Friday, April 27, 2012


You could learn a lot from The Pirates! Band of Misfits. I certainly did. I never knew, for instance, that Charles Darwin was a whiny sort who really just wanted to get a girlfriend, or that Jane Austen and The Elephant Man had a personal connection, or that Queen Victoria was a member of a secret society that enjoyed…well, I don’t want to give too many of the film’s astounding revelations away.

From the hero, known simply as The Pirate Captain, I learned that the best thing about piracy is Ham Night. At one point he also proclaims that the friends you make after you become famous are far better than the ones you had before, and at another point that certain undertakings are only impossible if you stop and think about them. But he too must learn his lessons—most importantly, he learns that you can’t just say “Arrrr” at the end of a sentence and think that makes everything OK.

Voiced by Hugh Grant, The Pirate Captain commands, not very despotically, a crew of sensitive-souled types such as The Pirate With a Scarf (Martin Freeman), The Pirate With Gout (Brendan Gleeson) and The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen), who may possibly be a woman in pirate drag and a false beard. He’s really not a bad sort, as pirate captains go, but he has a tragic weakness—for recognition by his peers. His lifelong ambition has been to be named Pirate of the Year, but alas the only award he’s landed so far is “Best Anecdote About a Squid.”

Many of us might regard such an accolade as achievement enough for any career, but The Pirate Captain just can’t give up on Pirate of the Year, an unrealistic goal in light of his lack of booty (in the older sense of the term). When he raids a ship that turns out to be HMS Beagle, The Captain learns from Darwin (David Tennant) that his beloved, unusually large avian mascot Polly isn’t actually a parrot at all, but rather a surviving dodo, and that if the young naturalist could present it to the Royal Academy, it would surely be named discovery of the year.

The Captain is sure that this will somehow be a stepping-stone to Pirate of the Year, so he hoists sail for London.

Adapted from Gideon Defoe’s 2004 book The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists (under which title the film has been released in the UK), this stop-motion Aardman Studios feature was directed by Peter Lord, of Chicken Run. It’s far more freewheeling and absurd than the tense, dramatic Chicken Run, however.

I loved how The Pirates! turned anachronism into a virtue, creating a mash-up of a 19th Century in which Darwin, Victoria, Jane Austen and The Elephant Man all rubbed elbows, and, for that matter, also encompassing the 17th and 18th Centuries, during which, after all, most of the so-called Golden Age of Piracy actually took place. I loved Darwin’s stone-faced simian butler, and the alternately furious and flirtatious Queen (Imelda Staunton), and the movie’s odd, persistent fixation on ham, right down to the Skull and Crossed Hambones on the flag.

Silliness like this—cheerful, defiant silliness as only the Brits, it seems, can do it—is, I think, good for one’s health from time to time, and so is the low-tech, hand-wrought madness of stop-motion animation. Both have become rarities, and their confluence makes The Pirates! a small treasure.

Thursday, April 26, 2012


With the departure last week of Canadian actor Jonathan Frid...

Monster-of-the-Week: …the obvious choice for this week’s honoree is Barnabas Collins, the conflicted New England vampire antihero of Dan Curtis’ cult-favorite horror soap opera. I mean, of course, the original Barnabas, played by Frid, not Johnny Depp's interpretation in Tim Burton's upcoming Dark Shadows movie.

I could be wrong (if anybody can think of a later example, correct me) but I think Frid may have been the last actor to become a horror star the old-fashioned way, by putting on evening clothes and a cape and fangs…

…instead of a hockey mask or finger knives, the last of the Lugosi-style old-school boogeymen rooted in 19th-Century stage melodrama. The role defined Frid’s relatively short career; within a few years of the soap’s end he’d mostly left showbiz, the occasional theatrical venture or one-man tour excepted.

But for a few years this slight, hollow-cheeked journeyman ham had serious fans, some with ardent crushes on him. Earlier this year, I happened to pick up one of the many Dark Shadows tie-in novels, Barnabas, Quentin and the Grave Robbers

…and found Barnabas entirely whitewashed into a Gothic-romantic hero.

The character remains a minor cultural icon forty-odd years later. The reason, I think, has less to do with Frid being scary than with the same factor that made Lugosi, Karloff, Chaney, Price, Lee and the rest into stars: He was peculiarly likable, even lovable. In the end, the monsters that last are the ones for which we feel affection.

