Friday, July 29, 2011


It’s understandable if you don’t feel much enthusiasm at the prospect of taking your kid to The Smurfs. You may fear you’re in for a pretty cloying hour & a half.

Created in the late ‘50s by the Belgian comic artist Pierre “Peyo” Culliford—as Les Schtroumpfs; the term Smurf was a Dutch rendering—the tiny, blue-skinned forest gnomes were popularized in the U.S. by a highly successful Hanna-Barbera cartoon series which ran from 1981 to 1989. This was after my time as an observant Saturday morning TV devotee, though I have a niece who was a major Smurfhead. The glimpses I got of the show back then struck me as sappy & oppressively sticky-sweet, exactly the sort of goody-two-shoes stuff that took the fun out of watching cartoons.

So it’s a pleasure to report that I thoroughly enjoyed the new feature film version, which mixes computer-animation and live-action, & is set both in “Smurf Village” and in New York City. I wouldn’t claim that it’s a classic, but it has a buoyantly self-mocking attitude, a generous heart, good performances &, for me at least, a surprising number of laughs. Even the 3D effects work pretty well in this primary-colors fantasy, though it would lose nothing in 2D.

The story begins in “Smurf Village,” where preparations for the Blue Moon Festival are interrupted by the evil wizard Gargamel (Hank Azaria) & his familiar, the sinister cat Azrael, who at last locate the Village & rampage around like Japanese monsters. A half dozen of the Smurfs escape through a magic portal & find themselves in another enchanted land: modern-day Manhattan.

They fall into the company of Neil Patrick Harris, as an ambitious young marketing executive for a cosmetics company, & of his pregnant wife (Jayma Mays). The Smurfs & The Yuppies exchange life lessons while attempting to foil Gargamel & kitty, who have followed them through the portal.

This insipid plot works, primarily, because the screenwriters—a gaggle, with eye-crossingly unmemorable names—don’t run from the insipidity. They embrace the annoying aspects of the material, like the Smurfs’ relentless cheerfulness, or the repetitive theme song, & turn them to comic advantage by bouncing them off of the New York state of mind.

Director Raja Gosnell moves things along nicely & makes funny use of the NYC settings. Harris & Mays act their hearts out, & the live-action cast includes Sofia Vergara, Tim Gunn & Victor Pagan in a clever bit as a street person. But the stand-out, unsurprisingly, is Azaria, who puts on a fine over-the-top show as the sarcastic, put-upon Gargamel, requiring nothing more than the cat for a straight-man.

Leading the voice cast are Jonathan Winters as Papa Smurf, Anton Yelchin as Clumsy, Fred Armisen as Brainy, George Lopez as Grumpy, Alan Cumming as the kilted Gutsy, & Katy Perry as the sweet, coy Smurfette—as always, the Smurfs have names reflective of their dominant personality traits. In the course of the film, we learn of the existence of Passive-Aggressive Smurf: He’s nice, but you feel bad after you talk to him. If there’s a sequel, I hope he has a major role.

Thursday, July 28, 2011


Aviation &/or obscure western movie geeks, be advised: Friday at 8 p.m. EST Turner Classic Movies shows Under Mexicali Stars, a 1950 yarn from Republic Studios, starring Rex Allen (“The Arizona Cowboy”) and his sidekick Homer (Buddy Ebsen), this time on the trail of nefarious counterfeiters. It’s a perfectly ordinary singing-cowboy programmer of the period, with one exception—a helicopter, at that time a newfangled contraption, plays a major role.

The villains use what appears to be a Hiller UH12A to purloin wagonloads of gold without a trace, little knowing that on one such run the intrepid Rex (in reality one of Republic’s gang of crazed stuntmen, no doubt) has grabbed hold of the aircraft’s wheelgear and hitched a ride to their hideout.

