Thursday, March 29, 2012


Since everything's all about The Hunger Games these days, & since we've been on a vampire kick lately, how about...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...we give the nod to Catherine Deneuve in 1983's The Hunger...

...surely one of the more '80s-chic of all monsters...

Thursday, March 22, 2012


Having already played one of pop culture’s most famous vampires, Barnabas Collins…

…in Tim Burton’s upcoming movie of Dark Shadows, Johnny Depp is now reportedly set to play a famous vampire hunter, reporter Carl Kolchak, in a movie of the short-lived but fondly-remembered ‘70s-era spookshow The Night Stalker, to be directed by Sean of the Dead’s Edgar Wright.


Monster-of-the-Week: …in acknowledgement of this worthy project let’s recognize the first quarry of the original Carl (the great Darren McGavin): Vampire Janos Skorzeny, the Las Vegas-based bloodsucker played by the ever-menacing Barry Atwater…

Skorzeny & Carl went fang-to-stake in the original 1972 TV movie. Wright & Depp will have their work cut out for them to top that pilot’s atmosphere…

Thursday, March 15, 2012


A couple of RIPs this week: To songwriter Robert Sherman, best known for “It’s A Small World,” passed on at 86, and to actress and screenwriter Joan Taylor, passed on at 82. In honor of the latter…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let's once again honor one of Taylor’s most memorable leading men: The Ymir, the scaly ogre from 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957). Filched as an egg by astronauts visiting Venus & hatched in Italy after they crash-land into the Mediterranean, the Ymir, animated by the great Ray Harryhausen, grows huge & runs amok in the streets of Rome...

...before eventually facing his Waterloo in the Colosseum. He's quite symapthetic, poor fellow; you can see him in action here.

Saturday, March 10, 2012


Some of Shakespeare’s plays seem awkward when performed in modern dress, and some of them seem perfectly attired. The Roman tragedy Coriolanus is of the latter sort. I saw it in modern dress in Washington, D.C. more than twenty years ago, with, of all people, a game young Bradley Whitford in the title role, and despite this miscasting it worked.

It works again in a gripping new movie version, opening this weekend in the Valley, directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes. He retells the story in 21st-Century clothes and settings (much of it was filmed in Serbia and Montenegro), with Shakespeare’s text boiled down to its bones by screenwriter John Logan.

Although T.S. Eliot thought it was superior to Hamlet, Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s most brilliant but least-beloved works. It’s the story of a General in the early Roman Republic, Caius Martius, later given the title cognomen for his victory over the Volscians at the town of Corioli, and of how, for all his martial valor, he is ultimately destroyed by his open contempt for the uppity Plebeians—with a little unwitting help from his psychotically militant mother.

For his successes in war, Martius (Fiennes) is nominated for consul, but he can’t get past a formality he finds demeaning—a requisite custom of presenting himself to the common people and displaying his scars won in Rome’s service. An unapologetic Patrician snob, he loathes the commoners, if he thinks about them at all, and is indifferent to their opinion of him.

Cajoled by his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) and the avuncular consul Menenius (Brian Cox) into the ritual scar-baring, he endures it with misery, only to have the Tribunes stir up an insurrection by convincing the Plebes that he was insincere. They aren’t wrong, either—confronted with this horde, he spews venom at them, and ends up banished for his trouble.

Now homeless, Martius seeks out his mortal enemy—who’s also his unmistakable and requited man-crush—the Volscian leader Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), and spitefully offers to help him invade Rome. Aufidius gleefully agrees, and the stage is set for a final, catastrophic clash between native loyalty and lust for revenge.

Fiennes and Logan find very clever modern contexts for the verse, and Fiennes’ tense staging of the battle scenes could please any fan of Green Zone or The Hurt Locker. He also captures a wonderful performance from Cox, and one of Redgrave’s best turns in a long time.

Gerard Butler comes off well, too. His Aufidius, thick-bearded, friendly, slyly sexy, makes a startling contrast to Martius.

On top of all this, Fiennes also gives one of his own best screen performances. He’s a strong, commanding actor, and he had a certain sad charm in Quiz Show, but overall, likability isn’t his specialty. That’s not a problem here. He doesn’t need a common touch for his Martius, a portrait of a deeply unhappy man who can only make sense of life in the midst of chaotic violence, to be moving.