Saturday, April 21, 2012


It’s quite a week for documentaries: opening this weekend at the Valley Art in Tempe is Marley, a detailed recounting of the life of reggae great Bob, entertainingly told through talking heads of his fellow musicians, lovers, cronies, children, etc.

Directed by the Scottish filmmaker Kevin Mcdonald, it’s full of material that was new to me, though I’ve always loved Marley’s music—I didn’t know, for instance, that his father was white, or that there was an attempt to assassinate him, or that near the end of his short life he traveled to Germany to try a holistic cure for the cancer that killed him. A fascinating movie, it humanizes an iconic figure, though it doesn’t, to its credit, make him entirely likable; for all the warmth in his music, his kids seemed to find him a bit distant and aloof. It’s full of beautiful music, too, although as so often with music films there's the frustration of the music being truncated, or talked over.

Also opening this weekend is Disney’s nature film Chimpanzee, directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield. It’s about Oscar, a baby chimp in the Ivory Coast who gets orphaned after rival chimps attack his family. Much of the movie is astonishingly beautiful, but the brutal side of chimp life—including the fact that they hunt monkeys—is not ignored. At the movie’s core is astounding footage of Oscar being adopted by a male member of his troop—the alpha male, at that. These scenes are extraordinarily touching, though the generous sprinkling of folksy narration by Tim Allen makes the film feel overall less like a documentary and more like a simian reality show, albeit one with a more civilized cast than usual.

Friday, April 20, 2012


By his own account, the title character of Jiro Dreams of Sushi really does dream about sushi. At the beginning of this swoony documentary, legendary sushi chef Jiro Ono, then about 85, describes visions of sushi coming to him while he sleeps.

The movie presents Jiro’s creations so vividly that you may end up dreaming of sushi yourself after you see it. Directed by the young TV documentarian David Gelb, making his feature debut, it’s a loving, visually ravishing ode, all set to passionate classical strains, especially those of Philip Glass, to the art of making uncooked fish look yummy—no doubt it tastes yummy, too, but unfortunately you can’t get that from a movie.

It’s an accomplished piece of filmmaking, crafted with the care of one of Jiro’s courses, but it’s more than high-class food porn. It’s a portrait of an obsessed artist and his reverent followers. Jiro’s 3-Michelin-Star restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, is unassuming—located in a central Tokyo subway station, it seats ten, serves only sushi, no appetizers, and is reportedly booked more than a year out. Jiro’s aesthetic is austere; a food critic in the film calls it “minimalist.” On the other hand, director Gelb’s eye on the place, its food, and its staff is romantic, complex, besotted.

Gelb gives us subtle family tensions—Jiro’s eldest son, Yoshikazu, is his father’s dutiful second fiddle at the restaurant, though he’s fifty years old, while Jiro’s younger and somehow more glamorous son Takashi runs his own, less formal second location across town. There’s a poignancy in Yoshikazu’s lifelong, uncomplaining residence in Jiro’s shadow—he seems somehow older than his own father—and it’s hard to tell if he resents it, or is terrified of the all-but-inevitable day when he’ll have to take over and face the comparisons that will follow.

Also implicit in Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a reproach to whiny Western attitudes toward work: It was hard for this lazy American not to feel a little chastened by the severe yet wryly amused face of Jiro, who came up from poverty and was on his own from boyhood, when he insists to the camera that one should never complain about one’s job, and should constantly strive to improve. This attitude is reflected in his business associates, who we also meet. The vendors with whom Yoshikazu deals on his daily run to the vast fish market each specialize in one kind of sea creature, the guy who sells Jiro his rice is a similarly parochial master, and so on.

There’s a tinge of comedy to all this, as well, because, of course, we’re talking about sushi—little bits of seafood and rice and seaweed pressed together in appealing ways, to be snarfed up in a bite or two. That’s what these people have devoted their lives to, what diners wait years for, what these moviemakers have devoted such skill to. The interview subjects, even Jiro himself, show a certain chuckling, sheepish awareness that, at the end of the day, they’re talking about finger food. Much as I enjoyed the film, my inner vulgarian wanted to go to Jiro’s place and ask for teriyaki sauce to pour over my food, and a Dr. Pepper to wash it down.

Finally, there’s even a mild environmentalist aspect to Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Yoshikazu notes how overfishing—partly driven, of course, by the popularization of sushi worldwide—has affected both the quantity and quality of the daily catch from which he has to choose, especially of his art’s staple, tuna. “Without fish, we can’t do business,” he sadly notes. As with sushi chefs, so with humanity.

