Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Over the last few weeks Barry & I have caught up with some high-testosterone fare, including Ben Affleck’s smashing melodrama The Town, out on DVD in December, & Tony Scott’s fine Unstoppable. This weekend The Wife & I went back to chick-flick land with Morning Glory, in which Rachel McAdams, as a workaholic executive producer, drags an ailing network morning show back from the brink of cancellation with the reluctant help of washed-up, curmudgeonly news anchor Harrison Ford.

McAdams is good company, even if her role, as written, is a bit too traditionally perky, Ford is quite funny as the epically miserable has-been, & there are other lively performances. But if they went to the trouble & expense to hire the great Diane Keaton to play Ford’s prickly co-host, it’s baffling that they didn’t make more generous use of her.

RIP to two major directors: Italian master Mario Monicello, best known for Big Deal on Madonna Street, has departed in haste at 95, & Irvin Kershner, who made easily the best Star Wars movie in The Empire Strikes Back, has passed on at 87. Kershner also had a nice onscreen role as Zebedee in one of the best scenes in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.

Monday, November 29, 2010


It occurs me that, if you could travel back in time to say, 1975, & tell people that in 2010 a black man would be President of the United States, & that most American homes would be equipped with computers, & that Leslie Nielsen's death would be mourned as the passing of a fairly major comedy star, your listeners might be most incredulous about that last item.

RIP to the Canadian-born movie & TV fixture, who has passed on at 84. Nielsen spent decades playing handsome, stolid authority figures in films like Forbidden Planet, Tammy and the Bachelor & The Poseidon Adventure, as well as occasional villains. He was known by friends & coworkers to have a silly sense of humor, but it wasn't until his role in 1980's Airplane! that he really got to show it onscreen. Once it was clear that he was he was a straightfaced goofball, he jumped onto the new career track & rode it to comedy stardom.

But he didn't completely abandon dramatic acting: In the '90s my pal Dave & I were lucky enough to see him perform a one-man show as Clarence Darrow at the Orpheum in Phoenix.  He was first-rate, overcoming the audience's scattered giggles in a matter of minutes.

Friday, November 26, 2010


Hope everybody had a great Thanksgiving.

For the (I think) third year in a row, The Wife & I spent the day at Farrelli’s Cinema Supper Club, where they do a traditional dinner with a movie. Our movie this year was It’s Kind of a Funny Story, from a novel by Ned Vizzini.

Keir Gilchrist plays a rich Manhattan high school kid who thinks he’s suicidal because he’s depressed over school worries & a crush on his best friend’s girlfriend. He goes to the emergency room in hopes of a quick fix, manages to get himself admitted to the psych unit for five days, & quickly realizes that he’s not really crazy, these people are crazy. One of his new, legitimately crazy pals (Zach Galifianakis) becomes his mentor. He also finds a new love interest: a young “cutter” (Emma Roberts) with some elegant scars on one of her beautiful cheeks.

I couldn’t decide if setting a standard coming-of-age story in a mental ward was offensive or not. In any case, the movie was charming on its own terms, with inventive direction by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, & fine performances from a cast that includes Viola Davis, Jim Gaffigan, Lauren Graham, Jeremy Davies & Zoe Kravitz. Young Gilchrist is good company, but Galifianakis is the standout, entirely convincing as this intelligent, likable wreck.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


Happy Thanksgiving everybody! Among the many, many people for which I am thankful today is one, alas, I must thank posthumously: Deep gratitude (especially on behalf of my adolescent self) to the supremely sultry & statuesque Ingrid Pitt, passed on at 73.

Born Ingoushka Petrov in Poland, the iconic vamp of British horror flicks is most remembered for The Vampire Lovers, Countess Dracula & The House That Dripped Blood. Her career, though not prolific, included Shakespeare, Dr. Who, Where Eagles Dare & the original, unforgettable version of The Wicker Man.


Monster-of-the-Week: …she certainly gets the nod this week, but for which movie? The Vampire Lovers is probably her most memorable outing...

...but I’ve always had a soft spot for her vampiress in The House That Dripped Blood, on the basis of the scene at the end when she levitates &…her high-heeled shoes drop off her feet to the floor. I don’t know why, but that detail remains one of the most deliriously sexy moments in movies for me.

