Friday, January 27, 2012


A few environmental activists have called for a boycott of The Grey, because it depicts wolves stalking & killing humans. Such attacks, though certainly not unknown in human history, are very rare, & given the much higher degree to which wolf populations have suffered at the hands of humans, it may seem gratuitous to use them as movie menaces.

But it’s probably a losing argument. The wolf of traditional stock villainy, as opposed to zoology, can be traced from Aesop, The Three Little Pigs & Red Riding Hood to the modern werewolf movies.

The Grey is a dark & rather unsavory thriller concerning a bunch of oil workers whose plane crashes in the Alaskan wilderness. The most capable of the survivors, Ottway (Liam Neeson), who hunts wolves for the company, soon realizes that they’ve crashed on the turf of a wolf pack, & he takes charge, trying to lead the group to safety. As the wolves, among other perils, cull their numbers, personality clashes intensify within the party.

The script, by director Joe Carnahan & Ian MacKenzie Jeffers, based on a story by Jeffers, offers some man-against-the-elements philosophizing in between a lot of macho head-butting, in between gory wolf attacks—it’s something like jacked-up Jack London with a dash of slasher movie. The animals look heavily computer-generated in many of the scare scenes, however, which weakens their impact.

I can’t say I found this movie likable, but it has a saving grace, & its name is Liam Neeson. One of the few authentic slabs of beef left in current movies, Neeson’s imposing masculinity, his no-nonsense maturity & the lupine sadness on his face give this overbearing melodrama a touch of Bergmanesque tragedy.

There are other creditable performances—notably by Frank Grillo as the most obnoxious of the party & Dermot Mulroney as the least obnoxious—but no other contemporary actor I can think of could give the role of Ottway the plausibility that Neeson does. Indeed, he brings the film the wild animal presence that the wolf effects fail to capture.

RIP to Robert Hegyes, best known as the “Sweathog” Juan Epstein on Welcome Back, Kotter, passed on at 60.

Thursday, January 26, 2012


A bunch of departures over the last few days: RIP, first of all, to the great Nicol Williamson, passed on at 75. I like his Hamlet, in Tony Richardson’s stark 1969 film; get a taste here.

RIP also to James Farentino, at 73, to Dick Tufeld, the “Danger, Will Robinson” voice of the fretful  Robot on Lost in Space, at 85, & to difficult but intriguing Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos, accidently killed at 76.

Here’s one more entry in our January dragon fest…

Monster-of-the-Week: …another splendid stop-motion specimen, animated by Jim Danforth for 1962’s The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm

This enjoyable film remains frustratingly unreleased on DVD, but you get the briefest glimpse of the dragon in action toward the end of this trailer.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


The 2012 Oscar nomination were announced this morning. I was particularly delighted by the nomination of “Man or Muppet” from The Muppets for best song.

RIP to Joe Paterno, passed on at 85. It’s hard not to see something classically tragic in his fall—shortly after being celebrated as the most successful NCAA Division 1 coach ever, he was disgraced & fired in about a week, & dead two months later. This doesn’t strike me as a fate worse than, say, having no one seem to give a shit when you get raped by an old man at the age of ten. But it’s still a shocking twist.

RIP also to powerhouse Etta James, passed on at 73.

Friday, January 20, 2012


Despite the title, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a mostly quiet movie, & for quite a while it keeps its emotional distance, too. The central character, Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), the son of a Manhattan jeweler (Tom Hanks), speaks in a direct, declarative manner, even when, a couple of times, he raises his tone in anger.

He has plenty to be angry about. Oskar’s very smart & imaginative but obsessive, phobic, possibly Aspergers-afflicted. None of this gets any better after 9/11, on the morning of which his father is at a business meeting more than a hundred flights up in the World Trade Center. This, presumably, is the reference of the title—how New Yorkers perceived the attacks. The loss leaves Oskar even more confused & secretive, & opens a gulf between him & his gentle, shattered mother (Sandra Bullock).