Homer, meanwhile, unravels the mystery to the authorities in this burst of Shakespearean exposition: “It explains the vanishing footprints…How they stole the gold without leavin’ a trace…With those things you don’t even have to touch the ground, so no wheelprints!” During the climactic scenes, the villains use the craft to pursue our hero, and when Rex at last gets the upper hand, the final baddie standing makes a desperate dash for the craft before Rex flattens him.

This all-but-forgotten little horse opera was released in 1950, barely four years after the Bell 47 first hit the civilian market. It may be one of the first feature films in which a helicopter is a crucial plot point.

Several RIPs: To poor Amy Winehouse, passed on at just 27, to Broadway & TV character actor Tom Aldredge, at 83, to the luscious original “Bond Girl” Linda Christian, at 87, & to veteran producer & production designer Polly Platt, at 72.

Early in his career Raja Gosnell, director of The Smurfs, which opens tomorrow, was editor of…

Monster-of-the-Week: …1986's Monster in the Closet, an amusingly literal piece of schlock spoof from Troma. So the title character, who surprisingly does not resemble Marcus Bachmann, is this week’s honoree…

My fondest memory of this film is a scene near the beginning, in which John Carradine plays a blind man whose service dog likes to hide his white cane from him. As I recall, the furious Carradine assures the dog that he will have his revenge, because though he can’t see, he can “hear an ant piss on a sponge.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


The recent death of Sherwood Schwartz, creator of Gilligan’s Island, reminded me of one of the more peculiar books I’ve read in the last decade: Tom Carson’s 2003 Gilligan’s Wake (Picador) a crazy-quilt send-up of Joyce, Kerouac & Salinger which views the 20th Century, with various levels of jaundice, through the eyes of Schwartz’s Seven Stranded Castaways.

Each of the novel’s seven chapters is a monologue by one of the characters: The Skipper recounts his experiences in command of a PT Boat in WWII South Pacific, where he hangs out with McHale, Jack Kennedy & Richard Nixon. Millionaire Thurston Howell gets Alger Hiss his job with the Department of Agriculture. Howell’s wife “Lovey” recalls her decadent early days, sharing morphine addiction with a post-Gatsby Daisy Buchanan. Ginger leaves Alabama to make it big in Hollywood, falls in with the Rat Pack, &, after meeting Sammy Davis, Jr., reneges on her promise to her mother never to have an interracial romance.

The Professor, a veteran of Los Alamos, goes on to be a crony of Roy Cohn & to play a part in just about every piece of covert American nastiness of the postwar period. Meanwhile, wholesome Kansan Mary Anne lands in Paris & winds up in an affair with Jean-Luc Godard, yet somehow finds herself, despite repeated attempts to the contrary, mysteriously & miraculously a perpetual virgin.

As for Gilligan himself, his opening monologue places him first in the identity of Bob Denver’s earlier iconic TV character, Maynard G. Krebs of Dobie Gillis, here a San Francisco Beat-scene poet, protesting the Bay of Pigs with Ferlinghetti, before waking up to find himself sharing a mental ward with Holden Caulfield, Ira Hayes & Edsel Ford. He’s electroshocked into Gilligan-esque infantilism, & there are passages in the subsequent chapters indicating that the exploits of the other castaways are the products of this hapless 20th-Century Everyman’s fried brain.

The book—available on Kindle, by the way—is a stunt, of course, & too clever by half. But there are long stretches of remarkable, even powerful writing in every chapter, each of which has its own idiomatic style. & Mason, in common with millions of Boomer-era kids, understands something that TV snobs could never quite grasp: that for all the undisputed broadness of the acting & plain imbecility of the writing, there’s still something mythic & archetypical about Gilligan’s Island that can’t be dismissed from the imagination.

Friday, July 22, 2011


It is immensely cheering to report that, just a few months after downtown’s FilmBar, another repertory cinema is opening here in the Valley: The Midnite Movie Mamacita at last has a Room of Her Own, on Main Street in downtown Mesa: The Royale. The venue “soft opened” two weekends ago with Hobo With a Shotgun, but the official Grand Opening is this weekend, & the lineup includes Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness & Andre Ovredal’s Trollhunter.