RIP, Creature of the Night…

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


An editor took me to lunch at Sandstone CafĂ© in Chandler, where I enjoyed a really delicious burger & fries. By the entrance was something I never saw before:

Not sure if my photography skills convey what this is—it’s one of those claw-grabbing machines, with live lobsters as the prizes. If you succeed in snatching one, Sandstone will cook it for you on the spot. A guy gave it a try while we were there, & though the handsome crustacean he grabbed for easily fended off his attack, he told us that it’s successfully been done. It's two dollars a try, & while two dollars for a Maine lobster would be an incredible deal, getting one in one try seems like a major long shot.

There was also something I found decadent, somehow, about making a game of catching a living creature to eat, though I guess I can’t make a rational argument as to why it’s any different, morally speaking, than recreational fishing.

This evening at the supermarket I came across another animal-related product that didn’t seem quite right somehow: Old Yeller Dog Food…

What’s next? Bambi’s Mother Salt Licks?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Happy Birthday to William Henry Pratt, aka Boris Karloff, aka Karloff the Uncanny!

To celebrate the career of arguably the greatest horror star of all time, certainly one of the two or three greatest, TCM offers a small marathon of his movies today: The Lost Patrol, The Walking Dead, West of Shanghai, You’ll Find Out, Isle of the Dead, The Body Snatcher, Bedlam, Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome & The Terror.

Bedlam, a period melodrama with Karloff as the vile head honcho at the notorious London madhouse, is a particular gem.

Also, a belated RIP to old-school producer Dino de Laurentiis, whose amazing career spanned films from Fellini to David Lynch, but who will nonetheless probably be most remembered for his cheesy 1976 version of King Kong.

Friday, November 19, 2010


Alas, Your Humble Narrator was unable to make it to the screening of Harry Potter and the Receding Hairline, or whatever this one is called. But I did get to attend a demonstration, earlier this week, of the latest technological marvel by which that film will be experienced—by 26 people in Scottsdale, anyway.

The new UltraStar Cinema opens today, in the shell of the old UA Pavilions at Indian Bend & the 101. It’s an all-digital multiplex with certain reserved-seating auditoriums limited to audiences 21 & older, VIP lounges for private parties, gourmet concessions & other such amenities.

In one of the auditoriums (not one of the age-exclusive ones), 26 seats feature “D-BOX enhanced motion chair technology.” Available for an upgrade fee, these seats, put simply, move you around in sync with the movie—tilt & rock & rise & fall during chase scenes, register the impact of punches during fistfights, & so on. A control on one arm of the seats allows the intensity of the motion to be adjusted, or turned off, by the moviegoer.

By way of demonstration, we were shown a clip from The Polar Express, in which the train goes hurtling up & down a stretch of roller-coaster-like track, first with the motion seats on, & then with them off, to show how much is missing. I’m terrified by roller-coasters, & thought I might dislike this effect, but I liked it, & I can’t deny that the second time through, the experience seemed a little tame & sterile.

But UltraStar VP of Operations Damon Rubio, who introduced the system, was at pains to assure us that D-BOX wasn’t intended to turns movies into two-hour thrill rides. He noted that the “Motion Artists” who create these tracks also work to create small, subtle effects—like the “hiccup” at the end of an elevator ride—that contribute to immersion in a moviegoing experience.

This was borne out by the second part of the demo: We were then shown the first ten minutes or so of The Expendables, the Sylvester Stallone actioner. The chairs shook at the gunshots & pummelings, of course, but cooler still was the moment when Stallone & pals, in a speedboat, pull up alongside a ship they’re raiding, & we faintly feel the rocking of the waves. Later, as they ride to their next adventure on an airplane, we feel the vibration of the droning engines.

The new Harry Potter flick opening this weekend is the first to offer the D-BOX experience at Scottsdale's UltraStar. But there are also demonstration seats in the lobby which allow visitors to try it on for size. Obviously not everybody will like this, nor is it appropriate for every movie. But it strikes me as more than a gimmick, like William Castle’s notorious “Percepto” & “Emergo.” Or, if it is a gimmick, it’s a good gimmick.