Unlikable though the title character is, maybe part of the reason that Coriolanus can be so alienating for modern audiences is that the Ayn-Rand-ian slight regard of Martius for the unwashed herd has its seductive side. From this and many other works, there can be little doubt that Shakespeare shared at least some of his protagonist’s disgust for the fickle and dangerous mob, though not to the same pathological degree, and you may find yourself guiltily stirred up by the sneering invective directed at them (partly because Shakespeare, unlike Ayn Rand, could write).

And finally, in this Primary season you may reflect that, compared to the shameless attempts to dupe us into serving the interests of the rich, the open disdain of Martius for the poor might be downright refreshing.

Friday, March 9, 2012


Maybe the highest compliment that can be paid to John Carter, the long-awaited version of A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, is that it looks just like it ought to look. Again & again, watching it, I was struck by how seamlessly the filmmakers had captured the visual flavor of the cover paintings of ‘70s-era sci-fi-fantasy paperbacks, by the likes of Frank Frazetta & Boris Vallejo & the Brothers Hildebrandt & James Bama.

These covers, often far more than the reprinted pulp tales from a generation or two earlier that they enclosed, had an effect on the imaginative landscape of Boomer-era boys that shouldn’t be underestimated, & the degree to which John Carter brings them to life is no small achievement. The green, six-limbed Tharks, the elite Red Martians, the rampaging White Apes, the cityscapes, the flying machines, even the hero’s endearing dog-like companion Woola—all of them struck this Burroughs reader as just right visually, & the battles, duels & gladiatorial combats are excitingly staged by director Andrew Stanton.

This makes it all the more disappointing to report that the movie isn’t the knockout that it wants to be. It’s terrific in stretches, but overall it’s tiring, with little of the book’s hearty, free-wheeling sense of storytelling panache.

Originally serialized as Under the Moons of Mars in 1912, A Princess of Mars was enormously influential on popular fiction in the 20th Century—even more so, possibly, than that later & more iconic Burroughs yarn Tarzan of the Apes. It tells the story of a former Confederate officer, John Carter, who, under attack by Apaches while prospecting in the Arizona Territory, suddenly finds himself mysteriously transported to the surface of the planet Mars, or “Barsoom” as it’s called by its inhabitants.

It’s a dying desert world, peopled by perpetually warring tribes of various bizarre races. Carter is caught up in these conflicts, & the lower gravity, coupled with the intrepidity & brash, boyish courage common to Burroughs heroes, makes him a virtual superman, & thus a legendary warrior among the Martians. He becomes an ally/friend of the fierce but honorable Thark chieftan Tars Tarkas, & also with the loyal Thark female Sola, & he also finds love with the beautiful Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium.

Silly as all this sounds—& is—this rambling adventure narrative can give a heart-lifting delight. The movie, for all its craft, & for all its diligence in tidying up the source material’s 19th-Century chauvinisms, doesn’t come close. It’s badly overlong, & while the dialogue is intelligent, the screenwriters—Stanton, Mark Andrews & Michael Chabon are credited—weigh down the movie with layers of confusing, unnecessary & wearyingly “grown-up” exposition & backstory.

In this way John Carter is, regrettably, very much like the latter-day Star Wars trilogy. As with those films, the filmmakers seem to have been so intent on not treating the material as kid stuff that they forgot that kid stuff was exactly what we wanted from it—& just what Burroughs always gave us.

Another part of the disappointment may be that Taylor Kitsch, who plays Carter, isn’t quite up to it. He has a fine physique but a callow, somehow unmemorable beauty & no particular presence as an actor. The character is saddled, again unnecessarily, with a tragic backstory in the spaghetti-western vein, & he speaks in the same manner as Christian Bale in The Dark Night, that growl by which unconfident young leading men of our era try to project heartsick manliness, but which really just makes them sound like they need a lozenge.

One of Kitsch’s supporting players, James Purefoy as the valiant Kantos Kan, might have done better with the title role; he has a relaxed, swashbuckling charm. On the other hand, Lynn Collins fits the role of Dejah Thoris, here admirably more Amazon than damsel in distress, perfectly—gorgeous & regal, yet likable.

It’s especially gratifying that in modern-day Hollywood, Collins was entrusted with a romantic lead at the crone-like age of…34.

Thursday, March 8, 2012


With John Carter, the movie version of A Princess of Mars, opening tomorrow…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the honor to any member of the Tharks, that fearsome tribe of tall, tusked, four-limbed, green-skinned Martian warriors in the Edgar Rice Burroughs yarn.

