanciful images, like warriors riding on giant monitor lizards, or like the huge ironclad warships of the Fire people, but these pleasures are outweighed by the stubbornly vapid dialogue. There was nobody to root for. The heroic kids are vastly less interesting & complex than the Fire people—by far the best performances are by Dev Patel & Aasif Mandvi as, respectively, a conflicted Prince & the villainous general trying to beat him to capturing the LA. But then again, these two have the meatiest roles.

Anyway, for my money this is yet another unfortunate miss for Shyamalan. But the film is optimistically subtitled Book One: Water, so perhaps he plans to have three more tries to get it right.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


Since The Twilight Saga: Eclipse is out…

Monster-of-the Week:…this week let’s recognize another movie in which a lycanthrope is pitted against a blood-sucker. Our honoree this time is Andreas Obry (Matt Willis), the hapless werewolf servant struggling against the mind-control of his Dracula-esque master, Armand Tesla (Bela Lugosi), in Columbia’s atmospheric 1944 programmer The Return of the Vampire:

I’ve always had an affection for this very traditional, old-school melodrama set against the backdrop of World War II-era London. Also, while The Twilight Saga: Eclipse runs over two hours, The Return of the Vampire clocks in at just under 70 minutes.

That does it: Put me down for Team Andreas!