I’m inclined to think that these non-visual, non-aural environmental enhancements could become a seriously-taken aspect of cinema art. I remember getting my mind blown when I went to Disneyworld in Florida as a ten-year-old, & took the rocket-ship ride, in which the seats sank to simulate the g-forces, & later drifted to simulate weightlessness.

More than ten years later, during a visit to Epcot Center with my then-girlfriend in the mid-80s, I saw the short film Captain EO. I can remember almost nothing about it, except how intensely it generated a sense of “being there” when Michael Jackson opened the hatch of his spaceship, & we in the audience felt a draft of cold clammy air from outside come right through the screen. It’s very clear to me that, if you can afford them, such techniques could be powerful additions to the cinematic bag of tricks.

At a grand opening party for UltraStar this week, I heard Diamondbacks great Luis Gonzales give a short speech of welcome to the place, which is just minutes from the new Diamondbacks/Rockies Spring Training Stadium. With startling candor, the slugger remarked: “…Don’t confuse D-BOX with D-backs…If you’ve tried those seats, and if you’ve seen the D-backs the last couple of years…You’re going to want to be in the D-BOX seats.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


An Arizona man has been denied a liver transplant, even though a liver had been donated to him by a dying friend, because Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System wouldn’t cover it. Read more here, but don’t read the comments if you don’t want to feel sick yourself.

A couple of movie notes:

Tonight at 7 & 9 p.m. Tempe’s MadCap Theater shows 1990’s Longtime Companion, one of the first high-profile features to explore the AIDS crisis of the time.

As I recall—I only saw it once, when it first came out—it had the feel of a well-made, well-acted TV movie. But it has an unforgettable scene in which Bruce Davison, who got an Oscar nomination for his trouble, talks to his dying husband (Mark Lamos)...

...& the heavenly final minutes, set to the Zane Campbell song “Post-Mortem Bar,” are soul-stirringly poignant.

Then Friday night, Farrelli’s Cinema Supper Club hosts a rather wonderfully random showing of the ‘70s epic Terror of Godzilla at 10 p.m. This one features The Big G facing off against one of his most notorious enemies…

Monster-of-the-Week: …Mechagodzilla, a robot knockoff designed by aliens to help them, well, you know, the usual—take over the world.

Mechagodzilla was introduced in the previous film in the series, which I saw in 1977 under its original American title, Godzilla vs. the Bionic Monster, a shameless attempt by the Yank distributors to capitalize on the massive popularity of the TV shows The Six Million Dollar Man & The Bionic Woman. Universal Studios, the show’s producers, sued, & the distributors capitulated—ridiculously, since Universal certainly hadn’t invented the word “bionic.” The movie was hastily retitled Godzilla vs. the Cosmic Monster.

By any other name, Mechagodzilla strikes terror into the hearts of Luddites everywhere. We prefer our monsters organic.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Now & then, in recent months especially, Your Humble Narrator feels slightly cranky about his adopted home state. When I do, I find it helpful to remember that Arizona, for all its undoubted faults, is still a place where you can go to a baseball game in mid-November.
This past Saturday evening The Wife & I went to the lovely newish ballpark at Camelback Ranch—the shared spring training home of the Dodgers & the White Sox—& watched the Phoenix Desert Dogs defeat the Peoria Saguaros, 8-1, in the MLB-sponsored league made up of promising prospects. It was jacket weather, but very tolerable, & the concession stand sold hot chocolate. Then this afternoon I went to Phoenix Municipal Stadium & watched while, in the most flawless baseball weather ever, the Dogs defeated the Scottsdale Scorpions, 2-1.

Both games were inexpensive ($6 maximum for the general-seating tickets), sparsely attended seven-innings affairs—they even featured a “Fifth Inning Stretch” with an even more halfhearted rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” than usual. It’s hard to imagine a more relaxed, less nerve-wracking professional sporting event to go to. I recommend them.

I do, however, have a suggestion for the Fall League. Most of the teams are named after desert fauna or flora: the Phoenix Desert Dogs, Scottsdale Scorpions, Peoria Saguaros, Peoria Javelinas. The only exceptions are the Mesa Solar Sox, which is a very cool name, & the Surprise Rafters.

Which is not a cool name.

Since this…
 …is the Rafter logo, I gather it refers to some sort of recreational river rafting, & not, as I supposed when I first saw it, to large heavy beams of wood. But somehow the name just doesn’t sing to me. I tried to think of what desert critter or shrub that hasn’t already been taken would be better—Surprise Tarantulas? Surprise Ocotillos? Surprise Chuckwallas? Surprise Chollas? Surprise Side-Blotched Lizards? Surprise Harris Antelope Squirrels?

Then it came to me: The Surprise Snowbirds. Think about it—the logo could be a bird, barreling down the baseline in a powerchair, carrying an oxygen tank…

Friday, November 12, 2010


Runaway locomotives have a long & noble history in movies, & I've been a fan at least since the TV movie Runaway! back in 1973. Since then, I've enjoyed the premise in films ranging from Silver Streak to Speed to Andrey Konchalovsky's bizarre 1985 thriller titled, simply, Runaway Train.

Along with being lost in the wilderness, or finding yourself untrained as a pilot at the stick of an airplane, or getting yourself back to earth in a damaged spaceship after an abortive moonshot, runaway trains are in that class of adventure-story perils that are blessedly apolitical—or, at least, only a little bit political. They’re much closer to allegorical—all of us, it could be argued, are always figuratively either riding on a runaway train or in one's path. Or both. Or several of each. Human greed or arrogance may be part of what the hero has to struggle against, but the true enemy from which the drama derives is simply Momentum.

A little belabored? Sorry, but I just find the runaway train motif—which, after all, goes back in pop culture at least as far as “The Ballad of Casey Jones” & “The Wreck of the Old 97”—really compelling. So you can imagine my childish glee over the humdinger opening this weekend, marvelously titled Unstoppable, & very dimly based, like “Casey Jones”& “Old 97,” on a true incident, in this case from Ohio in 2001.

A bit of carelessness by a rail-yard worker sends an enormous train loaded with hazardous chemicals hurtling south across the central Pennsylvania countryside toward a densely populated area. Meanwhile, veteran engineer Denzel Washington & still-wet-behind-the-ears conductor Chris Pine are ambling northward up the same tracks. The two men met just that morning, & aren’t getting along smoothly. Both have troubled backstories, although the movie wisely doesn’t explain them until near the end. When they realize that only they can stop a major catastrophe, & that they can do so only by insane risk, they bond fast.

To what extent the film is technically accurate, I certainly can’t say—I found myself wondering if even the most obtrusive of broadcast helicopters would fly so low over a speeding train, & if the authorities would allow mobs of bystanders & media to stand just yards from the track to watch the beast go thundering by. But as an exercise in corny, larger-than-life folklore, Unstoppable is pretty close to perfect.

It’s understandable if it gives you pause to learn that Tony Scott directed Unstoppable. While he’s made some fun movies—True Romance, notably—his touch with action can be highly off-putting. His hyperedited car chases & shootouts can dissolve into Bruckheimer-ish incoherence.

But he was the right man for this job. The action is quite literally on the straight & narrow—we’re never in doubt as to where everyone is, so Scott’s swooping, oscillating camera adds dynamism rather than taking away clarity. With the help of rumbling music by Harry Gregson-Williams, Scott gives the trains ponderousness & menacing character, almost like Japanese monsters. Plus, he isn’t embarrassed by whole-hog, grand-scale sentimentality, so stuff like the bonding between Pine & the relaxed Washington, or the adolescent-male fantasy of winning back your woman’s affections through feats of heroic derring-do, aren’t handled ironically.

The two leads manage their archetypical relationship with warmth; it’s not hard to picture John Wayne & Ricky Nelson in the roles fifty years ago. It was also nice (if maybe a little disingenuous at the corporate level) to see a big-studio movie that was pro-union & comfortable with the working class. Mark Bomback’s dialogue is pretty feverish—I love the moment where Pine snarls “We’re gonna run this bitch down!”—but it became, for me, unintentionally funny only once, when Washington, seeing Pine reach between the two trains to attempt to couple them, offers this advice: “Be careful.”

Thursday, November 11, 2010


It was one of George Orwell’s superb essays—which you can read here—that pointed me to two wonderful vintage English crime novels, E.W. Hornung’s Raffles, The Amateur Cracksman & No Orchids for Miss Blandish by James Hadley Chase. By chance, or possibly due to some Orwell enthusiast on the station’s programming staff, TCM offers movie versions of both this month: the 1930 version of Raffles, with Ronald Colman, is on this Friday evening, while the rarely-shown 1948 version of No Orchids plays November 28.

Monster-of-the-Week: This week we turn to this Onion statshot:

They’re all popular with me, but I’m giving it to Frankenwowski, The Polish Frankenstein…

Sunday, November 7, 2010


RIP to the charming Jill Clayburgh, best known for the 1978 Women’s Lib classic An Unmarried Woman, passed on at 66 after a twenty-plus-year struggle against leukemia.

The Wife & I had just watched Clayburgh the other night, opposite Walter Matthau in the stodgy, corny civics-lesson comedy First Monday in October, from 1981. As a conservative first female Supreme Court Justice—a fiction at the time, though about to come true with startling near-accuracy that same year—who locks rhetorical horns with the liberal Matthau, she seemed oddly miscast; too young, to begin with. But she has a self-conscious primness in the role that is very beguiling just the same.

Friday, November 5, 2010


Two opening today:

Due Date—An uptight guy is forced to travel across America with an obnoxious guy. That’s the simple, & by no means original, premise of the new road comedy Due Date, a 21st-Century spin on the 1987 John Hughes comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles—it’s like Planes, Trains and Automobiles, jacked up on crack.

Directed by Todd Phillips of The Hangover, Due Date stars Robert Downey, Jr. as uptight Peter Highman & Zach Galifianakis as obnoxious Ethan Tremblay. Peter is a successful L.A. architect who’s in Atlanta on business, but itching to get home to his wife (Michelle Monaghan) in time for the birth, by c-section, of their first child. A run-in with the intolerable Ethan leads Peter into a wrangle with airport security, & both men get bumped from their flight & land on a no-fly list. Peter also ends up missing his wallet, so when Ethan offers him a ride to “Hollywood”—he’s headed there to become an actor—Peter has no choice but to climb in.

What follows, of course, is a series of wacky episodes. But unlike Planes, Trains and Automobiles, in which Steve Martin was slightly stiff & fussy and John Candy was a bumbling but likable goof, Peter is an angry, anxious neurotic & Ethan is simply devoid of a single social skill, so pathologically inappropriate that he seems like he belongs in some sort of institution.

Thus the fine messes in which these two find themselves are correspondingly more extreme & ugly, in the manner of The Hangover. Ethan’s imbecility causes car crashes & wrong turns & accidental bullet wounds & even an arrest by the Mexican police. It also leads the short-fused Peter to punch a little boy in the stomach, to insult a wheelchair-bound war vet & to spit in the face of a dog—Ethan’s marvelous French bulldog, who has a deadpan worthy of Buster Keaton.

Incredibly, director Phillips & screenwriters Alan R. Cohen, Alan Freedland & Adam Sztykiel still want Due Date to espouse the road movie’s usual, sentimental theme: that traveling together is appalling, but that it’s also a bonding experience. Even more incredibly, thanks to the acting of Downey & Galifianakis, we actually do buy into the absurdly improbable bonding between the two men.

Due Date is a much more uneven piece of work than The Hangover, but it’s also much more interesting, because while the gags are mostly crass & mean-spirited slapstick, the two leads keep taking the movie into complex, troubling psychological depths. Some capable supporting actors, like Juliette Lewis, Jamie Foxx & Danny McBride, are given a scene or so each, to break up the sense that we’re seeing a two-character play.

But that’s essentially what the movie is. It turns out that Ethan has recently lost his father, whose ashes he’s carrying—his westward trek is a response to his grief. A couple of times in the course in the film, Peter is excoriating Ethan when suddenly Galifianakis lets you see Ethan’s very real & not at all comic bereavement spill out, in response to which Downey lets you see Peter’s fury & superciliousness drain away, replaced by empathy.

So the suspense in Due Date had, for me, nothing at all to do with whether Peter would make it home for his child’s birth. Rather, I was on the edge of my seat worrying that Phillips would punish me, with the heavy-handed vulgarity of his comic touch, for caring about the connection that these two remarkable actors had forged in the middle of all this chaotic silliness. Whether the crassness outweighs the humanity in the long run is a matter of individual taste, of course, but while I didn’t always like Due Date, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss these performances.

Fair Game—The leak of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame by members of the Bush Administration was not the worst of the outrages that came out of those eight years, but it may be one of the most characteristic. It was a reaction to the refusal of Plame’s husband, former U.S. Ambassador to Gabon Joseph Wilson, to help the Administration create the backstory for the fantasy role-playing game it was planning—using actual flesh-&-blood humans as game-pieces—in Iraq.

A crude, spiteful piece of bullying, it seemed intended not only to punish Wilson & Plame but to discourage future dissenters in the Intelligence community. As pranks go, it might even have had high-school cheerleaders saying, “OMG, that’s so mean, & even, like unethnical or something.

The new movie based on the case, Fair Game, stars Naomi Watts as Valerie Plame & Sean Penn as Joe Wilson. The director, Doug Liman of The Bourne Identity, claims to have stuck closely to the record, telling the Philadelphia Daily NewsThere's no conjecture in this movie. The scenes that we portray in the White House are the scenes that somebody in that scene testified to."

If so, then the film is highly (& infuriatingly) informative for those of us whose understanding of the affair is vague beyond its broad outlines. In particular, it challenges the notion, parroted endlessly by media conservatives, that Plame was a minor figure at the CIA & that her “outing” couldn’t have had much consequence to US Intelligence, & it offers a grimly convincing portrait of a toxic atmosphere of intimidation at the CIA during those years.

Politics aside, Fair Game is a speedy & absorbing Washington drama. Liman focuses on lucidity & pace, Penn serves up his customary intensity, & Watts is touchingly restrained. The guys who play Karl Rove (Adam LaFevre) & “Scooter” Libby (David Andrews) are properly loathsome. The movie isn’t hysterical; it doesn’t scream—except once, when Wilson screams at his wife to demonstrate the Neocon approach to dissent.

The trouble is, it’s not a film that can be viewed politics aside. Conservative blood will boil because it’s unflattering to the Administration, & liberal blood will boil because, among other reasons, the perpetrators of this sliminess were allowed to ooze away—& some of them have oozed right back into American politics.

Thursday, November 4, 2010


OK, so the Giants won the World Series earlier this week. Not that I’m a Texas Rangers fan, but just because the Giants are rivals of the Diamondbacks…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to the title character of 1955’s It Came From Beneath the Sea.

The “it” of the title is an enormous cephalopod—it looks like an octopus, though for budgetary reasons animator Ray Harryhausen was permitted only six arms, so he called it a “hexapus”—who arose from the depths to wreak havoc on the City By the Bay…

Maybe in some future remake, one of those arms could slither up from McCovey Cove into AT&T Park, & snatch Tim Lincecum right off the mound…

Another RIP: To composer Jerry Bock, who has passed on at 81. In collaboration with the great lyricist Sheldon Harnick, Bock created the enduring scores to such Broadway classics as Fiddler on the Roof & Fiorello!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


RIP to cartoonist Alexander Anderson, little-known creator of the original versions of two of the great TV characters of all time, Rocky & Bullwinkle…

…as well as their progenitors, Crusader Rabbit & Ragland T. Tiger...

...passed on at 90.

RIP also to the beautiful actress Lisa Blount, best known as Debra Winger’s pal in An Officer and a Gentleman, passed on way too young at 53.

RIP as well to underrated American filmmaker George Hickenlooper, passed on waaay too young at 47. He’s best known for his documentary Hearts of Darkness & for Some Folks Call It A Sling Blade, the short on which Billy Bob Thornton’s Sling Blade was based. I once had dinner with Hickenlooper at the Chili’s at Town & Country, prior to a screening of his feature Dogtown, after which I moderated the Q&A. He seemed like a nice man. He told me over dinner that if he had been allowed to direct the feature version of Sling Blade, “it would have won all the Oscars.” His film Casino Jack, with Kevin Spacey as Jack Abramoff, is upcoming, & he also directed an amusing 1999 political drama called The Big Brass Ring, from a script by Orson Welles.

His cousin John Hickenlooper, by the way, has just been elected Governor of Colorado.