RIP to Levon Helm, fine musician and equally fine actor—I love his delivery of the opening narration in The Right Stuffpassed on at 71, to Greg Ham of Australia's Men At Work, passed on at 58, and to Barnabas Collins himself, Jonathan Frid, maybe the last actor to attain old-school horror stardom by donning evening clothes, a cape and fangs, passed on at 87, just a few weeks too early to catch Tim Burton's upcoming movie version of Dark Shadows, in which he reportedly has a cameo. More about Frid, needless to say, in an upcoming Monster-of-the-Week....

Thursday, April 19, 2012


In recognition of actor Luke Askew’s passing…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to the title character of The Beast Within, a 1982 shocker about a kid, the product of a rape, who starts to molt into a vengeful cicada monster when he turns seventeen.

It’s a pretty unpleasant, unsavory ‘80s sickie, but it has a wonderful cast—Ronny Cox, Bibi Besch, L.Q. Jones, R.G. Armstrong, Logan Ramsey and Askew, as the hapless mortician…

RIP also to American Bandstand host Dick Clark, passed on at 82. My favorite of his TV appearances was this cameo on the ‘60s-era Batman series, in which the Caped Crusader observes how you can tell he’s from Philadelphia because “he dipped his diphthong…”

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Thursday afternoon at 1:30 p.m. (Phoenix time) the greatest TV channel ever, Turner Classic Movies, shows a weird one: 1969’s The Illustrated Man. It’s from the 1951 short-story collection by the great Ray Bradbury, framed by the device of a hobo covered from the neck down with body art, supposedly by an old woman from the future, that comes to life and tells stories if you stare at it.

As an adaptation of this famous anthology, the movie, directed by Jack Smight, is a travesty, but it’s a bizarre, occasionally disturbing travesty. Only three of the stories are presented, each starring Rod Steiger and Claire Bloom. They all kind of suck, although the middle one, “The Long Rain,” about space-wrecked astronauts struggling through the perpetual torrential downpour on the planet Venus, is a little bit cool. The real focus is on the frame story, featuring Bloom as the tattoo artist, Steiger, at his hammiest—which is saying something—as her human canvas, and Robert Drivas as the poor schmuck who meets him on the road. There’s also a very cute, but very strange, little Pomeranian as Steiger’s familiar.

What’s really striking about this film, however, is how restrained the ink on Steiger looks by today’s standards. The designs, by Western artist James E. Reynolds, are terrific, but the idea that they make Steiger “a freak,” as he says, is now hilarious—if only by virtue of his head and neck being un-inked, you wouldn’t look twice at this guy nowadays if he was your tax attorney.

RIP to the excellent, eccentric character actor Luke Askew, passed on at 80, whose career ranged, rather apolitically, from The Green Berets to Easy Rider, and with whom, I note from his obit, I have the honor to share a birthday.

Friday, April 13, 2012


Though they were on TV all the time, The Three Stooges shorts were never favorites of mine when I was a kid. There was something oppressive about the drab, monochrome world they inhabited. The constant, daunting work, for which they were ill-suited and at which they were existentially fated to fail, the incessant, tedious beatings, and browbeatings, of the mild by the aggressive—it was, perhaps, a little too much like school for my taste.

It was only as an “adult” that I came to appreciate the skill, precision and occasional anarchy of the Stooges at their best. Sometime in the ‘80s I saw 1940’s A-Plumbing We Will Go at a theatre, tacked onto the bill of some feature, and suddenly the slapstick, with its tinge of surrealism, was hilarious, and the characterizations unsentimental and brilliant.

Whether or not they’re your cup of tea, the Stooges are show-business history—their enduring, now iconic popularity is a direct link to vaudeville, and a testament to the indestructibility of that style. Now the Farrelly Brothers have made it to the multiplexes with their long-delayed feature film The Three Stooges, an unironic attempt to re-create the act’s best-loved vintage for a modern audience.

In various combinations, the Stooges were popular in the theatre from the mid-‘20s. They were in movies from the early ‘30s, first at Fox and MGM, often in support of their old vaudeville top banana Ted Healy, and then on their own at Columbia in a series of relentlessly cranked-out, insanely profitable short subjects, and into the ‘60s on TV and in a string of mostly dismal features. But it was the first Columbia line-up—Moe Howard as the mean, morose alpha male, bossing around frizzy-haired, soft-spoken Larry Fine and Jerome “Curly” Howard as the manic, childlike wild card—that have proved pop-culture immortals.