Oskar’s Dad would send him on fanciful “reconnaissance missions” in Central Park, designed in part to force him to interact with other people, in search of artifacts of a mythical “Sixth Borough” of New York City. About a year after what Oskar refers to as “The Worst Day,” the boy is snooping in his Dad’s closet, & he finds a key in a small envelope with the word “Black” written on it.

Taking this as a posthumous reconnaissance mission, this strange, wounded kid ventures out into his strange, wounded city. He starts spending his Saturdays pestering people named Black throughout the Five Boroughs, sure that if he can find the lock that this key fits, it will reveal a message from his father. Really, of course, he just wants to keep his connection to his beloved departed parent alive.

I must admit that it took a while for me to respond to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The film is directed with precision by Steven Daldry & beautifully shot by Chris Menges, & it features another lovely, urgent score by Alexander Desplat. There’s no shortage of fine acting, either. But for almost the first half, the script, by Eric Roth from the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, seems precious & self-consciously whimsical.

It’s also a particularly single-minded exercise in that relentlessly pursued theme in the American narrative tradition, the Search for the Father. For all the excellence of young Horn’s performance, when the supposedly sweet-natured & sensitive Oskar ignores, even exacerbates his mother’s sufferings, it becomes hard to like him, fairly or not.

But about midpoint, a character enters the story known only as The Renter, who lives with Oskar’s grandmother (Zoe Caldwell) & can’t or won’t speak. He & Oskar take to each other, & he starts to accompany him on his Saturday quests, conversing only through cryptic scribbles in his notebook, or through the words “Yes” & “No” written in the palms of his hands.

The Renter is played by the great Max Von Sydow, & the odd, somber rapport that he & Horn find in their scenes together makes the movie start to click. It might be too much to say that Von Sydow, with his alert, wary face, saves the movie single-handedly. But he’s a big part of its salvation, & he does it without ever speaking a word.

By its final stretch, when the mystery of the key was finally solved, & Oskar’s own terrible secret was cathartically revealed, I was fully drawn into the movie. Oskar’s flailing reaction to the tragedy becomes a proxy for his city’s, & his country’s, & if what he learns about himself & his neighbors is extremely heartbreaking, it’s also incredibly uplifting.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


Happy Chinese New Year next Monday!

You may have noticed that all the Monsters-of-the-Week so far this month have been dragons, so to continue our welcome to the Year of the Dragon...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...let's give the nod to one of my favorite movie dragons, this beauty...

...animated by Ray Harryhausen from one of my favorite movies, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. This beast, who guards the lair of the wizard Sokura, always struck me as having a sweetly canine manner; check the climactic scene here (spoilers!) & see if you agree.

Monday, January 16, 2012


From Variety online, spotted by my pal Dewey:

Friday, January 13, 2012


An elderly hand takes a container of milk from a convenience-store refrigerator. That’s how The Iron Lady begins. The hand belongs to the long-retired Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep), who buys the milk and scurries home, unrecognized & unnoticed, one more old ratbag in an ugly winter coat.

In terms of narrative, it may be the cleverest touch in the movie—not just beginning an epic about a long & nasty era in British history with a poignant, small-scale episode, but also beginning the film in a grocery store. The Iron Lady makes the point, early & often, that Lady Thatcher was a grocer’s daughter to the depths of her soul.

Hardly anything else that ensues is of much interest cinematically, but then, it doesn’t seem meant to be. The film is built as a showcase for Streep’s performance, & the result is effectively a one-woman show.

As usual, she makes it an entertaining one. After her hilarious & endearing turn as an expansive, ecstatic, flirtatious Julia Child in Julie & Julia, she’s inevitably not as much fun as this small-souled woman, with her cross perplexity at everyone else’s failure to perceive how right she is. In the end, though, Streep uses these very limitations to generate pathos, & she gives Thatcher witty little flashes of weariness with her own company.

The movie’s achievement, as opposed to Streep’s, is harder to pinpoint. Much as I resent the director, Phyllida Lloyd, for the minutes of my life I gave to her previous film Mamma Mia!, I’ll grant that her work here is mostly efficient. The script, by Abi Morgan, presents a fairly perfunctory chronicle history of the PM’s life—her youth (in which she’s played, capably, by Welsh actress Alexandra Roach) as the worshipful daughter of a Grantham grocer father & an emotionally aloof mother, her early political ambitions & her marriage to Denis Thatcher, her rise within the Tories, her ascension to Prime Minister. Then come the mining strikes, the IRA, the Falkland War, the assassination attempt.

