Monday, July 30, 2012


The Wife, The Kid and Your Humble Narrator are deep into Olympic mania. Indeed, I even liked Danny Boyle’s unhinged Opening Ceremony spectacle.

The Wife and I did, however, take time out this past weekend to go to the Valley Art for the documentary Paul Williams: Still Alive

I highly recommend this one, which plays there through at least Thursday; it’s worth the difficult pilgrimage to downtown Tempe. You can read my review of it here, at Jabcat on Movies.

If you have a few million dollars lying around, you should check out my story in the August edition of Phoenix Magazine, about a strange investment opportunity involving the movie business and the treasure of a Spanish conquistador. It’s on pages 33-34, or you can read it here.

RIP to Lupe Ontiveros, who played innumerable maids—perhaps most memorably in As Good As It Gets—as well as the murderess of the title character in Selena, passed on at 69. RIP also to French experimental filmmaker Chris Marker, of A Grin Without a Cat, Sans Soliel and the masterly, chilling photonovela short La jetee, passed on at 91.

Friday, July 27, 2012


There is, presumably, a socioeconomic as well as a choreographic connotation to the title Step Up. The series of dance movies, which began in 2006, is about struggling urban youths using hip-hop and break-dancing to escape “The Street.”

Opening today is the fourth film, Step Up: Revolution. It’s set in Miami, and focuses on “flash mobs,” the vogue for attempting to turn real life into a movie musical. Our hero Sean (Ryan Guzman) and his buddy Eddy (Misha Gabriel), waiters at an upscale beach hotel, lead a large, semi-surreptitious, racially-mixed dance crew called “The Mob” in elaborate public performances—on the street, at an art gallery opening, in an office building’s lobby. The Mob is trying to win an online contest, though it looks like the production materials, costuming and work hours that would go into each number would pretty much negate the cash prize.

Trouble rears its head before anyone figures this out anyway, in the form of rich girl Emily (Kathryn McCormick) an aspiring classical dancer with whom Sean falls in love. Emily joins The Mob, and encourages them to turn their performances into protest art against the plans of a skunky developer (Peter Gallagher) to raze their neighborhood. But Sean neglects to tell Eddy or any of his pals that Emily is the developer’s daughter.

In short, the plot of Step Up: Revolution is as insipid as that of any Beach Party movie. Unlike a Beach Party movie, however, the tone is very sober and lacking in (intentional) comedy.

But so what? It’s a dance movie; all that finally matters is if the dance numbers are any good. And they are, in a slick, Super-Bowl-commercial sort of way. They would be better if the music was better, but most of it is just techno-crap in support of the leaping around.

Said leaping around is pretty mesmerizing at times, though. The synchronized acrobatic athleticism on display is remarkable, so much so, indeed, that I found myself wondering if it might have been digitally enhanced. I would be disappointed to learn that it was, but in any case it’s fun to watch. For a while.

One number is singularly unfortunate in its timing, however: The Mob crashes the developer’s fancy party, and the performance opens with gas canisters tossed into crowd, after which the dancers enter dressed in black, wearing gas masks. After Aurora, this may not go over big with moviegoers.

Thursday, July 26, 2012


Off, I hope, to a truly deluxe apartment in the sky is Sherman Hemsley, who brought bounce and swagger and a slightly mean-spirited joie de vivre to the role of George Jefferson on All in the Family and The Jeffersons, passed on at 74.

RIP also to Dog Day Afternoon screenwriter Frank Pierson, passed on at 87, and, at 75, to Medical Center leading man Chad Everett—“Chaddy Baby,” as an old girlfriend of mine, veteran of a girlhood crush on Everett, used to refer to him...

Luckily for her, in me she found someone at least equally handsome. Despite our similarities, I’ve been wise enough never to refer to my wife as “my property,” as Chaddy Baby notoriously did on The Dick Cavett Show in 1972.

Next Tuesday is the DVD release of The Whisperer in Darkness, a movie version of the H.P. Lovecraft tale. More about that film soon, but in the meantime…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod this week to any specimen of the Mi-Go, the sentient lobster-clawed flying fungus-people featured in that yarn. Here’s the movie’s version:

Monday, July 23, 2012


Just as it was difficult to discuss 2008’s The Dark Knight out of the shadow of the heartbreaking loss of Heath Ledger, so it’s likely to be difficult, for a while at least, to discuss The Dark Knight Rises out of the context of the horror at the multiplex in Colorado. As it happened, I was unable to attend the screening of the film before it opened, so unlike many of my fellow critics, I saw it—Sunday morning, in a theater maybe one-third full—with the Aurora shootings in my head.