Meaning no slight to the movie’s impressive rendering, for me the quintessential Tharks are those of Gino D’Achille on the covers of the Ballatine paperback editions of the John Carter stories from the ‘70s:

Re-reading A Princess of Mars in anticipation of the film’s release, I came across this passage concerning the Tharks:

Evidently devoid of all the finer sentiments of friendship, love or affection, these people fairly worship physical prowess and bravery, and nothing is too good for the object of their adoration as long as he maintains his position by repeated examples of his skill, strength and courage.

Thank Heaven no one here on Earth—no sports fans, say—are like this…

Monday, March 5, 2012


Sunday The Kid got to go visit a pal while The Wife & I & two friends had the chance to see the national tour of Wicked at Gammage Auditorium in Tempe. I had never seen the show, the story of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West & her long, complicated, love-hate-betrayal-&-bonding relationship with Glenda the Good, adapted, loosely, from Gregory Maguire’s densely imagined novel.

Simply as slick theatrical spectacle, it’s among the best I’ve ever seen—from the opening seconds, where we see the Winged Monkeys capering acrobatically around the clockwork set, presided over by a huge stylized dragon, it’s like watching a Melies movie come to life. I was surprised, however, by how much I liked the show not just as theatre, but as music & drama. The score is of the contemporary rousing-belt sort, & the lyrics are often very clever, while the story cheekily debunks simplistic, fairy-tale ideas of good & evil.

Subtextually, it’s really about the price that modern women pay, & the empowerment they can receive, by embracing the choice not to be conventionally “nice”—a more accurate title for the show might be Bitchy. But in light of the current debates on the Right even in this country, it should be said that such choices for women clearly are still regarded as wicked.

Anyway, great show; go see it if you get the chance. The Gammage run continues through March 11; click here for more info.

Saturday, March 3, 2012


The movie isn’t much fun, but Woody Harrelson is brilliant in Rampart. He plays Dave Brown, an unraveling Los Angeles cop in 1999, the height of the notorious Rampart Scandal. From the outside, Dave looks like a cocksure archetype of the LAPD at its formidable worst: Crooked, vicious, racist, arrogant, obsessively macho, reflexively self-justifying.

But Harrelson also lets us see how Dave sees himself—as a roguish, vigilante hero—& how his intensity & sexual confidence suck others, women especially, into sharing & enabling this delusion, at least temporarily. His smile is both boyish & predatory, & he speaks with a deliberate, jaunty verbosity, provided in part by James Ellroy, who wrote the script with director Oren Moverman. The movie is a bit like a west coast version of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, with a more specific psychology & social context & minus the Catholic guilt & mysticism. For better & worse, it’s Bad Lieutenant done a la Robert Altman.

Dave Brown feels that his name is too prosaic for a person as remarkable as he thinks he is, but he has a more distinctive nickname: In the department he’s called “Date-Rape,” because he coyly declines to confirm or deny having killed a man known to be a serial date rapist. Early on, we see him bully a (female) rookie & beat up a suspect, then do a full-on Rodney King to a guy who collides with his car & then flees. Later, we’re clearly shown his capacity for murder, not to mention robbery.

He justifies all this brutality with claim that he never hurts any good people. He also uses the familiar line, beloved of racists everywhere, that because he hates everybody he somehow can’t be a racist; he cites his willingness to sleep with black women as further evidence of this.

Some of the most successful scenes in Rampart, however, are concerned not with Dave’s work but with his eyebrow-raising home life. He’s been married, consecutively, to sisters (Cynthia Nixon & Anne Heche), & has one daughter with each, & they all live together, though the exes want him gone so they can get on with their lives. Despite frequent absences for sex with other women, including Robin Wright as a self-loathing lawyer, Dave refuses to move out—his role as paterfamilias is essential to his heroic self-image.

The cast of Rampart is stellar—in addition to the aforementioned, it includes Sigourney Weaver, Ned Beatty, Steve Buscemi, Ice Cube, Ben Foster & Audra McDonald—& they give fine performances, but they have the feel of cameos in a vehicle for Harrelson.

For about half the film’s length, his magnetism keeps it morbidly riveting. But Ellroy & Moverman haven’t shaped the material for a climactic payoff. We’re just expected to stare at the last few loops of this guy’s downward spiral, & it grows very tedious. Even though I felt a certain repulsed pity for Dave, I also began to strenuously wish that someone would put him out of our misery, & his own.

Friday, March 2, 2012


For those unfamiliar with The Lorax, the 1971 children’s book on which the new film Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax is based: It’s an environmentalist parable told by a mysterious character called The Once-ler. Once an industrialist, The Once-ler is now a recluse living in a wasteland of his own making. He & his family chopped down the entire forest of truffula trees, the tufts of which he used to make “thneeds,” a multi-use consumer product vaguely like a Snuggie.

Throughout the story, the Once-ler repeatedly ignores the warnings of The Lorax, a gnomic forest being who looks like a mustachioed orange throw-pillow & irritably advocates on behalf of the trees & the ecosystems they support, which include such cuties as Brown Bar-ba-loots & Swomee Swans. In the new, computer-animated film, he’s voiced by Danny DeVito, while Ed Helms speaks for the Once-ler.

Dr. Seuss, aka Ted Geisel, might be my pick for the finest narrative poet of the 20th Century, at least in English. His power comes not only from his exuberant, often nonsensical rhymes, but also from his rhythms—the lift & sweep & beauty of his cadences, & the thrilling declarative punch they give to his assertions: “‘Mister,’ he said with a sawdusty sneeze/‘I am The Lorax. I speak for the trees/I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues/And I’m asking you sir, at the top of my lungs…’

Dr. Seuss was wise to make The Lorax a cantankerous, curmudgeonly sort; he knew that railing against consumerism is typically a loser’s game, & that those who speak for the trees tend to grow strident & tiresome, even though they may remain lovable. Conservative commentators have complained that The Lorax is environmentalist propaganda, which it certainly is, but it isn’t simpleminded propaganda.

The book may have depth, but what a movie needs is breadth. Like Dr. Seuss’ other books, The Lorax, very much by design, doesn't have it. So it fell to screenwriters Ken Daurio & Cinco Paul (Despicable Me) & directors Chris Renaud & Kyle Balda to stretch & embellish—to pad, in other words—the material to feature length.

Thus we get songs—pretty good ones—& an elaborate backstory set in Thneedville, an airtight plastic paradise in which all the trees & grass are artificial & in which fresh air is purchased from a villain named O’Hare (Rob Riggle). A boy named Ted (Zach Efron) wants to find a real tree to give to a girl he likes, Audrey (Taylor Swift); on the advice of his spirited Grandmother (Betty White) Ted becomes The Once-ler’s auditor.

Whether or not what I’ve just described can truly be called Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, the movie is lively for kids & witty for adults. The trouble, of course, is that far more than the book, it’s an unabashed product of the very cultural mindset that it criticizes.

Toward the end, Ted, Audrey & the Grandmother race to plant the last truffula tree in the center of town, where everybody can see it, while the sinister O’Hare & his goons try to stop them. But in our world, there’s no shortage of public acknowledgments of the need for saner environmental policy, & in the movie, as in our world, there’s little sense of what the citizens of Thneedville (Thneedvillians?) would have to give up to make things better.

Obviously a fable for children can’t, & shouldn’t, attempt to account for all of these real-world complexities. But it shouldn’t be disingenuous about them, either. The screening I saw of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax was held at a futuristic-looking multiplex at an enormous, brightly-colored outdoor shopping center that doesn’t look very different at all from Thneedville. Before it was a mall, it was a landfill site that had spent 20 years on the EPA’s Superfund list. Somewhere back there, before all us Once-lers arrived, it must have been pristine desert.

Thursday, March 1, 2012


RIP to Davy Jones of The Monkees—& arguably The Wife’s first love—passed on too young at 66.

One more quick Oscar note: Sunday evening’s show featured talking heads of famous people discussing their earliest movie memories. Brad Pitt recalled being taken to see a movie featuring “a good Gargantua and a bad Gargantua,” & that the good Gargantua had to sacrifice himself at the end. He’s thinking, of course, of the 1966 Japanese kaiju film War of the Gargantuas (Furankenshutain no Kaiju: Sanda tai Gaira; released in the US in 1970), a vague sequel to 1965’s Frankenstein Conquers the World.

So, for inspiring Mr. Pitt with his selflessness…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the honor to Sanda…

…the brownish, mountain-dwelling “Good Gargantua,” who does battle for humanity's sake with his greenish, sea-dwelling, people-gobbling brother Gaira…

…in that movie. I was taken to it by my long-suffering Mom, for all I know on the same day as Pitt (he’s only about a year younger than I am, which is probably why I’m often mistaken for him), & I remember it spooked me slightly more than the Japanese monster pictures usually did. Accidental byproducts of Frankenstein-ian experiments in the earlier film, these shaggy anthropoids with their ugly ogre-ish faces & their Cain & Abel dynamic, plus the goriness of Gaira’s eating habits, combined to make this one grimmer & nastier than the typical Godzilla fare.

Also, there’s the matter of this horrible song, which has been occupying space in my cranium for four decades…