This stuff is all strung, in flashback, along much fuller scenes of Thatcher as an old lady, infirm, condescended-to by her children & heckled by the ghost of the departed Denis (Jim Broadbent). This seems to be the principal concern of the movie: depicting the Iron Lady as aged, sick, bereaved, helpless. A hardhearted viewer might note that these were all categories of humanity for which the Lady showed minimal concern during her career, but Streep, subtle & slyly funny as ever, has it in her power to soften some pretty hard hearts.

She’s got her work cut out for her. Even some of us who have never set foot in the UK may feel our jaws clench at the very mention of the name “Margaret Thatcher.” Along with Ronald Reagan & John Paul II, she’s part of the current neocon Holy Trinity (that none of them could now pass a Tea Party litmus test is both ironic & a testament to their own self-devouring reactionary influence). Thatcher’s importance in 20th-Century history is undeniable, & so is the sad leveling power of age & illness & personal loss. But only by combining these two truths can a Thatcher biopic become palatable for many of us.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


Last week’s honoree was a dragon, so…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s do another dragon, namely…

…"Slag the Terrible” (that’s right, Slag, not Smaug) from this version of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, a little-known, twelve-minute cartoon adaptation of the tale from 1966. It was designed by graphic artist Adolf Born & directed by Terrytoons veteran Gene Deitch—creator of the Tom Terrific shorts for Captain Kangaroo—who explains in this fascinating section of his website that it was made as a ploy so that producer William Snyder, then the holder of the film rights to the book, could extend them & thus sell them back to Tolkien’s reps for big bucks in the wake of the ‘60s-era craze for Tolkien’s work.

The film can be watched in its entirety here; the animation is limited & no doubt the major liberties taken with the story would qualify the filmmakers for burning at the stake as far as Tolkien freaks are concerned. But I really like the cool retro look of it; part Jay Ward, part William Steig.

Monday, January 9, 2012


A couple of months back I wrote, here, about the return of Beavis & Butt-Head to MTV, & that for me, they hadn’t aged a day since the ‘90s, either chronologically or in terms of the quality of the shows.

Well, I’ve watched a few more episodes since, & there is a difference. Now, in addition to ragging on music videos, the boys also comment on clips, sometimes lengthy, from MTV “Reality” series like Jersey Shore & 16 and Pregnant. The thing is: They come across as less imbecilic, more clear-headed & sensibile, than the pathetic douchebags on these shows. Much more, sometimes. Again & again, our heroes seem to be on the verge of saying “These kids today, I tell ya…”

I refuse to insult Mike Judge’s post-modern Tom & Huck with the suggestion that they might be maturing, so I must conclude that real-life society’s sensibility has actually sunk below their mental, emotional & moral level. I suppose there are critics who would suggest that the original Beavis & Butt-Head itself played its part in this de-volution, but I think, now as then, that this is killing the messenger: Check out reality TV, especially the youth-oriented stuff, & Judge seems pretty freaking prescient.

As in 2010, this past year I kept a list of the books I read in the order I read them, not including magazine & newspaper articles, reviews, essays, poems, blogs, short stories, comic books, etc:

Democracy: An American Novel by Henry Brooks Adams

The Giaconda Smile by Aldous Huxley

Discoveries: Early Letters 1938-1975 by Robertson Davies, ed. Judith Skelton Grant

A Caribbean Mystery by Agatha Christie

The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

Murder in Canton by Robert van Gulik

Judge Dee at Work by Robert van Gulik

Djibouti by Elmore Leonard

Scumbo: A Novella and Stories by Barry Graham

The Willow Pattern by Robert van Gulik

Small Town by Lawrence Block

The Champion’s New Clothes by Barry Graham

There is a Serpent in Eden by Robert Bloch

The Red Pavillion by Robert van Gulik

The Slave by Isaac Bashevis Singer

The Magician of Lublin by Isaac Bashevis Singer

The Origin of Evil by Ellery Queen

And On the Eighth Day by Ellery Queen

The Captain and the Enemy by Graham Greene

Friday, January 6, 2012


Looking for a wild Saturday night? Well, what could be much more glamorous than listening to one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays on the radio? Tune in to Sun Sounds of Arizona ( this Saturday, January 7, at 8 p.m. (Phoenix time) to hear an hour-long version of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, adapted & directed by none other than Your Humble Narrator, & performed by a pack of talented Valley-area classical actors (& Your Humble Narrator). Details here.