But in terms of the movie, all the tragedy proves is how much easier it is to be a supervillain than a superhero. The real world squeezes the “super” part out of super-villainy, however—it’s terrifying when somebody tries to realize that sort of large-scale, comic-book-style mayhem, but in the end it’s also sordid and pathetic and wretched. It isn’t grand or epic.

And, except to express sympathy to the victims and their loved ones, it probably isn’t worthy of even as many words as I’ve already given it. So let’s turn to a far less important subject—the movie itself.

I wish I could report that the new Batman flick by Christopher Nolan, from a script he wrote with his brother Jonathan, is a masterpiece, but I can’t. As with the earlier film, it’s a severely uneven mixed bag, polished and handsome but preposterously overlong, confusing, glutted with enough ideas for three or four movies but way too many for one. Like many, many big Hollywood blockbusters of the last couple of decades, it’s fascinating, even thrilling in fits and starts, but wearying in the aggregate.

Batman hasn’t been seen since the end of Dark Knight. Wayne Industries is in the red, and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), ravaged both physically and spiritually by the tragic events of the last movie, is going through a Howard Hughes-ish recluse phase. Alfred (Michael Caine) keeps pestering Bruce like a Jewish mother to get out and find a nice girl, even if it’s the second-story gal Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), who’s managed to filch a string of pearls belonging to Bruce’s mother.

The principal dastardly duties here fall to a certain Bane, played by the very good Brit actor Tom Hardy, here wasted behind a mask. Bane is like a mash-up of post-Boomer pop villainy, with elements of Darth Vader, The Predator, Hannibal Lecter and especially The Lord Humungus from The Road Warrior—he speaks in the same mushy rumble. But I can’t say I found him as scary as any of the above.

Bane is up to something with a huge crew of henchmen in the sewers of Gotham. Eventually he cuts the city off from the outside world and holds its inhabitants hostage for weeks with a nuclear bomb, while imprisoning Bruce in a hellhole prison overseas.

So there are explosions and chases and fistfights and shootouts and abductions and flashbacks and escapes, between and during which the actors spout pages and pages of exposition, much of it hard to follow even when it’s comprehensible, which for me was maybe about half the time. Things aren’t much easier on a thematic level—politically, the movie flails incoherently, coming across one minute like an Occupy rant and the next like Wall Street propaganda. Scene after scene is propulsive and exciting in itself, but often I was unsure what had happened, or what I should want to happen.

What redeems The Dark Knight Rises is what redeems most overworked movies, if anything does—the acting. Bale is better, or at least less annoying, than he was in the last film, though he’s still using that stupid raspy growl when he has the cape and mask on. Between him and Hardy, much of the dialogue sounds like it’s coming through blown stereo speakers.

There’s no performance on the level of Ledger’s in the previous film, but Caine, Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman each get a few minutes to show what they’re capable of without breaking a sweat. Hathaway is certainly not repellent in her Catwoman get-up, but Marion Cotillard casts an even stronger seductive spell as a rival love interest for Bruce.

But it’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as an intrepid young Gotham cop, who develops more of a relationship with the audience than anybody else in The Dark Knight Rises. If there’s another film in the series, there’s reason to believe he’ll figure prominently, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

RIP to Al Franken’s laid-back early writing and performing partner Tom Davis, passed on too young at 59.

Thursday, July 19, 2012


Nadya Suleman, aka “The Octomom,” made a personal appearance here in Phoenix a couple of days ago. I hasten to note that I knew of this event only because I saw the billboards around town; I didn’t go, and I didn’t care to help publicize it. But now that it’s over I suppose I’m not above using it as a hook upon which to hang…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week’s two-time honoree, the handsome title character in the 1971 low-budgeter Octaman...

The suit, an early effort by the great Rick Baker, is the best thing about this excruciating dull movie (sadly, it was the final film of the beautiful Pier Angeli), but if you have time to squander, you can watch Octaman in its entirety, here.

Hey, here’s a quiz question for you: How many tentacles does an octopus have?

Prepare to have your mind blown—an octopus has ZERO tentacles! It has eight arms.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


RIPs: To the lovely Celeste Holm, memorable in All About Eve and Gentlemen’s Agreement, passed on at 95. I confess that this is another of those cases where I might have thought she had passed on years or even decades ago. That’s also true of country great Kitty Wells, passed on at 92. RIP to her as well.

RIP also to Richard Zanuck, producer behind Jaws and Driving Miss Daisy, among many, many other films, passed on at 77, and to Sage Stallone, passed on way too young at 36.

Friday, July 13, 2012


The original film which began the Ice Age franchise, in 2002, was a rather low-key, almost poignant affair, by animated kids-movie standards. It was the story of three prehistoric mammals—Manny the mammoth, Diego the saber-toothed tiger, and Sid the sloth, voiced respectively by Ray Romano, Denis Leary and John Leguizamo, trying to return a foundling human baby to his family.

Leguizamo’s lisping nurturer of a sloth was goofy and funny, but the real laughs came from an on-the-margin subplot involving Scrat, a sort of sabre-toothed squirrel-raccoon who speaks in dismayed squeaks and clucks and the occasional anguished wail, and his perpetual, perpetually frustrated attempts to secure his beloved acorn.

It was a sweet, offbeat picture, and a hit, spawning three sequels, each gaudier, more whimsical and less concerned with paleontological accuracy then the last. In the newest, Ice Age: Continental Drift, Scrat’s travails with his acorn directly—and hilariously—result in the break-up of the continents. In the resulting apocalypse, Manny, Diego, Sid and Sid’s grandmother (Wanda Sykes) end up at sea on an iceberg, where they eventually encounter another iceberg carrying a crew of scurvy piratical creatures led by a maniacal primate, Captain Gutt (Peter Dinklage).

Meanwhile, Manny’s mate Ellie (Queen Latifah) and daughter Peaches (Keke Palmer) try to get their herd out of the way of the approaching continent. More importantly, Peaches struggles with her first crush.

Ice Age: Continental Drift is very silly, but sweet and colorful, with strong performances—Dinklage and Sykes are entertaining additions to the company. As with the other films in the series, the prologue, featuring Scrat, is the best part, and it’s already played in theatres, as a short before last year’s Rio.

Continental Drift, in turn, is preceded by The Longest Daycare, a terrific Simpsons short, featuring baby Maggie—it’s about Maggie’s heroic efforts to save a butterfly from a sadistic classmate at “The Ayn Rand School for Tots.” Grownups may find it the highlight of the bill.

Thursday, July 12, 2012


The Amazing Spider-Man opened to huge business last week, and…

Monster-of-the-Week: …it at last brings to the big screen my own favorite of Spidey’s antagonists, this week’s honoree, Curt Connors aka The Lizard. He’s played in the current film by Rhys Ifans, but here he is in the lab-coated vintage in which I first encountered him, on the cover of the first Spidey book I ever bought, and in the original ‘60s-era Spiderman cartoon.

You can watch the cartoon here.

Monday, July 9, 2012


Another major farewell: RIP to the seemingly indestructible Ernest Borgnine, passed on at 95.

I got to see Borgnine at work once, a little over a decade ago. A friend of mine was production manager on a low-budget, Grisham-esque legal comedy-drama called Whiplash, and I visited him on location, in the chambers of the Arizona Supreme Court. There I got to watch Borgnine, Oscar winner for Best Actor in 1955 for Marty, the guy from The Wild Bunch and The Poseidon Adventure and McHale’s Navy and Jubal and Bad Day at Black Rock and From Here to Eternity and The Dirty Dozen and Johnny Guitar and on and on, play the same scene over and over again for most of an hour.

The old-school work ethic on display was impressive. Borgnine, playing a wry old judge opposite some young actor as an idealistic lawyer, clearly knew his lines cold, and because of this was able to shade the scene a little differently every time, first realistically, then a little more broadly, then drawing the lines out, then whispering them in an ironically conspiratorial tone. At an age when he could have shown up, recited his lines mechanically and collected his check—and the filmmakers would still have regarded it as a coup for their project—he behaved like a true actor-tradesman, providing his employers with various options. It was a privilege to witness.

Thursday, July 5, 2012


Somebody sent me…

Monster-of-theWeek:this cool time-lapse footage of an actor being made up for the role of The Monster in a production of the stage musical of Young Frankenstein.

Let the finished product serve as this week’s honoree…

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


Happy 4th everyone.

RIP to Andy Griffith, passed on at 86. This is kind of a big one for me—watching that show after school with my brother ranks among the happiest memories of my younger years.

Griffith was a seriously skilled performer, and shrewd enough to know that he’d look better yet if he surrounded himself with terrific actors, then stood back and let them shine. But for all the hilarity that The Andy Griffith Show was capable of, I still think that its real achievement was in the rapport between Griffith as Sheriff Andy Taylor and Don Knotts as Deputy Barney Fife—what they captured, in the rhythm of their conversation and interaction, may be the most quietly convincing portrait of a close friendship ever committed to film. The famous scenes in which they discuss their laid-back Sunday plans (“Go downtown, get a bottle of pop…”) over and over again are—for me quite literally—heavenly; the sheer tangible savor in their anticipation of these simple pleasures is about as good as American TV comedy has ever gotten. It’s an example for life.

Among the encomia to Griffith of the last day are many mentions of his brilliant performance as the Glenn-Beck-ish reactionary media conman Lonesome Rhodes in Elia Kazan’s wonderful 1957 A Face in the Crowd.

Well-deserved, but it should be mentioned that Griffith often put his genial persona to sinister, villainous use—he had a great time playing heavies on TV in the ‘70s. A few years ago I was able to snag a VHS copy of the 1974 TV-wheeler Pray for the Wildcats, in which Griffith, leading a cast that includes William Shatner, Robert Reed and Marjoe Gortner, plays a sheer bastard, an unapologetically murderous SOB, and is amazingly convincing and scary.

And if I needed one more reason to love Griffith, there’s this.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


Andrew Garfield looks like a spider—a daddy longlegs. That is to say, he looks like a daddy longlegs with the head of a Byronic poet.

As the title character in The Amazing Spider-Man, the young actor, who previously made an impression as Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network, commands an inhumanly svelte torso, like a ballet dancer’s, with long spindly limbs that seem both frenetic and graceful in motion. Unmasked, as Spidey’s hapless alter-ego Peter Parker, Garfield’s delicate features often wear a smile, but it’s a bleak one, as of resignation to disappointment in love.

Spider-Man, Sam Raimi’s excellent rendering of the Marvel Comics saga with Tobey Maguire as the superhero, was released back in the dimly remembered bygone year 2002, so The Amazing Spider-Man is a “reboot,” a new retelling of Spidey’s origin story. As before, Parker is a lovelorn high school kid who gets bitten by an irradiated spider, and soon finds himself super-strong, able to climb walls and swing from Manhattan skyscrapers via webs slung from dispensers at his wrists, and imbued with a “Spidey-Sense” of impending danger. A momentary indifference to a crime he witnesses leads to a personal tragedy, thus teaching him that with great power comes...

…well, if you’re more than passingly interested in Spider-Man, you probably already know that with great power comes great responsibility. You aren’t alone if you wonder why it’s now thought essential to laboriously re-do the origin of a superhero, or even a near-super-hero like James Bond or Captain Kirk, just because it’s deemed time to re-cast the role with a younger actor.

Garfield makes a splendid Peter Parker, particularly adept at the character’s tragic side, and while I thought he was perhaps slightly less comfortable with the smartass quips as Spider-Man, the performance is still an impressive success. But I really think audiences could have accepted the change of leading man without the obsessive do-over. Because of the early point in the narrative, characters like J. Jonah Jameson or Norman or Harry Osborn are kept offstage—presumably for the sequels. But these figures account for some of the Spider-Man atmosphere, as does the sense that Spidey’s an accepted part of the New York scene. You may find the prospect of having to go through Peter Parker’s adolescence again only marginally less wearying than that of having to go through your own.

Or maybe that’s just me; the film is aimed, after all, at those who haven’t gone through their own yet, and Peter Parker is an eternal self-projection for angst-ridden youth. Also, the re-do is, at least, well re-done, under the direction of Marc Webb (yeah, I know). A music-video specialist, Webb’s work here is smooth, fast and efficient, if less magical than Raimi’s. The movie really took off for me toward the end, when it’s finally time for Spidey to face-off against the movie’s supervillain, my favorite from the old comic: Dr. Curt Connors, aka The Lizard. The Doc, played by Rhys Ifans, is a scientist who, trying to re-grow his missing arm, takes a dose of lizard juice and turns into a rampaging reptilian megalomaniac, and he at the Webhead have a couple of fine scraps before their main event above Manhattan.

Ifans can be a striking presence—he even managed to keep his dignity as Oxford in the absurd Anonymous—but he seems a bit sheepish here, even though he was allowed a ripe moment in which he gets to quote Michelangelo’s great sonnet “The Silkworm”: (“…That, changing like the snake, I might be free/To cast the flesh wherein I dwell confined…”). The other performances are strong, however: Emma Stone as Peter’s beloved Gwen Stacy, Denis Leary at his nettled best as her police captain father, Campbell Scott in the small role of Peter’s dad, and Martin Sheen and Sally Field as Uncle Ben and Aunt May—that’s right, Gidget and the Flying Nun is now of an age to play Aunt May.

And if that isn’t enough to make you feel old, how about: RIP to Don Grady, Mouseketeer and one of the sons on My Three Sons, passed on at 68, and to his My Three Sons castmate Doris Singleton, better remembered as Caroline Appleby on I Love Lucy, passed on at 92.