In the Farrellys’ Three Stooges, after early scenes depicting the trio as boys in an orphanage, the gifted Sean Hayes, here top-billed, plays Larry, while stage and TV journeyman Chris Diamantopolous plays Moe and sketch-comedy vet Will Sasso plays Curly. The story, strung across three episodes—each with its own “Three Blind Mice” title sequence—is a standard raising-money-to-save-the-orphanage pretext, basically the same used in The Blues Brothers. It allows for episodes at a zoo, a hospital, a fancy party, and on the set of Jersey Shore. Eventually, the boys are duped into a murder plot.

It’s a perfectly acceptable, loose approach, but obviously there’s only one really relevant question—is it funny? Well, part of me wishes I could honestly say that this movie didn’t make me laugh, not because I’m ashamed of liking lowbrow humor, but because I’d almost prefer if the Stooges’ comedy was irrecoverable, except from the original films.

But this movie did make me laugh, much more than I expected it to, and I wasn’t laughing alone at the screening. There’s no question that it’s ersatz; while the leads are impressive—Hayes even manages to bring a nice touch of delicacy to some of his line readings—no one would mistake their polished impressions for the hardscrabble authenticity of the real Stooges. Yet somehow this doesn’t matter. The routines work anyway, just like they did in the later movies with Shemp and Joe Besser and “Curly Joe” DeRita, just like they did onstage before Curly joined the act. Without Curly they aren’t magical, and neither is the new film, but these shticks were built to last, and they still get their laughs honestly.

It should also be said that there are other strong performances in the film, notably by Larry David, in nun drag as the venomous “Sister Mary Mengele,” and by Sofia Vergara as a villainous femme fatale—her horrified mugging every time the Stooges make another inopportune reappearance is pretty amusing.

Finally, the now-obligatory “Kids, don’t try this at home” disclaimer at the end is cleverly handled.

Thursday, April 12, 2012


The Three Stooges, the movie revival of the slapstick trio that is the long-cherished project of the The Farrelly Brothers, opens tomorrow. So…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week let’s give the nod to this giant fire-breathing tarantula…

…a specimen of the local fauna on the planet Venus, as envisioned in the 1959 Stooges feature Have Rocket, Will Travel.

This movie was very far indeed from the finest hour for the franchise, at this stage consisting of Moe Howard, Larry Fine and “Curly Joe” DeRita, but when I saw it, screened in the basement of my Presbyterian church to fight off kid boredom on a Saturday afternoon in summer when I was eight or nine, I thought it a fine piece of cinema. I wasn’t much of a Stooge fan as a kid—my appreciation of them has grown in adulthood—but I liked the movie for its imaginative sci-fi elements, not least because of this combustible creature.

The film may be viewed in its entirety, here.

Monday, April 9, 2012


Hope everybody had a great Easter/Passover weekend. Friday The Wife, The Kid and I, along with some of The Wife’s cronies from her Day Gig, went to Chase Field for Opening Day and got see the spectacle of a good, tense Diamondbacks win over the Giants, 5-4. Giants great Tim Lincecum had a bad first inning, and the D-bax were able to hang in there. We were in the outfield picnic tables, and had a blast.

In other excellent news, my pal Barry Graham’s novel The Wrong Thing

…has been nominated for a Spinetingler Award, sharing the category with the likes of Lawrence Block.

The Kid and I caught up with Mirror Mirror, a live-action comic retelling of Snow White that’s been sort of lost in the Hunger Games shuffle. It’s no Princess Bride, which it badly seems to want to be, but it’s not a bad picture; the cast—Julia Roberts as the Wicked Queen, Armie Hammer as the Charming Prince, Nathan Lane, Mare Winningham, and especially the unsentimental Dwarves—give it some buoyancy, and Lily Collins as Snowie herself is very sweet. There’s even a Bollywood-style number at the finale.

Here’s a pic of Your Humble Narrator, seemingly annoying the cast of the upcoming Dark Shadows, taken by The Kid in the lobby of the theater after the movie…

Friday, April 6, 2012


Wild turkeys have been a recurring theme in my life recently. I missed the screening of The Hunger Games, still mopping up at the box office, because I was back east. Among other places, I visited a honey farm in West Virginia, where I saw a small flock of the handsome birds trooping past the front windows.

Then, when I got back to Arizona, I received a press release from the National Wild Turkey Federation, noting that they teach young people some of the same bowhunting skills employed by the heroine of The Hunger Games. The organization, which is holding such an event from April 19 through 26 on United States Forest Service land around Flagstaff, Alphine and Christopher Creek (for details call 928-848-4549), would like very much to hook their wagon to the Hunger Games train.

No fools the National Wild Turkey Federation. The Hunger Games, based on the wildly successful novel by Suzanne Collins, had one of the strongest opening weekends in cinema history, and shows early signs that it could be for this generation what, say, Star Wars was for the previous.

Anyway, the wild turkeys seemed to be telling me that I need to see the movie, so I did, and found it exciting, absorbing, disturbingly plausible...and ultimately evasive. For the uninitiated: The Hunger Games is set in a future America in which, every year, each of twelve “Districts” selects two “Tributes,” young people who are sent to the capital to compete in the televised title event, a winner-take-all elimination by combat, to the death. Our heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who lives in a third-world Appalachian district, volunteers for this revolting duty to prevent her younger sister, chosen by lottery, from having to go.

In the Capitol, Katniss and her District-mate Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) meet their competitors, are schooled for the competition by a mentor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), and groomed for the showmanship side of it by Cinna (Lenny Kravitz). Eventually the kids are released in what appears to be a pretty wilderness area, but is actually an arena wired for TV and environmental manipulation, and they start killing each other. Katniss takes to the high country and waits for the fight to come to her.

You don’t have to be a student of pop culture to know that this premise is nothing really new, that its lineage can be traced from Death Race 2000 (1975) to The Most Dangerous Game (1932), to, alas, the real-life gladiatorial combats of the “bread and circuses” era of ancient Rome. Not even the satire of “reality TV” is new—this movie reminded me a lot of Daniel Minahan’s grim, neglected 2001 thriller Series 7: The Contenders, essentially a low-budget take on the same idea, with one crucial differences, the difference that delivers a 152-million-dollar opening weekend: the combatants in The Hunger Games are adolescent kids.

They’re attractive kids, at that. Lawrence, of Winter’s Bone, is a young beauty with a melancholy face and thick hair which, like the locks of the other female tributes, somehow remains lush and lovely no matter how many days she sleeps outside. Large as the role is, it’s a little underwritten, but she gets more out of it than might be expected—she has a fine moment, for instance, modeling a dress she’s wearing on a TV interview, in which you see she’s simultaneously terrified and, fleetingly, pleased by her glamour. She has a strong rapport with the charmingly wide-eyed, openhearted Hutcherson, and with a younger costar, Amandla Stenberg as the resourceful Rue, but Hunger Games, directed with skill and restraint by Gary Ross, is not an ensemble piece—Lawrence carries it like a star.

The movie, however, gripping though it is, is overprotective—not of its star, but of her character. The story is rigged so that, while Katniss kills, she does so only in self-defense, and she’s excused from ever having to kill anyone she (or the audience) likes. This strikes me as having less to do with plausibility or with strong drama than with the need to market the film to preteens without alienating them, or their parents.

And I have to admit that a hugely successful entertainment about kids slaughtering kids for the entertainment of kids doesn’t strike me as the cheeriest news for humankind. But The Hunger Games seems, at least, humane, in touch with the horror of its own concept, and with its scary proximity to our own pop culture.

Thursday, April 5, 2012


RIP to veteran character actor Warren Stevens, passed on at 92. Though he appeared in movies like The Barefoot Contessa and Phone Call from a Stranger and on TV shows ranging from Star Trek to Mission: Impossible to I Spy to Bonanza, even though he appeared in the original Broadway production of Brecht’s Galileo in 1947, he’s still best remembered as “Doc” Ostrow in 1956’s Forbidden Planet.

So, in his honor…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week let’s turn our attention once again to Forbidden Planet, and honor the menace which Doc, at the expense of his own life, identifies: The Monster From the Id—the Freudian fury from Walter Pidgeon’s subconscious, manifested as a rampaging, invisible beast.

Here’s said Monster’s big scene, but if you’ve never watched the whole movie, you should. Here’s an article I wrote about it for New Times a few years ago.