Raimi’s slapstick horror epic is an essential, no doubt. But I would also heartily recommend Trollhunter (Trolljegeren), a wry Norwegian combination of The Blair Witch Project with Peer Gynt & The Three Billy Goats Gruff.

It begins precisely in the Blair Witch format, with the conceit that we’re seeing recovered footage of two guys & a woman, film students, venturing into the wilderness to make a documentary. They think the mysterious subject they’re tracking is a poacher—an unlicensed bear-hunter. But when they catch up with Hans (Otto Jespersen, who’s excellent), the bearded, dour guy in the beat-up Land Rover, they learn that he’s out there hunting trolls. With difficulty, they talk him into letting them tag along with their cameras.

At first they think Hans is crazy, of course, but soon they learn that he’s on the level, & indeed that he’s on a secret government contract to exterminate any troll that wanders off its range. All this is handled so nonchalantly that it seems perfectly plausible.

The trick with Blair Witch, however, was that you never really saw anything at all. That’s where Trollhunter parts company with its model: When the trolls finally show up in this movie, they show up big time, in spectacularly-rendered computer animation. I was sure that this would result in diminishing returns—that the later manifestations would inevitably be less awe-inspiring than the first few. But the later sequences have tension & imagination & spooky grandeur.

I can’t say that Trollhunter deeply frightened me, the way Blair Witch did the first time I saw it, probably because Ovredal plays the film much more overtly for satire—though the actors keep splendidly straight faces—& also because trolls aren’t the culturally hardwired objects of terror for most of us as they might be for a Scandinavian viewer. But even if you didn’t grow up alongside a fiord, you’re likely to find Trollhunter a tense & exciting & witty fantasy.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


RIP to Sherwood Schwartz, creator of such unshakeable TV icons as Gilligan’s Island & The Brady Bunch, passed on at 94. In his memory...

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s honor the gigantic “Black Morning Spider” that menaced the Seven Stranded Castways on That Uncharted Desert Isle, until they were saved by a pigeon named Walter, in one of the weirder episodes—& that’s saying something—of GI.

This imposing arachnid was played, by the way, by the Hungarian costume-maker & performer Janos Prohaska, perhaps better-known as the Mugato & the Horta on Star Trek.

Friday, July 15, 2011


Opening this weekend is Winnie the Pooh, a new Disney feature chronicling the adventures of the title teddy bear and his various pals in the Hundred Acre Wood. I must admit that I come to the Disney incarnations of these characters with a bias. The low-key, quietly witty original stories, by A. A. Milne, and the simple original line drawings by E. H. Shepard, are among my earliest memories, and even as a child the Disney versions seemed like vulgarizations by comparison.

But the new film broke through my defenses. While still not close to Milne, it has a gentle charm, and it’s a visual delight, rendered in old-school “hand-drawn” animation. Best of all, it’s not in 3D!

The story involves Pooh, who’s just trying to find some honey, getting caught up the search for the downbeat donkey Eeyore’s missing tail, and later for his young friend Christopher Robin, who the animals come to believe has been abducted by a mysterious creature called a “Backsun.”

Actor Jim Cummings remarkably reproduces the voices of the late Sterling Holloway and Paul Winchell, as Pooh and Tigger, respectively. Travis Oates isn’t quite able to do the same for the late John Fiedler as Piglet, though he gives it a good try. Craig Ferguson makes a fine pompous Owl, and the great John Cleese replaces Sebastian Cabot as the Narrator—his voice is perfect for the part, but somehow I kept expecting him to lapse into Monty Python outrageousness. Zooey Deschanel sings a few songs on the soundtrack, including the original theme, and she sounds ethereal as ever.