On a much sadder radio note: RIP to Valley talk-radio favorite Bill Heywood & his wife Susan, both passed on, apparently by their own hands. I had the privilege to do movie reviews a couple of times in 2001 on the morning show Bill co-hosted with Heidi Foglesong on KFYI, & found him a gracious, seamless host, on the air & off.

Thursday, January 5, 2012


Among the loot brought to The Kid by Santa Claus this year is a Disney edition of the card game Uno. Your Humble Narrator suffered several ignominious defeats this past weekend.

Here’s the problem: Most of the cards feature one or another of the various Disney Princesses—Snow White, Belle, Jasmine—but occasionally one’s opponent plays…

Monster-of-the-Week: …a Dragon Card, depicting this week’s honoree, the dragon from 1959’s Sleeping Beauty. Confronted with this beast, one must discard, or draw from the deck until one finds, a card depicting a Princess in the clinch with her designated Prince, such cards being called “Dragonslayers.”

Now, this strikes me as suggesting to the young players that you need a man around for whatever dragon shows up in your life, that you’re powerless to pick up a sword & slay the freakin' dragon yourself. Doesn’t it? Or am I just being excruciatingly politically correct?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


Every now & then a movie comes along that delights audiences so much, & so transcends all the agendas that tend to cloud our enjoyment, that even the most curmudgeonly critics & buffs are disarmed, & just say “go see it.” The Artist is one of these movies. There are detractors out there somewhere, no doubt, but I haven’t heard from them yet, & I’m not one of them. Go see it.

Written & directed by the Frenchman Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist is a black-&-white & (mostly) silent romantic comedy-drama. The title character is a silent-movie star, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a dashing, romantic hero in the vein of Douglas Fairbanks or John Gilbert. As the film begins it’s 1927 & he’s in his glory, seeming to radiate glamour & bonhomie, onscreen & off, from his blazing smile. He basks in the love of his fans & coworkers—the occasional outraged leading lady excepted. The stern face of his wife (Penelope Ann Miller) at the breakfast table, however, is like a dark cloud on George’s horizon.

The storm, of course, hits two years later, in the form of the talkies. George’s studio boss (John Goodman) plans to get current with the new technology, but George is sure sound is a fad that will blow over, & he sinks his fortune into producing a silent vehicle for himself. It’s a flop, & George, attended by his faithful chauffeur (James Cromwell) & his resourceful little dog (Uggie), is on his way to the gutter.

Parallel to George’s decline is the rise of Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo, Hazanavicius' partner), a delectable young actress whose career gets a lift from George when she’s a dancing extra in one of his films, & who rides it all the way to stardom. She’d love to help revive George’s career, & his romantic life, but he’s too proud.

The Artist is not the first movie to use the birth of the talkies as a backdrop—the peerless Singin’ in the Rain is the best-known of the others. Nor is it the first latter-day film to employ the faux-silent-movie conceit; others include Silent Movie, the enjoyable Mel Brooks effort of 1976, Charles Lane’s neglected 1989 slapstick opus Sidewalk Stories, & Guy Maddin’s intoxicating 2002 ballet film Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary. But despite the lightweight story & the lovingly recreated look, The Artist somehow seems more like a reclamation of the silent cinema’s strengths than like a nostalgic gimmick. It even employs sound at a couple of points, briefly but brilliantly. It’s vital & gutsy, & we respond to it as a contemporary movie.

In no small part, this is due to the actors. For all the skill that Hazanavicius displays in his direction, for all the beauty & authenticity of Guillaume Schiffmann’s cinematography or the sly score by Ludovic Bource, the real punch in The Artist comes from the performances. Hazanavicius was shrewd, maybe, to have made George such a maddening, exasperatingly prideful person—this offsets the almost comical likability of Dujardin, with his ebullient smile.

Bejo captures silent insouciance perfectly, & she has a sweet moment, interacting with George’s jacket, that’s as sexy as anything I’ve seen in movies in a while. Cromwell is spot-on, & the supporting cast is full of name players from English-speaking movies in minor roles, but Uggie, as George’s long-suffering canine costar & pet, is the only presence in the film more irresistible than Dujardin.

Monday, January 2, 2012


For the multitudes trembling in anticipation, here are my Top Ten movies for 2011:

1. The Tree of Life: Terrence Malick’s film isn’t ambitious or anything; it just takes on the Creation of the Universe and the Meaning of Existence. Also, it contains Brad Pitt’s best performance, beautiful music by Alexander Desplat, & a plesiosaurus.

2. The Skin I Live In: Pedro Almodovar’s entry in the venerable European “mad skin doctor” genre is convincing, ingeniously-structured & potent. Antonio Banderas & Elena Anaya are superb as the Doctor & his patient/victim, respectively.

3. Moneyball: Brad Pitt & Jonah Hill play statistical weird science on the Oakland A’s to make them win without marquee players. Sly, restrained direction by Bennett Miller & another gem of a performance by Pitt combine to make this inside-baseball tale fascinating & improbably touching.

4. The Artist: This black-and-white, mostly silent romantic comedy somehow manages to be a movie of substance rather than a stunt. Jean Dujardin is sensational as the title character, an ultra-debonair Hollywood leading man whose career hits the wall when the talkies arrive; the beguiling Berenice Bejo is the spirited up-and-coming star who adores him from afar & would salvage his career if only he wasn’t so proud. The film is studded with charming supporting performances, but the hero’s little dog steals scenes like they were Snausages.

5. Meek’s Cutoff: Kelly Reichardt’s subtextually political Western, loosely based on historical events, is about a bunch of lost covered-wagon settlers looking for a drink of water in the eastern-Oregon desert. It’s an ordeal, but a dramatically valid one, & it maddeningly offers no answers. Michelle Williams is quietly excellent as a clear-headed frontier wife, & Bruce Greenwood gives the performance of his career as the reactionary guide Meek.

6. Martha Marcy May Marlene: Elizabeth Olsen is spectacular in the title role, a young woman who flees a rural New York cult, & John Hawkes is chilling as the cult leader. Sean Durkin’s simple, low-key direction generates moody atmosphere & a subtle, fretful suspense.

7. Attack the Block: Teenage South London street punks jump on their bikes & save the world from aliens on Bonfire Night. Joe Cornish wrote and directed this funny, tense sci-fi tale, with a fine ensemble cast & spooky, amusingly simple invaders.

8. Rise of the Planet of the Apes: More top-notch sci-fi, this is the best iteration of the Apes franchise since the 1968 original, cleverly dramatizing how the Ape-pocalypse begins. Behind the CGI, Andy Serkis provides the superb facial expressions of the chimpanzee revolutionary Caesar.

9. Texas Killing Fields: This police procedural from director Ami Canaan Mann , about the murder of young women in a small, grungy Texas town, is a grim & difficult work, but it has an intense, enveloping atmosphere of tragedy.

10. The Adventures of Tintin: Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the Belgian comic books is pure fun, & dazzlingly skillful cinema. As with The Artist, however, Spielberg lets the dog steal the show.

Also worth checking out: Contagion, Women on the 6th Floor, My Week With Marilyn, Hop, We Bought a Zoo, Footprints, Rio, The Smurfs, J. Edgar, Arthur Christmas, Happy Feet Two, Thor, Rubber, Super8, Trollhunter, Margin Call, Winnie the Pooh, Rango, Henry’s Crime and The Muppets (& the excellent Toy Story short before The Muppets).

A couple of major stinkeroos: Zookeeper, The Green Hornet, Creature & Atlas Shrugged: Part One.