Thursday, December 29, 2011


RIP to—& apparently this isn’t a joke—Cheetah the Chimp, believed to be Johnny Weismuller’s costar in the Tarzan movies of the ‘30s, passed on at—again, this is supposedly true—80 years old.

[Update: The more one reads about this, the more suspicious the claims about this chimp seem. Obviously I’m no primatologist, but I believe that a chimp reaching the age of 80 would be equivalent to a human living well over 100, & apparently this isn’t even the first time that this claim has been made about an aged chimp in a sanctuary.]

In memory of actor & accent coach Robert Easton, also passed on last week…

Monster-of-the-Week: …the nod goes to the largest and most formidable of the title invaders in The Giant Spider Invasion, Bill Rebane’s Wisconsin-made (& thus, perhaps not coincidentally, very cheesy) drive-in fave of 1975.

This arachnid, who devours Easton as a lecherous farmer, was played by a Volkswagen in a spider suit,  driven backwards—the taillights served as its red glowing eyes.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


The Phoenix Film Critics Society has announced our 2011 Award winners; you can check them out here. As with the nominees, several of these reflect my voting, others don’t, but there are lots of worthwhile movies represented here.

My own Top Ten List will be posted shortly after the New Year.

Saturday, December 24, 2011


It’s an unusually crowded Christmas week for movie releases; here, very briefly, are two that I caught up with:

The Adventures of Tintin—Steven Spielberg directed this animation of the Belgian comic books by Hergé. The title character, voiced by Jamie Bell, is a Poil de Carotte boy reporter who gets caught up in an intrigue involving a ship in a bottle, car & motorcycle chases, hidden treasure, pirates, pickpockets, mirages, a glass-cracking opera singer, etc. etc. Working from a script by Stephen Moffat, Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish, Spielberg is in masterly form here, even if the most vivid character in the film—by far, really—is Tintin’s dog Snowy ("Milou"), always way ahead of the action & saving the day.

We Bought a Zoo—The title is the answer to a question: What did you do because of your grief over your wife’s untimely death? Desperate to reconnect with his kids, Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) buys a rundown rural California animal park that comes handily equipped with Scarlett Johansson as head keeper. The script, very loosely adapted from Mee’s memoir by Aline Brosh McKenna & director Cameron Crowe, freely mixes broad comedy & teen romance with pretty somber bereavement drama. The result isn’t quite the lightweight entertainment that it's being marketed as, & it’s a little overlong, but on the whole it’s an agreeable picture, well-acted & beautifully shot, & though Crowe doesn’t allow them to upstage the humans, the animals are lovely.

RIP to Robert Easton, passed on at 81. A veteran character actor whose credits ranged from The Red Badge of Courage to Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea to The Giant Spider Invasion, he’s most famous as one of Hollywood’s busiest dialect & accent coaches.

Finally, a wistful note: My pal the Midnite Movie Mamacita has announced that her venue The Royale in downtown Mesa will be closing permanently at the end of business Christmas Eve, after just six lively & memorable months. This comes two months after the closing of Farrelli’s on Scottsdale Road; Barry Graham suspects here that FilmBar downtown could be the next to go.

Best of luck to the Mamacita on whatever her next venture may be. The Royale’s final selection is, appropriately, both seasonal & deeply f**ked-up: Black Christmas, a Canadian horror picture of 1974 (the French-Canadian version was known as Un Noel Tragique). Employing techniques that John Carpenter would popularize four years later in Halloween, this influential film offers us the POV of a panting, slavering maniac stalking a sorority house just before Christmas break, ogling such residents as Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder and Andrea Martin. John Saxon plays the cop, and Keir Dullea is on hand as a creepy pianist.

Though it's no more realistic than any other slasher movie, this one has a pervasive luridness that makes it a really queasy, unsettling piece of work, and somehow the queasiness is magnified by the fact that it shares a director, the late Bob Clark, with that warmest, funniest, most beloved of Christmas movies, 1983's A Christmas Story. It might be called The Anti-Christmas Story.

Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays to all, & to all of us, a lifetime of Christmases infinitely merrier than the one depicted in that film.

Thursday, December 22, 2011


In acknowledgment of the passing this week of Kim Jong Il…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to Pulgasari, the title character of a 1985 North Korean—that’s right, North Korean—giant-monster movie, a sort of gigantic, scaly, bipedal, fanged ox that eats metal…

Pulgie is the creation of a poor blacksmith in 14th Century Korea. Imprisoned by an evil warlord for refusing to make weapons, the man gives his daughter a tiny horned figure shaped from rice. Soon after, the girl pricks her finger while sewing & accidently drips some blood on this figurine, which comes to life & starts eating—first the needle, then the door latch, then bigger & bigger items, including the weapons of the warlord’s forces.

The more he eats, the larger he grows. Before long the Pulgster is Godzilla-sized, & a Golem-like champion of the peasants against the oppressive warlord.

It’s really a rather charming fantasy—with obvious communist allegorical subtext—but the movie is less famous for its story than for its bizarre backstory: The producer-director, Shin Sang-ok, was a South Korean cinema bigwig who claimed he had been kidnapped in Hong Kong in 1978 by agents of Kim—like many dictators, a fanatical movie buff—& held in North Korea to build up the North Korean movie industry.

After making several films including Pulgasari for Kim, Shin managed to escape, along with his actress wife, to the U.S. Embassy in Vienna while on a business trip in 1986. He ended up in Hollywood, where he directed and/or produced stuff like 3 Ninjas Knuckle Up under the name Simon Sheen, before returning in 1994 to South Korea, where he died in 2006.

Years ago I went to some trouble & expense to obtain a bootleg copy of Pulgasari, but you, if you wish, may watch the movie in its entirety on Youtube, starting here.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


RIP to the great Vaclav Havel, dissident playwright &, in one of the coolest twists in 20th century international politics, President of the Czech Republic, passed on at 75. I had the honor to appear in the U.S. premiere (so we were told, anyway) of Havel’s play Mistake at the Scena Theatre in Washington, D.C. in the mid-‘80s. My favorite of his works, however, is his wonderful, self-deprecating comedy Audience (1975), maybe the most generous-hearted political play of the 20th Century.

On the other end of the political spectrum, RIP also—since my ultimate hope for all beings is eternal peace—to the mad & murderous Kim Jong Il of North Korea, departed at 69.

Finally, RIP to former child actress Susan Gordon of the Twilight Zone episode “The Fugitive” & other TV & films, passed on at 62.

Friday, December 16, 2011


To the list that includes The Tempest & Robinson Crusoe & Swiss Family Robinson & Lord of the Flies & The Blue Lagoon & Castaway & all the other tales of maroonings on desert islands we may now add a new title: Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked. There’s a twist this time, though. The others are about mankind struggling to survive against the primal forces of nature, while Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked is about chipmunks struggling to survive against the primal forces of nature.
The title cheats a little for the sake of a pun: There’s no shipwreck. Carnival Cruise Lines, aboard whose opulent vessel the singing rodent trio are vacationing, would likely have been less forthcoming with the product-placement dough if there was. Instead, Alvin, Simon & Theodore are swept overboard due to Alvin’s hijinx, along with their distaff counterparts the Chipettes, Brittany, Jeanette & Eleanor.
Their manager/adoptive father Dave Seville gives chase, along with comic villain Ian Hawke (David Cross), & all of them end up marooned on a tropical island. There they encounter a wacky young castaway woman (Jenny Slate), a spider whose bite radically changes Simon’s personality, a treasure, a volcano, & many of the other standard tropes of the genre.
For the unitiated: The Chipmunks were created in 1958 by a struggling songwriter named Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. Bagdasarian’s earlier claim to fame was co-writing (with William Saroyan!) the Rosemary Clooney hit “Come On-a My House.” In ’58 he concocted “The Witch Doctor,” which employed his own voice, sped up to give it a high-pitched, cartoony sound. The same year, Bagdasarian used the same technique on “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late),” providing the voices for all three rodents—wiseguy Alvin, cerebral Simon & sweet Theodore—as well as that of Dave. The record’s wild success led to dozens more albums, as well as TV shows & animated movies.
The elder Bagdasarian died in 1972, after which his son Ross Jr. took over the family business, including the singing duties for all four characters. He was replaced in the 2007 feature & its 2009 “Squeakquel,” however, by the voices of Justin Long, Matthew Gray Gubler & Jesse McCartney as Alvin, Simon & Theodore, respectively, & by Jason Lee (of My Name is Earl) as Dave.
The first two films were big box-office, so this third outing was probably inevitable. How is it? Well, you know, it’s a Chipmunk movie. They sing, they dance, they do wacky stuff. There are throwaway gag references to everything from Lord of the Rings to Sarah Palin, & they made me chuckle here and there, but what’s important is that my nine-year-old sat stock-still & watched the whole thing & seemed well satisfied by the investment of her time & attention. So I guess it’s a good movie.
RIP to Christopher Hitchens, departed at 62, & also to two comic-book giants: Jerry Robinson, creator of Robin the Boy Wonder & probably of the Joker as well, at 89, & Joe Simon, creator of Captain America, at 98.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


That great movie star Kirk Douglas celebrated his 95th birthday this month. So…

Monster-of-the-Week: …in his honor this week let’s give the nod to one of his less celebrated outings, as both title roles in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—a musical TV version from 1972 (no relation to Frank Wildhorn’s cult-favorite 1997 musical Jekyll & Hyde).

I vividly remember watching this curio as a kid & finding it embarrassing even then. But it has a terrific cast; in addition to Douglas, there’s Donald Pleasance, Susan George, Susan Hampshire, Stanley Holloway and Sir Michael freakin’ Redgrave. If you have an hour and eighteen minutes to kill, you can judge for yourself; it’s viewable in its entirety here.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Phoenix Film Critics Society, of which Your Humble Narrator is a proud founding member, has announced its 2011 Award Nominees; you can check them out here.

Some of them reflect my nominations, some don’t, but there are a lot of movies & performances on this list worth seeing. The winners will be announced December 27.

Monday, December 12, 2011


The Wife happened upon this nice blog post about my late pal, KPHO-TV film critic & host Bill Rocz. The post links, at the end, to this article I wrote for New Times about Bill just after his passing.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


RIP to Henry “Harry” Morgan, departed at 96. Famous for Dragnet & the later seasons of M*A*S*H—though his best work on M*A*S*H was a hilarious guest-shot, as an unhinged & racist general, in the earlier seasons—Morgan was one of those actors that are so familiar that it’s easy not to notice how genuinely good & skillful & quietly real they were. This shows up at times even in the many mostly dreary late-vintage M*A*S*H episodes, but abundantly among his many film roles—notably, as Henry Fonda’s partner in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943). A friend also pointed out to me that he & Jack Webb were the bad guys in the 1951 noir Appointment With Danger.
RIP also to actor Bill McKinney, who despite a long & varied career is best remembered by far as one of the rapists... Deliverance (1972)—a terrifying performance which immortalized the phrase “squeal like a pig”—departed at 80, to disco (& also porn) veteran Andrea True, departed at 68, & to Dobie Gray of “Drift Away” fame, who has drifted away at 71.

RIP, also, to my love affair with Chick-fil-A. I’m not proud of this, but I really, really loved those freakin’ sandwiches. They’re probably my all-time favorite fast food. Until this changes, however, they’ve sold me my last bird, & in the meantime they can kiss my ass.

So, in recognition of Chick-fil-A’s rottenness…

Monster-of-the-Week: …how about this Brobdingnagian broiler, this ponderous piece of poultry, from the cover of a 1961 Classics Illustrated adaptation of Food of the Gods by H.G. Wells:

Saturday, December 3, 2011


Playing through Thursday at the Harkins Shea 14 in Scottsdale is The Women on the 6th Floor (Les Femmes du 6eme Etage), Philippe le Guay’s mild social comedy about a persnickety stockbroker (Fabrice Luchini) who bonds with his ravishing, unflappable new maid (Natalia Verbeke), & through her with the other Spanish domestics in the servants quarters in his building in early ‘60s Paris.

It’s a sweet, sly spin on class relations, well worth seeing for the deeply funny performances of every member of the cast. Along with Luchini & the breathtaking Verbeke, I especially liked Lola Duenas as the Communist maid, smiling with unoffended incredulity at everyone’s naïvete. Lord knows what this character would have to say, however, about this sentimental tale, which seems to hinge on the same “enormous platitude” that Orwell ascribes to Dickens: “If men would behave decently the world would be decent.

My brother made me aware of this story, about the chapel in the cemetery near Evans City, Pennsylvania that appears at the beginning of Night of the Living Dead, & of a fundraising attempt to save it. You can donate here, & here is a New Times story I wrote about a peculiar experience I had at that cemetery.

RIP to the truly hilarious Alan Sues of Laugh-In, passed on at 85, & to the truly hilarious Patrice O’Neal, passed on at just 41.

Thursday, December 1, 2011


In memory of Ken Russell, departed this week…

Monster-of-the-Week: …the honor goes to Lady Sylvia Marsh, the seductive but lethal snake-woman played by Amanda Donohoe in Lair of the White Worm, Russell’s 1988 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s fevered final novel of 1911 (based, in turn, on the legend of the Lambton Worm):

This lightweight but genuinely witty little film is maybe my favorite of Russell’s works, formidable though The Devils (1971) is. White Worm’s imagery is sexy in a marvelously adolescent way, Donohoe is unforgettable, & there’s a charming early performance by Hugh Grant, posh & self-deprecating as ever, as one of the young heroes.

By far the best thing in the movie, however, is this song.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Much as I admire Sid and Nancy, & love Repo Man, my favorite movie from nervy Brit director Alex Cox—it topped my Top Ten list in Phoenix New Times the year it played here in Phoenix, as I recall—is his little-known Highway Patrolman, or El Patrullero. I think it’s one of the most neglected movies of the ‘90s, & one of the simplest & best of all cop movies.

A Mexican police drama almost entirely in Spanish, directed by a Brit, & written & produced by a Peruvian-Irish-American, Lorenzo O’Brien, is not the sort of thing you see every day. But what’s really unusual about Highway Patrolman, paradoxically, is how straightforward it is. Cox eschews the surreal flights & outré eccentricities of his other films in favor of a standard action-thriller structure, & lets the change of scenery drain off its banality.

The title character, played by Roberto Sosa, is named Pedro Rojas, but he might as well be named Pedro Verde—when we first meet him, fresh from the academy, he’s comically green. Even though his instructors make it clear that he’s a cog in a kleptocracy—they tell him flatly, in the opening scene, of anyone he chooses to pull over, that “they’ve always broken the law,” & it’s up to him only to figure out how—he initially tries, as he prowls the desolate Durango roads to which he’s been assigned, to behave honorably.

We soon see that not only does the system make it impossible for Pedro to stay pure, but that the mere attempt makes him ridiculous (though likably so). The episodes which follow dramatize the erosion of this idealism, as Pedro gets married, has a kid, gets wounded in a shooting, drinks too much, begins an affair with a soulful prostitute. Eventually, his insistence upon clinging to a few shreds of decency endangers his life.

Police forces in America tend, even when they aren’t overtly corrupt or brutal, to favor the interests of economic or racial elites. Even when we understand this, American audiences accept cops as movie & TV heroes, yet we have no problem seeing cops in other countries, especially someplace like Mexico, depicted as uniformed gangsters. Without suggesting that foreign police are paragons, Highway Patrolman, through its guileless title character, can gently push us to reconsider the stereotypes of our fiction, & how they shape our view of the real world.

Don’t misunderstand, it’s a perfectly enjoyable picture—tightly scripted, evenly-paced, funny, exciting—all on the surface, with no subtextual cultural analysis. Yet by being entirely conventional in an unconventional context, Highway Patrolman manages to seem brilliantly original.

Kudos to Microcinema International for making this small gem available on DVD, for the first time in North America. The disc includes commentary by Cox & O’Brien, a couple of documentaries, & Cox’s early short Edge City, aka Sleep is for Sissies.

By the way, Microcinema International is running a holiday sale through the end of the year—you can get Highway Patrolman or any of the other interesting releases in their catalog at 40 to 50% off, details here.

RIP to another self-consciously provocative Brit filmmaker, Ken Russell, passed on Sunday at 84.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


Literalism is the joke behind the new computer-animated feature Arthur Christmas. It’s right there in the poster: “Ever wonder how 2 Billion presents get delivered in 1 night?”

2 billion kids have wondered the same thing, & also how reindeer can fly, & how Santa gets down the chimney, etc. According to Arthur Christmas, nowadays it’s accomplished via a massive, technologically sophisticated process involving a city-sized, rocket-powered sleigh, & countless elves operating like commandos, rappelling down the sides of buildings & through windows SWAT-team-style to plant gifts & leave traces that simulate Santa’s visit.

The real Santa (voiced by Jim Broadbent) is at the center of it all, as an ineffectual figurehead, hustled here & there by the elves. The real brains of the outfit, & his itching presumptive heir, is his son Steve (Hugh Laurie), who runs the show from a palatial mission control back at the North Pole & resents his father’s refusal to retire & pass him the reins. The retired senior Santa (Bill Nighy) watches & scoffs at the newfangled spectacle from his rooms.

The title character is Santa’s recessive younger son, who works answering letters, & truly cares about the kids. When Arthur (James McAvoy) learns of a glitch in Steve’s system—a little girl in a small town in Cornwall hasn’t been given her bicycle—he’s appalled that his father & Steve are prepared to just blow it off, as within the margin for error. With just a few hours left before sunrise in England, Arthur & his grandfather set out to make the delivery old-school, using a sled, reindeer, a gift-wrap-obsessed elf & a bit of magic dust. All does not go smoothly.

It does go hilariously, however. This blend of “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus” with Apollo 13 is one of the more inventive Christmas movies I’ve seen in a long time.

A product of Aardman Studios—the folks that brought us the Wallace and Grommit films—it’s dizzyingly imaginative on a visual level, & despite the sentimentality inherent in the storyline, it isn’t mawkish, probably because it’s so bracingly honest about creeping institutional impersonality. I also liked the shades of gray in the characters—Arthur is lovable but clueless; without his less warmhearted, more competent relations he’d be helpless. The crotchety Santa emeritus, also lovable, has his own selfish reasons for wanting to make the run, & Steve & father aren’t presented as soulless.

In reality, of course, the charming tradition of giving Christmas gifts has degenerated over the decades into an angst-ridden consumerist nightmare driven by a technological juggernaut far more pitiless than that depicted in the film, with Santa Claus, that fascinating composite of diverse cultural traditions, reduced to its mascot. Arthur Christmas carries, & is deepened by, a rueful awareness of this corruption under its merry, bright surface.

Happy Thanxgiving everybody, by the way. The holiday weekend box office will likely be dominated by Muppets, & that’s fine, but it would be a pity if, because of that, Arthur Christmas was overlooked by audiences.

Speaking of the Muppets…

Monster-of-the-Week: …in honor of their new movie, here’s a Halloween greeting I received, depicting the iconic Miss Piggy as another icon…

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


“The characterizations were amusing, but they always reminded me of bad carpeting.” Thus did a curmudgeonly friend of mine recently explain why he never liked the Muppets.

It is, to put it mildly, a minority opinion. The Muppets are one of those rare acts that operates squarely in the mainstream of wholesome, family-approved entertainment, yet has just the right edge of pure, irresistible silliness to make them hip—& maybe the faintest hint of kinkiness as well, as in Gonzo’s masochism & his seemingly polygamist interest in chickens. Almost everybody, Your Humble Narrator included, loves the Muppets. Indeed, their low-tech, old-school showbiz tactility is one of the keys to their charm—many of us love them because they remind us of bad carpeting.

For the newest film version, however, the Muppets have been recast as underdogs, has-beens. The premise of The Muppets is that Kermit, Fozzie, Piggy, Animal et al are forgotten relics of the ‘80s. When Kermit, lonely behind the gates of his faded Bel-Air mansion, learns that a rotten one-percenter named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) wants to tear down the old Muppet Studios to drill for oil, he gets together the old gang to put on a telethon to save them.

This formula Let’s-Put-On-Show plot is really secondary, however, to the story of Walter, a fanatical Muppets fan who is, manifestly, also a Muppet himself (voiced by Peter Linz). This is doubly odd because Walter’s brother Gary (Jason Segel, who also co-scripted, with Nicholas Stoller), is human, as is Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams), as is everyone else we see in their smalltown home. So when the three of them travel to L.A. & get caught up in the Muppet’s adventures, Walter feels truly at home for the first time.

At one point Walter gushes to the Muppets that they give people the greatest gift, laughter, & the Muppets protest, pointing out at least two greater gifts. But the third-greatest gift is nothing to be sneezed at, & The Muppets delivers a generous dose of it. The screening audience with whom I saw the film received it rapturously; I enjoyed it greatly but I think it’s the third-greatest Muppet movie, after the sublime Muppet Christmas Carol of 1992 & the original 1979 effort, The Muppet Movie.

The script is laced with in-jokes & period references & parodies of dramatic clichés, genuinely witty but aimed more, perhaps, at nostalgic adults than at the kids in the audience, as are the many, many celebrity cameos. Also, the movie seems—and this isn’t a criticism I find myself handing down very often—a little talky.

Don’t get me wrong—the upsides of The Muppets far outweigh these minor reservations. They include: Cooper, who’s pretty droll in the obligatory bad guy part, & who delivers a sensational rap; the new songs, by Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords, working in the style, if not quite on the level, of Paul Williams, & the old songs, including “The Rainbow Connection” & Piero Umiliani’s unshakeable “Mahna Mahna.” This movie even found, at last, a redemptive good use for that horribly catchy ‘80s embarrassment “We Built This City.”

Finally, there’s Kermit, pained & sheepishly idealistic as ever. Steve Whitmire still reproduces Jim Henson’s voice characterization flawlessly, & whoever actually operates Kermit gets extraordinarily fine shades of feeling on his face. Many a highly-paid non-amphibian star doesn’t have nearly as expressive a pan.

Friday, November 18, 2011


2006’s Happy Feet was a truly crazy movie, a blend of Pixar-style animation, Bollywood musical & a streak of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Set in a world in which penguins sing to connect with their soul-mates, the film focused on the unfortunate young Mumble, unable to carry a tune but endowed with a natural talent for tap-dancing.

It starts off, in short, as a fable about nonconformity & finding your own individual path—a good joke right off the bat, in the black-&-white uniformity of the penguin rookery (in The Far Side, Gary Larson once depicted a single penguin amongst the multitudes belting out “I’ve Gotta Be Me”). But by the end, director George Miller had spun the film from a sweet, if deeply eccentric, underdog tale into a grandiose environmentalist vision for which the word epic is hardly sufficient—“cosmic” would be more like it.

I’d be tempted to say it’s a one-of-a-kind movie, but as of this weekend, it’s not. A major box-office hit & an Oscar-winner besides, Happy Feet could hardly fail to spawn a sequel, & here it is, some five years later. In Happy Feet Two, Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood) has the penguins mixing some fancy footwork in with their stirring oratorios—the tiny feet often splashing in ominous melt-water—but alas his own son Erik, ironically enough, isn’t much of a dancer. Poor Erik runs away from the shame of this, accompanied by two loyal pals, & Mumble heads off to find them.

While they’re gone, a huge chunk of Antarctic ice collides with the rookery, sealing thousands of penguins, including Erik’s Mom Gloria (voiced by Alecia Moore, aka Pink, replacing the late Brittany Murphy), off from the ocean. So it’s up to Mumble, Erik & his friends to try to find a way to save them—from hunger, from marauding skuas, & from general despair. Their allies this time include the Latin-accented Adelie penguin Ramon (Robin Williams) & his colony, elephant seals, electric-guitar-playing human researchers &, albeit unwittingly, two nearly-microscopic krill (Brad Pitt & Matt Damon) who have broken away from their enormous swarm to strike out on their own existential search for identity.

There’s also, of all birds, a puffin—named Sven, & voiced complete with Nordic accent by Hank Azaria—who has somehow found his way to the other end of the world. He’s been mistaken for a penguin who can fly, which gives him the status of a sort of self-improvement spiritual leader.

In other words, like the first film, Happy Feet Two is another big helping of off-the-wall weirdness. But also like the first film, it’s funny & good-hearted, & the musical numbers—which, a la Bollywood, freely mix snatches of the Rawhide theme, grand opera & Queen & Bowie’s “Under Pressure”—are thrilling, both in their relentless rhythms & in Miller’s dazzling, undulating visual perspectives.

Miller’s apparent purpose, this time, is to stave off the sense of despair that many of us feel over the seeming futility of individual action in the environmental struggle. The moral which the movie asserts—it’s also on the poster—is “Every Step Counts.” To this I can only say: I hope so.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Recently my sister mentioned that her favorite monster was…

Monster-of-the-Week: …Herman Munster, devoted head & principal breadwinner of the Munster family residing at 1313 Mockingbird Lane in the TV sitcom which ran from 1964-1966, & became a major hit in afterschool reruns. So in light of the news that a new, "darker" version of The Munsters is in the works, Herman’s our honoree this week…

Played by the late Fred Gwynne, in the role for which, despite much other fine work, he is most remembered, Herman is possibly the sweetest & most guileless of all monsters. His only real faults are an overenthusiastic streak & a penchant for brief (though earth-shaking) temper-tantrums.

Also, his wife is seriously hot.

Here’s an eyebrow-raising excerpt from the Munsters episode where Herman tries out for the Dodgers. Check out Leo Durocher comparing the family to “wetbacks in the Petrified Forest” & wondering, after Herman’s devastating at-bat, “…whether to sign him with the Dodgers or send him to Vietnam.”

Speaking of baseball, Diamondbacks skipper Kirk Gibson has, rightly, been named National League Manager of the Year. Yay!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Out on DVD this month is Atlas Shrugged: Part One. This filming of part of Ayn Rand’s doorstopper for douchebags was numbingly amateurish, almost unwatchable—you can read my review here—but the stories surrounding its production & marketing have been highly entertaining. This may be the funniest of them, however: The packaging for the DVD mistakenly used the word “self-sacrifice,” in place of “self-interest.” Appalled at the very idea that they might be promoting self-sacrifice, the producers are offering a replacement.

RIP to sad-eyed Cynthia Myers of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, one of the most glorious of the Russ Meyer stars, passed on at 61.

Friday, November 11, 2011


One of the more alarming things I notice, as my half-century mark approaches, is how many people I’ve watched not only grow up from childhood, but turn the corner & begin the march toward middle-age themselves. There aren’t many more striking examples of this than Leonardo DiCaprio.

I remember when he was the little kid on Growing Pains, & the period when he appeared in movies like The Quick and the Dead & Total Eclipse & his voice had that grating, screechy sound to it, & then his relatively dignified tenure as a teen idol in the wake of Titanic. I never thought I’d be able to take him seriously as anyone older than twenty-three, but within a few years there he was, fine as Howard Hughes in Scorcese’s The Aviator, & over The Departed & Shutter Island & Inception & others he gradually stopped being an overgrown ingénue & became an intelligent, substantive leading man.

Now, at 37, DiCaprio plays the title character in J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood’s episodic biopic of the FBI dark lord. In much of his footage he clumps around his office, dictating his memoirs to a string of subordinates, his boyish, full-cheeked features buried under jowly, chalky-skinned old-age makeup. Hard as it is to believe, Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t seem ridiculous playing a man in his seventies.

He’s just as believable playing Hoover in his twenties, scooting around D.C. in 1919 on a bicycle, stalking communists for the Department of Justice, or struggling, against a ham-fisted tradition, to get some semblance of scientific method into American criminal investigations, or gingerly negotiating with his steely mother (Judi Dench) for her approval. By this account, Edgar doesn’t seem to have had much of a father figure; his old man, played in a very brief but memorable turn by Jack Donner, seems to have wandered in from a Gothic horror movie.

We see the middle-vintage Hoover, gradually amassing power with the help of his platonic Lady Macbeth, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), or bonding with his inseparable deputy Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), & eventually learning how to politely blackmail Attorneys General & Presidents. In a quiet way, DiCaprio gives Hoover a complex character—he truly believes in & aspires to his own wholesome-gangbuster vision, but he also knows very well that he’s faking it, & it terrifies him.

Aside from the performances of DiCaprio & his costars, J. Edgar is less successful—it’s a hurried, harried, cluttered chronicle history, fast-paced without any particular dramatic urgency. Eastwood is skillful enough, & Hoover’s story is astounding enough, that the film can’t fail to be interesting & watchable. But the script, by Dustin Lance Black, is a lesser piece of work than his screenplay for Milk. Black & Eastwood hustle us, with little context, past some of the more colorful Hoover highlights—Emma Goldman, Bruno Hauptmann, Alvin Karpis. But the movie’s real interest is Hoover’s personal life, particularly as regards his longtime companion Tolson.

Though the depictions of Hoover & Tolson’s intimate life are necessarily speculative, Black & Eastwood remain mum as to whether their relationship was ever consummated. Still, the movie’s best scenes are built on what seems reasonably evident, even from their public life: that they were a married couple. The relevance of this, from Black & Eastwood’s point of view, is presumably that Hoover’s style as Director of the FBI—his bullying, secretive paranoia, his intense image-consciousness—arose inevitably from his psychology as a closeted man. This is the hypothesis which occurs to many of us armchair shrinks from reading even a superficial account of Hoover’s career, so I don’t know that it qualifies as any great insight by itself.

It does link to a great & terribly relevant subject, though: that part of the American national psyche that allowed Hoover to thrive for so long. This, I’m afraid, is just what the movie misses, & it’s why J. Edgar, though well-made & rich in period detail, never really becomes an epic. The movie is never deliberately campy—there is a crossdressing scene, but strikingly it comes at a solemn, tragic moment—and I appreciated that Eastwood & Black don’t mock Hoover for the pain & misery that, perhaps, helped to produce his outrages. But I don’t know that their movie ever fully acknowledges the pain & misery that he inflicted on others.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Driving south on Galvin Parkway Wednesday evening around sunset, Your Humble Narrator saw giant ants crawling down a hillside. No kidding:

Even though I had heard about this exhibit at Desert Botanical Gardens, I was still startled for a split second. Because…

Monster-of-the-Week: …a few weeks ago, The Kid & I watched the peerless 1954 giant ant movie Them! So the nod this week goes, for the second time, to any individual he or she or it belonging to the aggregate them! from that film…

(By the way, herewith is a policy change for Monster-of-the-Week: I have decided that I may sometimes reuse a monster, or even recycle some or all of what I wrote about him/her/it.)

RIP Heavy D, departed at 44. Hooray for the unseating of Russell Pearce. Finally, for the record, Joe Paterno & his PSU colleagues are a disgrace, & sadly it appears this would be true even in the unlikely event that the charges against Sandusky were proven false.

Monday, November 7, 2011


After the screening of Martha Marcy May Marlene, I had the opportunity to participate in a brief roundtable interview with the director, Sean Durkin. You can read my very short Q&A piece here, on JabCat on Movies.

The star, Elizabeth Olsen, was also there; she told me her influences included “Sinatra musicals,” & that her acting idols were Annette Bening, Diane Keaton, Kate Winslet & Michelle Pfeiffer.

By the way, Beavis and Butt-head are back on MTV, with new adventures—like the Peanuts gang, or Bart Simpson, they’ve done an admirable job of staying young since we last saw them, in 1997. My friends know I’m a great fan of the lads & their creator, the estimable Mike Judge, but even so I was willing to glumly admit it if it seemed to me that the world had moved on & the new shows just weren’t the same.

Well, I’ve watched several episodes now, & apparently imbecility is always in style, at least for me. The new shows convulsed me just like the old ones did. For all the excellence & subtlety of King of the Hill & Office Space & Idiocracy, I think that B&B is Judge’s true masterpiece.

RIP to commentator Andy Rooney, departed at 92, screenwriter Hal Kanter, departed at 92, & heavyweight great Joe Frazier, departed at 67.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


At the beginning of Martha Marcy May Marlene, the title character—all those names are hers—flees a cult in rural upstate New York. In desperation, she calls her older sister Lucy, who’s had no idea of her whereabouts for the past couple of years. Lucy comes & picks her up, & takes her to the upscale Connecticut lake house she’s summering at with her Brit husband Ted.

Played by Elizabeth Olsen, Martha—her original name—is affectless, so cowed she’s barely articulate. She’ll only tell her puzzled relations (Sarah Paulson & Hugh Dancy) that she left a bad boyfriend, but she offers no details. We, however, get to see what happened to her, in a series of flashbacks. We see how, rudderless after her mother’s death, Martha is drawn into the cult, & gradually, skillfully has her identity stripped away, even to the point of getting the new name “Marcy May” (“Marlene” comes later).

The group in question doesn’t seem to be religious in nature, though we aren’t given much of a sense of its ideology, or even if it has a very clear one. It’s more in the secular self-help line, with a streak of hippie-commune hedonism. Above all, it’s a cult of personality, & the personality in question is Patrick, played by John Hawkes of Winter’s Bone.

Patrick has a casual, friendly, yet faintly wounded manner, like somebody who’s sad that you don’t want to stay longer at his party, but before long we can see that this covers a bottomless emotional & sexual tyranny. Under the precise, patient, un-sensationalistic eye of writer/director Sean Durkin, we see Patrick lead his flock, with disturbing plausibility, into more & more sinister realms.

By the time Martha is in her sister’s care, she’s so accustomed to the cult’s mores that her behavior is shockingly inappropriate at times. She’ll strip naked for a swim, turn weirdly aggressive at the dinner table, even come & sit on the edge of Lucy’s bed while she & Ted are noisily making love.

Here, perhaps, is a small glitch in the film’s believability—Lucy & Ted understandably suspect that Martha is mentally ill, or maybe just intolerably obtuse. But it’s maddeningly apparent that if she once just said the word “cult,” or “group” or “compound,” everybody would slap themselves on the forehead & say “Oh, that explains it.” Since Martha had the clarity to see that she should run away & the courage to do so, that she would then decline to explain herself seems more like a dramatic strategy for maintaining suspense than a psychological trait.

Maybe, maybe not; in any case it’s a minor quibble. MMMM is a remarkable film, controlled, spooky & poignant. It has one of those frustratingly abrupt, literary-fiction-type endings that one gets in indies sometimes, but this is less irritating here than it was in, for instance, Meek’s Cutoff earlier this year.

Most notably, MMMM showcases some fine performances, by the chilling Hawkes, by Paulson, Dancy & several others, but above all by Olsen, the hugely promising younger sister of Mary-Kate & Ashley. Olsen brings to vivid, moving life Martha’s struggle, both pathetic & heroic, to stay connected to her original name.

Friday, November 4, 2011


In Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito), Antonio Banderas plays Dr. Ledgard, a brilliant reconstructive surgeon whose wife died after being burned in a car accident. Ledgard is developing an artificial skin, resistant to burns & insect bites. In his beautiful Toledo home, he has his own laboratory & operating room. He also has a prisoner.

Held in a comfortable upstairs suite, doing yoga in a bodysuit the color & texture of an ace bandage & receiving her meals & supplies via dumbwaiter, is Vera (Elena Anaya), a beautiful young woman. She’s the doc’s unwilling long-term patient & guinea pig, from whence isn’t clear at first. But she seems, under the bodysuit, to be wearing the Doc’s synthetic skin—exquisitely.

Horror-movie geeks like me will recognize in the synopsis above a tissue of motifs from innumerable earlier European shockers dealing with the attempt to restore old or damaged skin, & make the restoration permanent, ranging from The Awful Dr. Orloff (1962) to Atom Age Vampire (1963) to Countess Dracula (1971) to the hilarious Corruption (1968), but above all to Georges Franju’s unforgettable French classic Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1960). Almodovar himself has called it a horror movie, though without overt shocks.

While this description is accurate enough, I hope it doesn’t ghettoize The Skin I Live In for those with a distaste for the genre. The director plays this potent, violent, sexually graphic melodrama straight, or at least with no more than the tip of his tongue in cheek. Banderas, in what can only be described as a mad scientist role, underplays superbly & makes the Doc convincing; it’s a commanding star turn, maybe the best of his career. The stunning Anaya makes the mysterious Vera’s plight touching, & Marisa Paredes makes Ledgard’s faithful servant—a role reminiscent of Alida Valli’s in Eyes Without a Face—unnerving without camp.

I’ve always enjoyed & admired Almodovar for his wit, his imagination, & his eye on glorious women. But his movies have often seemed to me to suffer from a streak of whimsy for whimsy’s sake that limits their impact. Volver, his spellbinding non-supernatural ghost story of 2006, was an impressive step away from this, & so is Skin—I think it may be my favorite of the many Almodovar films I’ve seen over the years.

For about the first half of the movie, though I was carried along by scene after tense scene—& also by the excellent score by Alberto Iglesias, driving & suspenseful but never clichéd—part of me also feared that Almodovar was slumming, using the horror trappings as a gimmick. But again & again, what looks like a self-consciously colorful Almodovar flourish—a man showing up at the door in a tiger costume, for instance—turns out to make perfect sense in the story.

Eventually you realize that the script, which Almodovar & his brother Augustin loosely adapted from a French novel by Thierry Jonquet, is going to pull all its strange flashbacks & subplots together into a coherent & jolting whole. It’s one of the best movies of the year.

RIPs: To producer/director Gilbert Cates, noted for his many Oscar shows, departed at 77, & also to actor Leonard Stone, 87, veteran of films like Soylent Green & Mame & plentiful TV, but most remembered as Sam Beauregard in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


Let’s turn to mythology…

Monster-of-the-Week: …for this week’s honoree: Cerberus, the three-headed hound of Hades. Here's the multi-pooch, as depicted by William Blake…

But the real reason I wanted to give him the nod is that my sister recently sent me some photos of dog Halloween costumes, & this one…

…was easily my favorite.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Here’s an inventory of The Kid’s Halloween take:

5 Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups

7 Kit Kat bars

4 Starburst Fruit Chews

2 Twizzlers

2 Nerds

6 bags of M&Ms

3 boxes of Milk Duds

3 Laffy Taffy

3 Butterfinger

4 Skittles

2 Smarties

2 Dots

12 Tootsie Rolls

2 Baby Ruth

1 Twix

1 3 Musketeers

1 Milky Way

2 Lemonheads

1 Heath Bar

1 $100,000 Bar

3 Snickers

4 Whoppers

2 Jolly Ranchers

1 bag of Candy Corn

2 Sour Patch Kids

1 Swedish Fish

2 Gummy Candies

1 Hershey Chocolate Bar

1 bag of Doritos (Cool Ranch)

5 Nestle Crunch Bars

2 Pixie Stix

8 lollipops

Sunday, October 30, 2011


Happy Halloween Eve!

Your Humble Narrator got to spend a jolly hour-&-a-half Saturday evening talking scary movies on KTAR's Jay Lawrence Show, along with Phoenix Film Critics Society President David Ramsey. Among the callers, The Exorcist won the poll as scariest movie ever by about a half-dozen votes.

In honor of the day, let's do a bonus monster: The time has come, I think, to officially acknowledge one of the very greatest of all time...

Halloween Bonus Monster-of-the-Week: ...Boris Karloff’s incarnation of The Frankenstein Monster…

Karloff played the role just three times, in Universal’s original 1931 version, which The Kid & I watched the other day, & in the first two sequels, The Bride of Frankenstein—the only one in which he speaks as the character—& Son of Frankenstein (decades later he donned the makeup again, for an episode of the TV series Route 66). But his poignant, entirely sympathetic performances set a standard for acting in horror movies that has rarely been equaled, & probably never surpassed.

Not that Karloff's was the only worthy interpretation of the character. At 11:45 a.m. (MST) tomorrow is another fine Frankie: Christopher Lee in The Curse of Frankenstein. Lee’s makeup...

...more closely resembles the description of the character in Shelley’s novel, although, like Karloff, he doesn’t speak at all, much less spout high Miltonic rhetoric, like the book’s Monster.

Here, by the way, is a superb portrait of Lee's Monster, drawn as a teenager by Ed Naha, the veteran writer of & on horror: