Monday, May 30, 2011


Hope that everybody had a great Memorial Day.

Opening this past weekend was Kung Fu Panda 2, with Jack Black providing the voice of the rotund title creature, Po by name.

The adopted son of a goose restaurateur (James Hong), Po fights for freedom & justice in an ancient China populated by talking animals, as part of a band of Kung Fu warriors: a Tigress (Angelina Jolie), a Crane (David Cross), a Mantis (Seth Rogen), a Monkey (Jackie Chan) & a Viper (Lucy Liu), all of them trained by a sage Red Panda (Dustin Hoffman).

It’s a funny, exciting picture—Rogen gets the best line, when the Mantis describes his dreams for the future. But if you plan to see it, I would urge you to avoid seeing it in 3D.

Of the many films offered in 3D the last couple of years, a large number have been movies for children. It’s been a real enhancement to some of these, but I can’t think of one image or effect in Kung Fu Panda 2 that required more than two dimensions—indeed, the flashback sequences in KFP2 are in old-school “hand-drawn” 2D animation, and are so lovely it occurred to me that the whole film could have been in this style with no loss of beauty.

The trouble, in KFP2, is that the 3D glasses dim out the images onscreen, many of which are already in a dramatic chiaroscuro style. It’s really quite a visually impressive picture, but through the haze of those stupid glasses it becomes dull & murky to look at. If you slip the glasses off, the colors pop vividly, but of course it’s impossible to watch without them on.

I get that studios & exhibitors have latched on to 3D as a way to lure audiences away from home video & pay-per-view & back into the multiplexes. But the technology just isn’t right for every movie. No chance they could consider lowering the price of tickets? Or of popcorn?

RIP to the troubled Jeff Conaway of Grease & Taxi & Babylon 5, passed on at 60. I didn’t know until I read his obit that he & I made the same theatrical debut, as one of the bullies in All the Way Home (he in the original 1960 Broadway production, I at the Erie Playhouse in 1976).

RIP also to Ben Agresti, Artistic Director of the Camille Playhouse in Brownsville, Texas, & a theatre legend in my hometown of Erie. Ben, who passed on this weekend in Texas, played Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1977 at the Brick Barn Theatre in North East, PA, the second play I ever appeared in.

I later worked for Ben several times in dinner theater, notably in California Suite & in Dial M for Murder at Peek’n Peak in Clymer, NY. High theatrical art or not, the latter show was about as much fun as I ever had as an actor.

Friday, May 27, 2011


If you’ve ever had any romantic notions of being a covered wagon pioneer on the American frontier, Meek’s Cutoff will be happy to disabuse you of them. Set in the 1840s, Kelly Reichardt’s film concerns a small party of families led by a hired guide named Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), who has promised to take them on a time-saving “cutoff” to the end of the Oregon Trail.

Low on water, surrounded by vast empty stretches of eastern Oregon desert & terrified of Indian attack, the party begins to grow skeptical of Meek, especially the sharp-eyed Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams). As their desperation mounts, they capture a Cayuse Indian (Rod Rondeaux) who had been keeping them under surveillance. Meek, who reflexively despises Indians, advises killing the man on the spot; Mr. Tetherow (Will Patton) overrules him, on the grounds that the captive could lead them to water.

There really was an historical Stephen Meek, & he really did lead a group of pioneers on an ill-advised “cutoff” through the Oregon Territory in 1845. To what extent he otherwise resembled the character in this movie—a self-conscious embodiment of the “colorful” frontiersman, spinning yarns & getting hopes up—I don’t know.

But Meek the movie character is vividly realized. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Canadian actor Greenwood, who has always seemed to me far more prolific than interesting. But somehow he comes to ebullient life behind the long beard & buckskins—his Stephen Meek is like the prototype of the American reactionary hustler, selling shortcuts to wealth with a side dish of racial terror. Even dressed as he is, he wouldn’t look out of place at a Tea Party Rally, & he really wouldn’t sound all that out of place, either.

His opposite number here is Michelle Williams as Mrs. Tetherow, who knows how little her opinion counts with the party as a whole, though her husband is smart enough to know she’s worth listening to. Meek can see her humane intelligence too, & he can’t resist baiting her in mock-gallant terms, though you sense that she touches a guilty nerve in his soul. Williams, superb in Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, is just as impressive here—she gives us a portrait of a life spent skillfully repressing anger & disgust.

All the actors, for that matter, from the chronically underrated Will Patton to Rondeaux as the handsome, warily smirking Cayuse to Paul Dano & Zoe Kazan & Shirley Henderson from the other wagons, contribute to a believable period ensemble. Jon Raymond’s dialogue is tinged with lyrical formality in the 19th-Century manner, but in the hands of this cast it still sounds like real people talking.

Reichardt’s austere, uncompromising direction & editing, & the pitiless sun-baked cinematography of Chris Blauvelt make Meek’s Cutoff an empathic experience—my desire to see these people find water was intense. But the film isn’t just a grueling survival tale, it’s thought-provoking & dramatic, hinging on quintessentially American issues that still feel relevant.

Indeed, Meek’s Cutoff has just about all the elements one could ask of a classic movie…except an ending. Reichardt & Raymond build the suspense to an excruciating level, & then the film just stops, like one those beautifully-crafted, unsatisfying New Yorker short stories that seem to regard resolution as vulgar. It’s a cutoff of a different sort than Meek’s party experienced, but it leaves us likewise high & dry.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


Apparently either The Rapture didn’t happen, or, as also seems plausible, so few of the contemporary faithful made the cut that their absence hasn’t yet been noticed. In any case, this afternoon The Wife, The Kid & Your Humble Narrator went to Chase Field to see the Diamondbacks scratch out a 3-2 win over the Minnesota Twins, completing a three-game sweep…

Pink D-bax hat from the Team Shop with insipid Minnie Mouse image on it: $25. Pink flowery children’s bat & ball from the Team Shop: $18. Tossing the ball to your kid after the game & watching her belt it out of your freakin' back yard? Seriously priceless…

(photo credits: The Wife)

RIP to Ross Hagen of Daktari, among many, many TV shows & movies, departed at 72. RIP also to the fascinating Leonard Kastle, passed on at 82. Kastle spent most of his career as a composer & director of operas, more than one of which was presented on NBC TV back in the ‘60s. But he also wrote & directed one movie, The Honeymoon Killers (1970), a minor classic of true-crime luridness.

Finally, RIP to songwriter & filmmaker Joseph Brooks, notorious for “You Light Up My Life,” dead at 73, apparently by his own hand. In recent years his life had become about as grim & tabloid-scummy as The Honeymoon Killers.

Thursday, May 19, 2011


Leaving The Day Gig yesterday, I saw & cell-phone photographed this Tarantula Hawk, one of the largest wasps in the world, & rated as having the second most painful sting of all insects…

OK, I admit it, as a nature photographer, I shouldn’t be expecting a call from National Geographic anytime soon. You’ll have to take my word for it—this was a beautiful (& scary-looking) creature.

RIP to Barbara Stuart, Sgt. Carter’s beloved Miss Bunny on Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., passed on at 81, & also to the great Harmon Killebrew, departed at 74.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


RIP to Delores Fuller, best known for proffering Ed Wood her angora sweater at the climax of Glen or Glenda, passed on at 88.

Friday, May 13, 2011


The Serbian film A Serbian Film is violent porn about violent porn. There’s some suggestion that it’s also, subtextually, about the guilty agony that haunts the Serbian soul in the wake of the horrors & atrocities of the Milosevic era, but this comes out in hints & oblique references, on the margins of the movie, so to speak. At bottom, A Serbian Film is a cautionary Grand Guignol shocker about how commercial sex can turn into savagery.
The film, presented Friday & Saturday at Tempe’s MADCAP Theatres by the Midnite Movie Mamacita, centers on porn-movie stud Milos, played by Srdan Todorovic, who resembles a cross between the young Tim Roth & the very young Mickey Rourke. A little long in the tooth for the raunch game, Milos has retired to live quietly with his gorgeous wife (Jelena Gavrilovic) & young son, but, like a bank robber in a caper movie, he’s coaxed out of retirement by an old colleague for one last big score.

Bad move. The gig in question is a film produced by a manic, big-talking hustler called Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic) who insists that he’s going to turn porn into art. He won’t tell Milos what the film’s about, but he makes him a financial offer he can’t refuse. A couple of days into the shoot, Milos finds himself drugged & participating in snuff, rape & other revolting outrages, including some involving, let’s just say, minors.

I’m not going to try to tell you that I’m too cool to be shocked by A Serbian Film, or that I “enjoyed” it in the usual sense of that word. It’s a sickeningly brutal story, & the brutality is by no means free of prurience.

But there’s also no denying that it’s an intelligently-structured, well-acted, gripping piece of work. For the first half-hour, before the depravities of Vukmir’s project become clear, it even has a certain joyless, cold-fish eroticism, and a chilly Balkan wit. As the story progresses, it becomes more fractured & dreamlike, but director & co-writer Srdan Spasojevic doesn’t use this as an excuse for lack of clarity or pace.

At a certain point, though, I hit the wall. I stopped caring about the fate of poor hapless Milos, & while I suppose I wanted to see the loathsome Vukmir punished, what I really wanted was for the movie to be over. In the last ten minutes or so, when the story tumbles over into a frenzied, blood-splattered massacre, it finally became impossible to take it seriously, & I found it a relief.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


Thursday through Sunday, the eleventh annual Arthur Lyons Palm Springs Noir Festival, my favorite film festival in the whole wide world, will be held at the Camelot Theatres on Baristo in beautiful Palm Springs, California, one of my favorite towns in the whole wide world.

 You can read my preview of the fest here, on Jabcat on Movies.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Out on video this week is the absorbing, upsetting true-crime documentary Cropsey. You can read my review of it here.

RIP to the redoubtable Broadway & TV actress Sada Thompson, passed on at 83, & to the flawless Dana Wynter, snatched at 79, less than a year after the death of her Invasion of the Body Snatchers co-star Kevin McCarthy.

Friday, May 6, 2011


Comic book freak though I was as a kid, I wasn’t a Thor reader, so I don’t know how much resemblance the lavish new movie has to its source. In this version, the Thunder God (Chris Hemsworth), against the direct instructions of his old man Odin, mounts an attack on the city of the Frost Giants in response to an attempted infiltration of the heavenly realm of Asgard.

Odin (Anthony Hopkins, gruff & hale as ever) is understandably pissed, & boots the impetuous little snot to earth, stripping him of his superpowers in the process. Thor lands in the New Mexico desert, where he falls in with a lovely young astronomer (Natalie Portman), her Scandinavian mentor (Stellan Skarsgard) & her hip assistant (Kat Dennings). Thor’s fearsome hammer, called Mjolnir, also crashes to earth nearby, but The Big T finds he’s no longer able to wield it.

The theme, in short, as director Kenneth Branagh’s old screenwriter Bill Shakespeare might put it, is that it’s excellent to have a giant’s strength, but tyrannous to use it like a giant.

The fairly complex plot flips back & forth between Asgard, where Thor’s sinister brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is scheming to seize power from Odin, & Earth, where Thor gradually bonds with his new mortal pals, & comes to grips with the newfound limitations on his power. The contrast of the cosmic & mundane settings gives the film some nice variety—either too much Asgard or too much small-town New Mexico would probably get oppressive.

Branagh skillfully serves up an extravagant summer flick, abetted by a lush score from his usual composer Patrick Doyle. The young Australian Hemsworth ought to work out a little if he’s going to walk around shirtless, but otherwise he’s a cheery & agreeable sort of deity. The movie’s Thor doesn’t speak in the quasi-Shakespearean “thee & thou” idiom of the comics, which disappointed me a little—I thought that might have been the reason for the selection of Branagh as director—but perhaps the feeling was that it would have sounded silly in Hemsworth’s Aussie accent.

It was hard for me to shake the sense that the script, credited to five different hands, meant the title character as an allegory for the U.S.—a superpower recklessly starts a pre-emptive war against a whole culture in response to the action of a few, finds itself weakened by this hubris, & must learn humility & circumspection. There’s some awkwardness in trying to offer this moral while still providing the violent power fantasy for which we turn to comic-book stories, but I still found it pleasing that the attempt was made.

The evening before I saw Thor, I saw an extremely strange, very low-budget film called Rubber, which is presented this Friday & Saturday at Tempe’s MADCAP Theater by the Midnite Movie Mamacita. The central character of this one is an ordinary discarded rubber car tire, named Robert. Seemingly ordinary, that is—one day Robert, half-buried in a dump somewhere in the southwestern desert, comes to sentient life, rises from the sand, & rolls off down the highway.

Every now & then Robert encounters some innocent desert creature, & it’s here that he shows his true colors. He pauses in his rolling course, then vibrates, & after a few second the unfortunate little whatever-it-is explodes. Eventually Robert the Tire rolls up alongside human beings, vibrates, & their heads explode, Scanners-style.

Why would all this be happening, you may ask? Well, actually, you wouldn’t ask, if you saw the movie—writer-director Quentin Dupieux beats you to the question. Before the opening titles, one of the actors (Stephen Spinella) speaks straight into the camera. In Spielberg’s E.T., he asks, why is the alien brown? Why do the characters in Love Story fall madly in love with each other? In Oliver Stone’s JFK, why is the title character murdered by strangers? In each case, the man asserts: NO REASON.

These examples all struck me as sophomoric—it seemed like there could be perfectly arguable reasons for each of them. But I saw, & appreciated, the point the moviemakers were making: Great movies all have a streak of NO REASON to them, because life does too.

This meta-movie side of Rubber, which also involves an ineffectual onscreen Greek-chorus audience of random people, standing in the desert watching the action with binoculars, was the least successful aspect of the film for me. It actually begins to seem as if it may be there, at least partly, to pad Rubber out to feature length.

The film is at its best when it sticks to Robert, rolling down the road, leaving a trail of mayhem for NO REASON. Indeed, in these sequences Rubber is horrifying & hilarious & rather magical…& the follow morning, it struck me that Thor, though it depicts eternal cosmic realms, gods & giants & people flying, isn’t magical.

I don’t mean to pick on Thor in particular; it’s a slick yet good-hearted entertainment, perfectly enjoyable on its own terms. But not a frame of it is magical in the same way as the best of Rubber, which offers us nothing but an old tire & some gruesome bursting heads.

Why? Because of computer-generated special effects, that’s why.

Rationally, I get that computer-generated special-effects are just another manifestation of human ingenuity, & that when they’re well-done they’re an enormous expansion of the possibilities of cinema art. But I can’t help it—CGI takes the element of “How’d they do that?” out of watching a movie, because the answer is always “They did it on the computer.” When you can create absolutely any visual effect you want by tapping a keyboard or working a mouse, then absolutely any visual effect, no matter how epic or otherwordly in conception, no matter how seamless in execution, becomes commonplace.

But watching Rubber, I couldn’t spot a single effect that looked computer-generated. Everything looked low-tech, yet the behavior of the tire is so deft & convincing that I spent the first twenty minutes asking “How’d they do that?” & then “How in the Name of God did they do that?” Guide wires? An onboard motor? Running the film backwards? Or did they just roll it into the frame & hope it would go where they wanted?

I still don’t know. After awhile I forgot about the questions & just accepted “Robert” as a character. But I had been dazzled, as by a fine piece of stage magic, & that mood stayed with me. Rubber is a grungy, slightly pretentious, even somewhat mean-spirited movie, nowhere near as smart as it thinks it is. Yet it gave me a lift I haven’t gotten from many big-budget movies in recent years.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


Your Humble Narrator is by no means immune to the appeal of a big overproduced superhero movie, & has been looking forward to Thor, opening this weekend. But although I was an avid Marvel Comics reader as a kid, I never read Thor—not even once, as I recall.

So I stopped by All About Books & Comics  on Central & picked up three random issues of Thor from the ‘70s—the period in which I would have been reading them—just to get a feel for it before seeing the flick. They were great to read, but this one, from 1975, was my favorite:

I loved that the villain was “The Absorbing Man.” I thought, wow, a supervillain whose evil superpower is just that he’s really, really interesting…

RIP to Jackie Cooper, passed on at 88. His memoir, Please Don’t Shoot My Dog, is a fine read.

A pal sent me this news story, for its Tom Robbins-ish first line. I didn’t even know you could get high on bath salts…

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Another RIP: Maybe three or four days ago Your Humble Narrator was discussing Yvette Vickers, saying to a pal that of all the wonderful trashy, tawdry tramps of the movies, Ms. Vickers was among the most insolently, maddeningly sexy.

Now it appears that poor Yvette, who was in Attack of the Giant Leeches & Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, in Hud & very briefly, but memorably, in Sunset Boulevard, has departed, perhaps as long as a year ago: in a true Hollywood-Gothic twist, a long-mummified body believed to be her’s has been discovered in her Beverly Hills home.

Ingrid Pitt, Tura Satana & now Yvette Vickers, all leaving this earthly realm within a six-month period... *sigh*

Monday, May 2, 2011


RIP to a favorite of Your Humble Narrator’s, the droll character actor William Campbell, passed on at 87.

Campbell’s long & interesting career included supporting roles in such notable films as Love Me Tender, Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte, The High and the Mighty & as the daredevil helicopter pilot in Battle Circus, but he also played the Caryl Chessman character in Cell 2455 Death Row & starred in the good 1956 noir Man in the Vault & in Coppola’s early thriller Dementia 13.

For many of us, however, Campbell will always be remembered for his two appearances on the original Star Trek: as the snide Klingon Captain Koloth in “The Trouble With Tribbles” &, better still, as the omnipotent-yet-foppish Squire Trelane in “The Squire of Gothos.”