At only an hour long, Winnie the Pooh is padded out with a cartoon short called The Ballad of Nessie, narrated in rhyme by the great Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, which gives an account of how the Loch Ness Monster came to inhabit her home. I liked this perhaps even more than the main feature.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


In honor of Disney's new Winnie the Pooh film, opening tomorrow...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...let's give the nod to an ursine monster, the hideous mutant bear in John Frankenheimer's laughable 1979 sci-fi opus Prophecy:

Friday, July 8, 2011


Kevin James plays the title character of Zookeeper, Griffin Keyes, the top beige-shirt at Boston’s Franklin Park menagerie. At the beginning, Griffin gets dumped by his shallow pill of a girlfriend (the human Barbie doll Leslie Bibb), who finds his career insufficient, and mopes around about it for five years, even though his veterinarian coworker (Rosario Dawson), who plainly likes him, is both lovelier & a nicer person.

Then Griffin gets another shot at the pill. His pals the animals don't want him to leave the zoo for a gig better suited to impressing the girl, nor do they think he’s up to winning her back. So they decide to resort to desperate measures, & reveal their big secret to him: they can talk—in the voices of such celebrities as Cher, Adam Sandler, Don Rickles, Sylvester Stallone, Maya Rudolph, etc. etc.—& they’re willing to coach him on how to court the woman successfully.

The wolf advises him, for instance, to mark his territory by urinating on it. The bears teach him to swagger & snort aggressively. The monkey (Sandler) keeps insisting that he should throw poop.

That, in much more detail than it deserves, is the premise of Zookeeper. It was just possible, I suppose, that something clever could have been done with it—that, for instance, we could have seen Griffin noticing human parallels to the behaviors suggested by the critters.

Not even close. Griffin just literally urinates, right out in the open, in a restaurant, or snorts bear-style in the face of his rival (Joe Rogan). This movie, directed by frequent Adam Sandler crony Frank Coraci, is every bit as imbecilic as it sounds, and maybe even more crass than it sounds—it includes what amounts to a lengthy commercial, as Griffiin takes a lonely gorilla (voiced by Nick Nolte) for an evening out at TGIFriday’s.

The idiocy wouldn’t matter, of course, if the movie was funny. I guess I chuckled at a couple of Rogan’s buffoonish lines, & the little monkey’s mincing upright gait gave me a grin. I should also say, in fairness, that I like James, with his fretful politeness, & while Zookeeper doesn’t serve him well, I liked him here too, & wanted him to get the girl—the adorable Dawson, that is. But none of this mitigates this movie’s squandering of the talents of those involved, & of the audience’s time. Zookeeper is what the monkey throws.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


RIP to Anna Massey, daughter of Raymond & a prolific actress in her own right, departed at 73. In addition to plenty of highbrow Brit film & TV, she also made a few scary pictures, like Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972), Michael Powell's brilliant-but-unsavory Peeping Tom (1960) &...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...a segment of the 1973 omnibus The Vault of Horror, in which she appeared as a vampire, opposite her brother Daniel Massey. She's this week's honoree. That's her in the middle...

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


In light of this cranky post on the gratuitousness of much current 3D, maybe I should consider investing in a pair of these babies...

RIP to resilient child star Edith Fellows, departed at 88...

Friday, July 1, 2011


RIP to beautiful Elaine Stewart, passed on at 81.

RIP also to Peter Falk, passed on a week ago at 83. I like his turns in films like The Princess Bride, Wings of Desire & as one of the cabbies in the last stretch of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, but of course he’s immortal as the gabby, unstumpable Lt. Columbo.

I didn’t know until recently, though, that Falk was actually the third actor to play Columbo—after Bert Freed on a 1960 Chevy Mystery episode by Richard Levinson & William Link titled Enough Rope, & then Thomas Mitchell in Levinson & Link’s play Prescription: Murder, which closed before reaching Broadway in 1962: