Thursday, December 26, 2013


Happy Boxing Day!

Hope everybody had a great Christmas. It was a busy opening day at the multiplexes, and among other offerings was 47 Ronin

…a fantasy adventure featuring Keanu Reeves and a cool dragon that I became aware of too late to include in my Topless Robot list of cool pop-culture dragons. But that’s no reason…

Monster-of-the-Week: …he can’t be this week’s honoree…

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


Merry Christmas everybody!

Here’s a heartwarming holiday story: At least two banks, one in Florida and one in Maryland, have been robbed by men dressed as Santa Claus...

Or, maybe, Santa is hard up this year, and he himself has gone on a robbery spree, confident that we’d all assume it was the work of imposters.

In either case, the incidents reminded me of the 1978 Canadian noir thriller The Silent Partner, in which Christopher Plummer tried the same shtick. Teller Elliot Gould took the opportunity to skim a bit off of Plummer’s take, hence the title. Susannah York is in it, and the very young John Candy, and a ravishing actress named Celine Lomez. Be forewarned, the movie gets a bit violent, even gruesome as it progresses, so it may not be the best choice for festive holiday viewing, but it’s worth seeing…

Friday, December 20, 2013


Opening in the Valley this weekend:

Saving Mr. Banks—It’s 1961, and P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) doesn’t want to sell the movie rights to her novel Mary Poppins to Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). She’s afraid he’ll vulgarize it with music, animation and sentimentality. This movie, directed by John Lee Hancock, dramatizes how Disney and his cronies succeeded in wearing the prickly, exasperating Travers down, so that they could, indeed, vulgarize her book into a sentimental, partly animated musical.

Thompson is superb, as usual, as the impossible woman, but Hanks steals the picture with a delightful—and probably appallingly whitewashed—portrayal of the drawling, relentlessly genial Disney. With its terrific acting and its loving period detail—we get not only early-‘60s Hollywood but also flashbacks to early-20th-Century Australia, as we learn the author’s sad backstory—this is a highly enjoyable movie. It’s also, being a Disney picture, a rather unbecoming piece of company propaganda: Its message is that once you sign your soul over to Uncle Walt, your life will become a wonderful world of color. Vulgarization is salvation.

Inside Llewyn Davis—The latest from the Coen Brothers is also set against a backdrop of early-‘60s show business, albeit a very different one than that of Saving Mr. Banks—this time it’s the folkie scene in New York. Llewyn, stunningly played by Oscar Isaac, is a performer in the Village clubs. He sings and plays traditional-style folk songs beautifully, but he’s a chronic screw-up, basically homeless, sleeping on other people’s couches after gigs, impregnating women—including, possibly, the wife (Carey Mulligan) of his best friend (Justin Timberlake)—and even losing his benefactor’s cat on the streets. His blundering odyssey from New York to Chicago and back is infuriating to watch—it’s as if the Coens are deliberately trying to see how annoyed they can make us with a protagonist and still keep rooting for him. I almost began to wonder if they were trying to make people hate folk music (more than most do already).

But I, at least, did keep rooting for Llewyn (except in his encounters with animals), and while it’s far from the Coen’s best work, the movie, with its weird humor and unpredictable twists, has stuck in my head since I’ve seen it.

Walking With Dinosaurs 3-D—This feature was made using the same techniques as the popular BBC series aired in the US on the Discovery Channel: majestic live settings (Alaska and New Zealand) into which computer-generated, more or less scientifically-accurate dinosaurs are added, creating the sense of a live nature documentary about the extinct beasts. Unlike the documentaries, however, this movie adds corny voice-over dialogue to turn the story into a kids-friendly adventure. The coming-of-age plot follows a young Pachyrhinosaurus, called Patchi, who has a distinguishing (and occasionally musical) hole in his frill, through his perilous, predator-filled migrations, his conflict with his brother Scowler, his love for a pretty she-dino called Juniper, and his eventual rise through the herd hierarchy.

Justin Long provides the voice of Patchi, and the narration and commentary is provided by John Leguizamo as the bird that rides on his back. The blend of kidflick dramatics with the occasional harshness of the paleontological accuracy creates an odd effect, but the movie is great to look at—even some of the 3D effects are worthwhile—and the young audiences seem to respond to it.

Thursday, December 19, 2013


Phoenix Film Critics Society has announced our 2013 Award Winners...


12 Years a Slave

TOP TEN FILMS OF 2013 (in alphabetical order)

12 Years a Slave

American Hustle

Captain Phillips

Dallas Buyers Club




Saving Mr. Banks

Short Term 12


Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity


Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club


Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine


Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club


Lupito Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave


American Hustle




12 Years a Slave


Oz, The Great and Powerful



The Kings of Summer


The Spectacular Now




Blue is the Warmest Color


20 Feet from Stardom


"Let It Go," Frozen










The Great Gatsby




Fast & Furious 6


Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis


Lake Bell, In a World...


Tye Sheridan, Mud


Sophie Nelisse, The Book Thief

As always, some of them reflect my voting—I was especially delighted to see Lake Bell win Breakthrough Performance Behind the Camera for her overlooked comedy In a World…—and some don’t, but it’s a list full of movies worth seeing.

Although Bruce Dern didn’t win Best Actor for his beautiful underplaying in Nebraska, the movie did win for Best Original Screenplay. So, just since Dern is one of my favorite actors…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to any specimen of the Zanti Misfits…

…stars of the like-titled 1963 Outer Limits episode, in which the young Dern appeared as an Earthly Misfit who has an unhappy encounter with the alien exiles…

Monday, December 16, 2013


In honor of the mighty Smaug, check out my list of the great pop-culture dragons on Topless Robot.

Valley holiday shoppers can also check out my list of some intriguing handmade gifts in his month’s issue of Phoenix Magazine

RIP to the great Peter O’Toole, passed on at 81. He’s likely to be most remembered for Lawrence of Arabia, but I love his glorious comic turn in My Favorite Year even more. RIP also to Joan Fontaine, passed on at 96, to crying-in-your-beer bard Ray Price, passed on at 87, and to Tom “Billy Jack” Laughlin, passed on at 82. Odd, somehow, to think that he was a year older than O’Toole.

Friday, December 13, 2013


Part Two of Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation of Tolkien’s The Hobbit opens today. This episode is called The Desolation of Smaug, and it can be dealt with briefly: It’s a much more exciting couple of hours than last year’s An Unexpected Journey, good as that film was.

No doubt this is because the first film, like the first film in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, was concerned in a rather deliberate way with delivering backstory and carefully setting up the reasons for the adventure to come. There was a lot of feasting and singing and portentous flashbacks and solemn declarations, and it seemed to take a while to get to the chases and battles.

The Desolation starts with a quick recap of Part One and ends with an infuriating—and highly effective—cliffhanger, and in between it’s very nearly non-stop action. Our hero, as before, is the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), who along with his full-sized pal, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), is accompanying a band of Dwarves on a quest across Tolkien’s mythic Middle Earth to recover a treasure in Dwarf-forged gold from inside a mountain.

The difficulty with getting this ancestral treasure back is that it’s guarded by Smaug, a gargantuan fire-breathing dragon who exhibits unmistakable hoarding tendencies. Bilbo is the expedition’s designated “burglar,” tasked with sneaking into Smaug’s lair and finding a McGuffin called “The Arkenstone,” a magical rock that will somehow give the Dwarves clear title to the treasure.

I think. As is so often the case for me with high fantasy stories, I got a little lost in the exposition, and was a bit unclear on the Arkenstone’s value. But it doesn’t matter much more than “the microfilm” or whatever does in a Hitchcock thriller; I just accepted that it was important that Bilbo find the thing, and that when it came to giving it up, Smaug would be a dangerously reluctant dragon.

Anyway, as no particular Tolkien buff, I can still say that I found The Hobbit: TDOS a rollicking time. It’s one showcase scene after another. We follow the lads as they encounter a giant bear who shape-shifts at times into a giant man (or maybe it’s the other way around), or escape a nest of giant spiders, or hurtle down white water rapids in empty wine casks chased by hideous Orcs—that last sequence looks ready-made for a theme park somewhere. There’s an escape from the palaces of the Elves, and a yearning between one of the Dwarves and a quite adorable She-Elf (Evangeline Lilly). And all this comes before Bilbo ever even creeps into Smaug’s lair.

When he does, Jackson gives us the most spectacular movie dragon since, at least, the terrifying monster in the splendid 1982 fantasy Dragonslayer. Voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug is a more or less traditional dragon in design, but Jackson stages an entrance for him, gradually rising from under his drifts of gold, that is nearly as good as the original King Kong’s.

A part of what makes Smaug’s introduction so hair-raising is the slyly underscaled comic takes of Martin Freeman. As Bilbo realizes the colossal monster is aware of him and he’s been caught with his hand in the ultimate cookie jar, he reacts with bemused, almost mild irritation, like somebody who’s failed to avoid a boring colleague or a tiresome neighbor.

A couple of other notes for the weekend: Those here in the Valley who might want to do the young dinosaur buffs of their acquaintance a solid might consider taking them to the Walking With Dinosaurs 3-D event tomorrow afternoon at Arizona Museum of Natural History.

Also, somebody forwarded me this year’s necrology from Turner Classic Movies. You can check it out here, it seems comprehensive compared to the one on the Oscars.

Thursday, December 12, 2013


Phoenix Film Critics Society, of which I am always proud to note myself a founding member, has announced its 2013 Award Nominations. As always, some of them reflect my nominating and some do not, but there are plenty of good movies on the list. The winners will be announced next week; my Top Ten list will appear here after the New Year.

In theaters this week is the next chapter in Peter Jackson’s multi-movie adaptation of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, with its grand new incarnation of the title dragon, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. So…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week let’s look back to an earlier version of Smaug, from the 1977 Rankin-Bass version of The Hobbit

…in which he was gruffly voiced by Western fixture Richard Boone.

Friday, December 6, 2013


Opening in the Valley this weekend:

Narco Cultura—“We’re bloodthirsty, crazy and we like to kill.

This is a lyric from a narcocorrida, a popular Mexican song form celebrating the exploits of drug traffickers. That specimen—a translation—may not seem like anything you wouldn’t hear in, say, gangsta hip-hop; what the gives the Narco music a particularly bizarre flavor is the juxtaposition of the grim, gruesome murder and torture that make up its subject matter with its sound—a cheerful, brassy polka beat, often carried by an oom-pah-ing sousaphone.

Shaul Schwartz’s documentary Narco Cultura contrasts two figures from the Mexican drug wars. On one side is Edgar Quintero, a singer and songwriter for the rising Los Angeles band Bukanas de Culiacan. On the other is Richi Soto, a crime scene investigator for the police in Juarez, just across the border from El Paso.

Edgar is an infectiously enthusiastic kid with a lovely voice, which he employs in romanticizing killers—sometimes he’s paid, handsomely, by a particular thug to customize a corrida just for him. He’s a happy young artist reveling in his growing popularity, and itching to spend time in Mexico and gain street cred in the gangster lifestyle he’s mostly written about from internet research.

Richi, on the other hand, spends his days collecting evidence from his city’s innumerable daily murders, most of which will be filed away and never investigated further. He works methodically, but he seems defeated, and he’s afraid to leave his house at night—several of his colleagues have been assassinated.

Schwartz bounces back and forth between these two, and the people they deal with. In Edgar’s case, it’s big crowds of smiling, dancing fans—one music industry guy refers to them as “Regular people, they go to a club, and they feel Narco for the night, you know? The next day they have to go and work.

He’s probably right. Like gangsta rap, the music has its appeal, and the fans offer perfunctory apologetics, halfheartedly claiming that the Narcos are like Robin Hoods, or that the music can be excused because it’s part of a “lifestyle” or “culture.”

Schwartz is having none of it. Against such catchphrases he shows us Richi’s workday, full of distraught mothers, wives and daughters, keening and moaning as the police pick up their loved ones—sometimes in multiple pieces—from streets which in some cases literally run red with blood. Schwartz doesn’t want us to forget that the men Edgar’s music glorifies are responsible for this awful grief.

Superficially, of course, none of this is new. You can trace it from The Sopranos through New Jack City through Scarface through "Mack the Knife" to the Cagney gangster flicks, through the odes to Bonnie and Clyde and the OK Corral and Billy the Kid and pirates and highwaymen, all the way to the medieval murder ballads. What feels different about the narcocorridas is their seeming shamelessness—most criminal rhapsodies, no matter how clearly their real pleasure derives from their seductive power fantasy, make at least a nominal pretense of being cautionary tales. The Narco songs don’t seem to bother with that obligatory element.

An industry guy claims that the songs represent “…an anti-system rebellion that’s makin’ a hero out of somebody that operates outside of the law.” But this doesn’t seem quite accurate—the songs are full of lyrics like “We follow orders.” They seem much more like propaganda for an extra-legal but very rigid system. A Juarez journalist suggests that it’s really a measure of the listeners’ sense of defeat—the songs represent the closest they can realistically imagine to a success story (the genre is banned on Mexican TV and radio, but is hugely popular in that country anyway).

Narco Cultura doesn’t have the strange, surreal feel of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, another disturbing documentary about an unembarrassed culture of slaughter. Schwartz’s movie is more straightforward and angry. It’s an extraordinary film, but be forewarned: It’s full of hideous real-life gore and violence. Sometimes to a polka beat.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire—Jennifer Lawrence returns as heroine Katniss Everdeen in this sequel to last year’s monster hit The Hunger Games. The setting is a dystopian future America built around televised annual games that are basically a to-the-death version of the “reality series” Survivor.

In the new film’s first half, Katniss and fellow survivor Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) take a PR victory tour; in the second half they’re forced to compete again. As in the original, I must admit to a distaste for the premise—I don’t necessarily doubt its plausibility, but I’m troubled by the way we seem to be asked to root for some participants in this vile sport over others, as if we were viewers of the Games ourselves.

But also as with the original, it must be said that Catching Fire is well-made and very well-acted by the sensational cast. The new film seems to be a lot about the costumes—Lawrence is a compelling beauty, and she wears over-the-top outfits better than just about anyone in movies right now. Designer Trish Summerville keeps putting Lawrence in one outrageous get-up after another, and she doesn’t look ridiculous, she looks beautiful—or, at least, she looks more beautiful than ridiculous. Summerville should win an Oscar.

Thursday, December 5, 2013


Here’s my Topless Robot list of the 13 Most Chilling Fictional Ice Monsters.

I was saddened to hear of the senseless death last weekend of Paul Walker, from the Fast and the Furious franchise. I wasn’t a fan of those movies—I only ever saw the first one, if I recall—but I did very briefly meet Walker years ago, at a Q&A after the screening of that flick. He seemed like a pleasant young guy.

The screening was packed with young gearheads, and I remember that one guy asked Walker how they could have trashed one of the cars they did in that first film. Walker explained that they had done no such thing, that the destroyed car was just a mock-up. Then, to the guy’s reaction, he said “Dude, you look so relieved!”

Anyway, in Walker’s memory…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week the nod goes once again to the title ogre…

…from 1986’s Monster in the Closet, in which Walker, then a child actor, played the bespectacled “Professor.”

RIP also, by the way, to that superb actor Tony Musante, of the too-short-lived 1974 series Toma, passed on at 77.

Friday, November 29, 2013


Hope everybody had a great Thanksgiving.

The Kid and I had a celebrity encounter—my friend’s nephew’s beagle appears for a second or two in this “digital video” sketch from Saturday Night Live. She was visiting my friend for the holiday, so yesterday The Kid and I got to meet her.

She has a lovely, musical howl, which we were assured means she’s happy…

Thursday, November 28, 2013


Happy Thanksgiving everybody!

On the long list of that for which I’m thankful—down the list a ways, I admit—is the good fortune to have grown up with Peabody’s Improbable History, one of the features on the marvelous Bullwinkle shows. Mr. Peabody remains one of my role models (unattainable, of course); a tiny Peabody stands on my desk staring at me as I type these words. How well the feature version of Mr. Peabody & Sherman, due out next year, will live up to the great original cartoons remains to be seen…

Now in theaters is Disney’s animated musical Frozen, “inspired” by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. It’s an origin story for Andersen’s title character, a young sovereign under a magical curse who can freeze things with her hands . It has an ice palace, trolls, fiords and other Norwegian motifs, but the story here concerns the tempestuous relationship between the Queen, Elsa, and her lonely, love-hungry younger sister Anna.

The filmmakers seem to be trying for a sort of junior league Wicked, however the score isn’t as memorable as some of the other Disney musicals. But it is, at least, superbly sung, especially by Wicked’s great Idina Menzel, as Elsa.

Its real crowd-pleasers, however, are its two sentient snowmen. First there’s sweet-natured Olaf, voiced by Josh Gad, who has the misfortune to crave “warm hugs.” Then there’s…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week’s honoree, a pretty cool snow giant named "Marshmallow"...

Wednesday, November 27, 2013


Philomena Lee was a teenager in rural and very Catholic Ireland when she got pregnant in the early ‘50s. She was turned over to the nuns and, after delivering her son Anthony, she and her fellow unmarried teen mothers were kept in the convent as, essentially, slave labor, while their kids were adopted—sold, essentially—to any Catholic who could come up with the sizable adoption fee. In 1955, Anthony was taken to America, along with another little girl from the convent. Philomena had been made to sign a document renouncing any claim on him.

Philomena later married, had other kids, and had a successful career as a nurse, but needless to say, she never forgot her first child. She tried several times to get information about him from the convent and was denied each time. Eventually a journalist named Martin Sixsmith took an interest in her case, and the two of them travelled to the U.S. where they made startling discoveries about the boy. The result was a book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee (Sixsmith also wrote a summary of the story for The Guardian in 2009, with the True Confessions-ish title “The Catholic Church Stole My Child.”).

If this story were an old-school stage melodrama or a TV soap opera, it would seem corny and overwrought, down to its tear-jerking final twist. But Philomena, the movie version, isn’t even a little depressing. The director, Stephen Frears, brilliantly treats this real-life tragedy as an odd couple comedy.

Judi Dench plays the gabby, cheery Philomena, an intelligent but unpretentious woman, unfiltered but so warm that she doesn’t give offense to those she chats up. Her openhearted, un-ironic manner wears a bit on Sixsmith—an educated, sophisticated but oddly unlikable cold fish played by Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the adaptation of the Sixsmith book.

The bracing, self-deprecating wit of the movie helps us manage our fury at the Church’s crimes against Philomena and her son, and God knows how many other families. Sixsmith isn’t able to contain his; his journalistic objectivity dissolves as he unravels the final mystery about Philomena’s son in the climactic scenes.

Yet Philomena keeps her magnanimity to the end, and Dench leaves us with a sense of awe at the grandness of this woman’s soul, even while she keeps on making us laugh. After seeing her so many times as Queen Victoria and James Bond’s boss and other such dour roles, it’s great to see her in what can only be called a lighter vein.

While it isn’t the most remarkable piece of filmmaking I’ve seen this year—the documentary The Act of Killing currently holds that title, and I doubt it will be unseated—Philomena is, I think, the movie I’ve most enjoyed so far in 2013. As cinema craft it’s conventional but polished, and the leads are sublime. If you’re like me, the critical cliché “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry” applies.

Friday, November 22, 2013


In 2010, the prolific, Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney finished work on a film he planned to call The Road Back. The subject was cyclist Lance Armstrong’s 2009 return to the Tour de France. Earlier this year, Armstrong publically admitted what had long been asserted in the media: That he, like all of his teammates and almost all of his competitors, had indeed employed performance-enhancing drugs in all of his Tour de France wins, and that his defiant and indignant protestations to the contrary were spectacular lies.

Armstrong, who had won hearts around the world with the story of his comeback from testicular cancer in the mid-‘90s, eventually admitted to doping and lying about it in a long 2013 TV interview with Oprah Winfrey, immediately after which he allowed himself to interviewed again, by Gibney. The resulting film, opening here in the Valley today, obviously needed a new title, so Gibney borrowed a headline that had appeared in the French sports journal L’Equipe: Le Mensonge ArmstrongThe Armstrong Lie.

Along with a detailed—possibly over-detailed—account of Armstrong’s career and some beautifully-shot, exciting cycling footage, Gibney’s film gives you a pretty big dose of the guy himself, as a talking head against a black background. Left, at last, with no plausible deniability, this handsome, superficially unassuming fellow speaks with no evident shame about what he did, and admits that he didn’t particularly lose any sleep over it.

I’m not a cycling fan, but to the slight extent that I paid any attention to it I suppose I, like many people, thought it was cool and inspirational that a cancer survivor had come back to unprecedented repeat triumphs in his grueling sport, not to mention starting a foundation in 1997 for cancer survivors. When it came out that this had been made possible only through an elaborate, scientifically sophisticated system of doping, and that Armstrong’s steely-eyed assurances of his innocence were loads of the most unmitigated bullshit imaginable, I, like many people, felt contempt. It would have been amused contempt—after all, we’re just talking about cycling, not something important like baseball—had it not been for the way Armstrong had piously set himself up as a role model for other people struggling with cancer, including children.

I wouldn’t have thought anything could have made me feel sorry for Lance Armstrong. But The Armstrong Lie did, because…this dude doesn’t understand what winning means. You sit there listening to this guy, with his near-peerless physical prowess and his psychological determination to win, and you think, there’s a wire in his head that’s not hooked up somewhere. He thinks—or, at any rate, he thought at the time—that winning is being declared the winner, and controlling the narrative that other people see. He admits as much to Oprah, calling his career a “mythic, perfect story, and it wasn’t true.”

Because this idea of winning isn’t remotely limited to Armstrong in the world of sports, and isn’t limited to the world of sports, either, but shows up far more dangerously and tragically in business, politics, religion and international relations, The Armstrong Lie isn’t a trivial film. I guess I’d have to say it’s the best sports documentary I’ve seen in years, at least since Kevin Rafferty’s delightful Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 back in 2008. But unlike Rafferty’s film, The Armstrong Lie, though compelling, isn’t that much fun. It seems a bit overlong, but that may just be because it’s disheartening, maybe even a little disturbing, to spend time in this creep’s company.

Maybe it’s presumptuous of me—a non-athlete and a fairly un-athletic person, with little overt competitiveness in my nature—to suggest that I understand winning more than Armstrong does. I’m sure I could never know the high that finishing first gives a person like that. To him, my suggestion that finishing first and winning aren’t always the same thing would probably seem like a comforting platitude from a physical mediocrity.

But I can’t help but wonder if the real problem is that Armstrong didn’t see, or didn’t pay enough attention to, the right sports movies, like The Bad News Bears or the original Rocky. I’d even prescribe for him a screening of the 2000 competitive-cheerleader movie Bring It On, in which the heroine learns that her cheer squad has been winning championships with routines purloined from an inner-city school. When her squad takes second, honestly for the first time, the movie closes with this wonderful exchange:

Boyfriend: So, second place. How’s it feel?

Heroine: Feels like first.

Thursday, November 21, 2013


Although he’s not in the top spot on my list of 13 Great Bird Monsters on Topless Robot…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week let’s nonetheless give the nod to the title character in 1967’s The Vulture, here showing he’s even tough enough to take on Broderick Crawford…

This late show may be savored in its majestically inane entirety here.

Friday, November 15, 2013


Back in the ‘70s, critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel used to occasionally devote a show to their “Guilty Pleasures”—lurid or tacky movies in which they saw some wit or energy or pungency and couldn’t help but like. I’ve never been a huge fan of the moniker; I’ve always felt that if something gives you pleasure and doesn’t hurt anybody else, you probably shouldn’t waste time feeling guilty about it. Besides, fashions change. Today’s guilty pleasure might turn out to be tomorrow’s recognized masterpiece.

But I admit, there is a genre of movies for which many critics—critics who would like to be thought hip, anyway—might feel a bit sheepish about admitting a fondness, and I’m no exception. But I’m going to acknowledge, red-cheeked, my guilty pleasure:

Message movies.

Yes, that’s right, earnest, high-minded, didactic, condescending, heavy-handed, platitudinous, preaching-to-the-choir message movies. I like them. I even love some of them. I’m out of the closet.

This—among other reasons—is why I wish I could be in Palm Springs, California this weekend. The town is already the home to my favorite film festival in the country, the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in May, and this weekend, today through Sunday, the Camelot Theatre on Baristo will host the inaugural edition of the Stanley Kramer Film Festival. Kramer, of course, was The King of the Message Movie.

In addition to appearances by Kramer’s widow Karen Sharpe Kramer and his daughter Katharine Kramer, the fest will feature a line-up of six movies either produced or produced and directed by Kramer. It kicks off today with The Defiant Ones (1958) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), continues Saturday with The Wild One (1953; directed by Lazlo Benedick) and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), and on Sunday with Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) and The Caine Mutiny (1954; directed by Edward Dymytrk). With the possible exception of Mad, Mad World, all of these star-packed favorites qualify as message movies.
What do we mean when we say “message movie?” Well, broadly, the definition would be something like this: A fiction film which seeks to dramatize some controversial social or cultural issue, usually in an accessible, unsubtle way, and usually with an overt, “editorial” viewpoint regarding which side of the issue is the right one. Racial tolerance is a typical preoccuption—among the Kramer Festival’s line-up, for instance, it’s the theme of both of Friday’s selections.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a classic specimen. The film has a breezy, sunny, romantic-comedy look and atmosphere, but the theme is spiky—white liberal discomfort with interracial marriage when it’s concretely in your family, as opposed to theoretical. A San Francisco newspaper publisher (Spencer Tracy) and his wife (Katharine Hepburn) are introduced to the fiancé of their daughter (Katherine Houghton)—a flawlessly dignified and charming young black doctor (Sidney Poitier). Privately, the Doc tells his prospective in-laws that he’ll call off the marriage if they don’t approve, but that he must have their decision that night. The Dad, supposedly on the basis of all the hardships the couple will face, finds himself tempted to take the Doc up on it, much to his wife’s horror.

Kramer and his screenwriter, William Rose, weren’t naïve about black racial attitudes—it turns out that Poitier’s parents don’t know his fiancée is white, either, and his father (Roy Glenn) is no happier about it than Tracy. Again, this guy’s wife (Beah Richards) is appalled at her husband’s intolerance. And the publisher’s maid (Isabel Sanford) isn’t impressed with the idea either—she thinks the Doc is uppity.

In description, the movie might sound fairly crazy—the young man’s offer, made without consulting his fiancée, to forget the whole thing if her parents don’t approve, just isn’t that convincing, and the symmetry of the older couples’ attitudes seems artificial, too. They’re like devices from a clumsily structured stage play, keeping everything on one set, trumping up a fake deadline for the action (the Doc and the daughter are flying overseas that night) and, most importantly, allowing for everyone—but especially Spencer Tracy—to make big showcase speeches.

All I can tell you is that the movie works. It’s not that it makes its laborious plotting feel at all likely, because it really doesn’t. You recognize all of the awkwardness of the storytelling as you’re watching the movie, and you dismiss it as unimportant.

Partly, at least for movie buffs, this is because of the charisma of the actors, all of whom are in top form, especially Tracy, whose last film this was (he died less than three weeks after completing it). Partly it’s because some (not all) of Rose’s dialogue has sparkle and screwy wit. But to a great degree it’s because the movie persuades you, corny as it may sound, that Love Trumps Race.

Or, at least, it persuades me. Plenty of critics—movie critics and social critics both—elaborately rolled their eyes at Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner back in the ‘60s. Some of them, no doubt, were motivated by the need to show that they were way ahead of this movie and of any middle-class square that it could possibly edify. But some were probably motivated by honest cynicism—they just couldn’t buy the underlying optimism of the movie, or of message pictures in general.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner stands easily accused of all of the big slams against message movies: First, that they’re “preachy”—in other words, that they commit the grievous sin of saying what they mean, directly and bluntly. They do so, not uncommonly, through grand righteous speeches, shoved into the mouths of actors with a credible manner—often Spencer Tracy, in Kramer’s case.

Secondly, the message movie is seen as a biased, wag-the-dog sort of genre. Instead of telling a neutral story from which an attitude toward a social theme might arise naturally in a viewer, these films are seen as contriving a story in order to support a social position. In short, they’re seen as propaganda.

Finally, it’s argued that message movies are also ineffective propaganda—that they don’t change hearts and minds. I don’t know that this can be confidently claimed in every individual case, but on the whole, the idea that if, say, you were a firm racist before you saw Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner or The Defiant Ones, you’d come out of those movies suddenly colorblind and tolerant does admittedly seem pretty implausible, in the unlikely event that you saw them at all. But this, by itself, doesn’t mean that such films can have no efficacy in advancing progressive social change.

Here’s what I mean. A while back I happened to hear a few minutes of a talk radio show here in Phoenix in which an elderly-sounding woman was venting her dislike of Mexicans, illegal or otherwise. At a certain point, citing her belief that Mexican immigrants were welfare cheats, she said “I’m sorry, but they don’t work.”

The host (a self-identified conservative, by the way) cut her off at this point with: “Well, at least you realize you should apologize for your prejudice, so that’s something.”

It struck me that he was right. That “I’m sorry” was a good sign. Message movies don’t turn bigots into non-bigots, at least not usually. But they can be a part of a pop-culture mainstream in which such bigotries are ridiculed or vilified, and expressing them becomes less acceptable—in which if a racist old lady can’t keep her ugly attitudes to herself, she at least feels the need to preface them with an insincere “I’m sorry.”

As is pointed out right there in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—by Spencer Tracy, so you can be sure it’s true—interracial marriage was still illegal in nearly twenty states at the time that movie was made. Of course, you might point out that that’s about the number of states in which, at this writing, same-sex marriage isn’t illegal, and this wouldn’t make a pro-marriage-equality movie particularly courageous in this day and age.

And you’d be right, both for that theoretical movie now, and for GWCTD in 1967. Neither is courageous. It’s not like Hepburn and Tracy and Poitier et al were acting the story out live in a park in Birmingham, Alabama or someplace like that.

But I’m not arguing for the courageousness of that movie or of the “message” genre. I’m arguing for its utility, for the part it's played in creating a middle-of-the-road pop culture that helped make the values it was advocating acceptable, and, more importantly, the values it was opposing unacceptable.

But even if you find my claim for the social effectiveness of message movies dubious, I would still argue in favor of them simply as entertainment—well-acted and sometimes full of thrilling oratory, often (especially in Kramer’s films) delivered by legendary stars, and charged up with a sense of the possibility of human progress. So, as far as I’m concerned, long live the Stanley Kramer Film Festival.

At a glance, though, longevity for such a fest seems unlikely. After all, Kramer directed fewer than twenty films. But if you consider the movies he produced but didn’t direct—and that list would include stuff like High Noon and Marlon Brando’s debut film The Men—he was remarkably prolific. You could program an annual festival for several years without having to repeat a selection.

I hope, though, that if this festival continues it eventually becomes devoted, at least in part, to message movies in general—find some other term for them, maybe, so that audiences don’t stay away in droves—not just those from the Kramer canon. Anything could be fair game, from Johnny Guitar to The Day the Earth Stood Still to Network.

Thursday, November 14, 2013


A friend of mine is a major Joan Crawford nut, so I was thrilled when I sent him the link to this astounding film she made sometime in the ‘60s, promoting the supermarket industry, and he wrote back saying he’d never seen it before. The film’s attempt at an arty tone is jaw-dropping—it's like some unholy collaboration between Ed Wood and Michelangelo Antonioni.


Monster-of-the-Week: …this week the nod goes to any specimen of Little Weirdo...

...the tiny rubber goblins one used to get out of the vending machines at the supermarket. I well remember them. The little girl here covets a red one; if I’d had it, I would gladly have traded it for her Green Weirdo…

Friday, November 8, 2013


Opening here this weekend:

Kill Your Darlings—The title is a maxim from literature and journalism. The “darlings” here are the beautiful words, phrases and passages you’ve written; the advice is to cut them cold-heartedly if they aren’t absolutely necessary to the piece overall.

Most writers have a hard time with this rule, and in particular it’s not a literary philosophy with which the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs are especially associated (although Burroughs’ lean, excellent early works reflect the style, his more famous later stuff doesn’t). Nonetheless, that’s who this movie is about: The initial meeting, at Columbia University in the mid-‘40s, between these three men who eventually became celebrated as “The Beats,” as well as Lucien Carr, the rebellious, literary-minded rich kid who introduced them.

Carr never became a famous novelist or poet (though his son, Caleb Carr, wrote The Alienist). But his dramatic life makes for a much juicier movie than that of his iconic friends, who were on the fringe of a lurid murder case in which he was implicated. The movie’s focus is on Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), his fascination with Carr (Dane DeHaan), and their attempt to create a “New Vision” for stodgy American lit.

It could be argued that they achieved this, in the long run. I don’t know how closely Kill Your Darlings follows the record, but the movie seems to suggest that they revolutionized midcentury literature not by writing striking works that deflated aesthetic orthodoxies but rather by needling professors, playing pranks in the library, hanging out in jazz clubs, vandalizing old books and getting drunk. And we’re expected to cheer as they crap on the Western canonical tradition without which their counterculture would have been not only meaningless but impossible.

Kill Your Darlings is nicely directed, by John Krokidas, and very well acted, but it really brought out the (small “c”) conservative in me. I say this as somebody who treasures at least some work by Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs: I spent this movie thinking “Get the hell back to class, you little pricks, learn to write a proper sonnet and quit wasting your parents’ tuition money.”

Like I said, though, the ensemble cast is strong. Radcliffe seemed like odd casting to me as Ginsberg, but he’s creditably serious. In the flashier role of Carr, DeHaan is quite the glamorous object—he looks like a hybrid of Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. I mean, that's really exactly what he looks like. The movie presents Carr as a narcissistic, manipulative tease and possibly a sociopath, which may be unfair, but DeHaan’s performance is gripping.

Jack Huston (great-nephew of John Huston) is solid as Kerouac, and the always-interesting Ben Foster is interesting as Burroughs, though both of these roles are recessive compared to Ginsberg and Carr. Michael C. Hall is both scary and pitiable as Carr’s obsessed would-be mentor David Kammerer, and Elizabeth Olsen makes an impression in the small role of Edie Parker. There is also a fine gallery of character actors as the older generation—David Cross as Allen’s father, the poet Louis Ginsberg, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as his mentally shattered mother, Kyra Sedgwick as Carr’s mother and John Cullum and David Rasche as buffoonish Columbia faculty.

Most of these grown-up roles are presented with a hint of caricature, especially the academic stuffed shirts. But I must admit that, as they dealt with these punks, I empathized with them. Boy, did this movie make me feel old.

Thor: The Dark World—Chris Hemsworth is once again agreeable as the Marvel Comics version of the hammer-bearing Norse deity. This time the McGuffin is an amorphous something or other called “The Aether” that has invaded the body of Thor’s mortal love interest Jane (Natalie Portman), and is coveted by a race of trolls or goblins or something because it would allow them to take the Universe from Light to Darkness. Or something like that.

The makers of Thor: The Dark World—director Alan Taylor, the cast, which includes Anthony Hopkins as cranky Old Man Odin and Rene Russo as Frigga, and the special effects and design folks—work hard to put on a show for us, deploying otherwordly armies and strange cosmic forces with gusto, like kids playing with action figures. In the course of the movie, Thor must place trust in his shifty brother Loki, who’s locked up in Asgard’s rather elegant dungeon. Sly, droll Tom Hiddleston steals the movie effortlessly in this role, and when his strand of the story is satisfyingly resolved the movie was, for me, effectively over.

But the demands of the blockbuster are such that we’re dragged through another interminable round of fistfights and explosions and rubble and sifting ash, just like the finales of The Avengers and Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel. Do they all have to end like that? I can’t claim that I didn’t sit there enjoying large chunks of this movie’s spectacle, but as usual with these big superhero or action movies, I was ready for it to be over at least a half-hour before the filmmakers were done pummeling me.

Thursday, November 7, 2013


Check out the November issue of Phoenix Magazine

…for Your Humble Narrator’s profile of “Original Sun” Dick Van Arsdale, and the artistic ability he’s discovered since having a stroke. It’s on Page 33, or here.

Speaking of tall types…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week let’s give the nod to this Rock Giant…

…from Thor: The Dark World, opening this weekend. More about that film tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013


Out on DVD today is Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room.

This documentary, directed by Vera Iwerebor, concerns Diana Serra Cary, earlier known as Peggy-Jean Montgomery, or, when she was in the movies in the early 1920s, as Baby Peggy. Because she was a little girl—indeed, at the beginning, a toddler—she’s now, at 95, one of the last surviving stars of the silent era.

Seeing her here at opposite ends of her life is fairly amazing. In clips from the (relatively few) surviving Baby Peggy comedy shorts, we see a performer of remarkable precision as well as a champion mugger. She claims to have been well aware of being the breadwinner for her family, and of being scared by this, and this adds a distressing subtext to watching her jolly antics.

On the other hand, it’s inspirational to see her in her 90s, sharp as a tack, matter-of-factly recounting the sometimes nightmarish dysfunction of the family she was forced to support. We then learn how she re-invented herself as a writer and historian (and Catholic convert) in her adult years. Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room is a quietly uplifting story of hard-won identity.

The film is less than an hour long, and the DVD’s special features include several Baby Peggy flicks.

It’s not new, but I recently watched another documentary about an unconventional show-business career, that of the one-man spook-show Brother Theodore: To My Great Chagrin. You can read my review of it here, on my recent list of Brother Theodore’s Greatest Hits on Topless Robot, and you can obtain the DVD for yourself here.

Saturday, November 2, 2013


Because I didn’t grow up in the Valley, I don’t have the nostalgia for Arizona State Fair that I’ve encountered in people who did. I went there once with The Wife, more than twenty years ago, as a newlywed, and though we had fun we didn’t feel any pressing need to go again until last summer, when we took The Kid, then ten. We had fun again, but we also noticed, again, how much it cost.

Nonetheless, and even though I was battling a chest cold, The now 11-year-old Kid and I braved the Fair, which winds up tomorrow, one warm Saturday afternoon this October. We picked the day because it offered free admission to Girl Scouts in uniform, and also because The Kid had filled out a form describing three books she had read, in return for which document she could get three free rides. I, who have read Shakespeare, George Eliot, Melville, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, got zero free rides, of course.

This particularly stung because…I dislike rides. The ones that lift you to dizzying heights and then plunge you back to earth, the roller coasters and drops and the like, terrify me. The ones that furiously spin you around close to the ground, the Tilt-a-Whirls and such, don’t frighten me especially, but they do make me queasy. So neither kind is high on my list of favorite amusements.

The Kid, on the other hand, loves rides of both kinds, and so, wishing to be a good dad, I agreed to go on three with her. She was reasonably merciful to me in her choices—first we did the Cliffhanger, which whirls you around lying on your belly and gives you some sense of how Superman must feel. Then we went on the Crazy Coaster, a relatively mild-velocity version of a roller coaster that didn’t cause me too much discomfort of either the existential or the intestinal variety, and finally the Alien Abduction, a flying saucer that spins so fast that centrifugal force affixes you to the walls when the floor drops away.

I needed to sit down on a bench for a while after these three, but I was okay. Then it was dad’s turn—I dragged The poor Kid into Star Trek: The Exhibition, a show of props and costumes from the sci-fi franchise. I’ve seen similar exhibits over the years, at the Arizona Science Center and also at the Vegas Hilton. This one wasn’t quite on their level, and, as I’m an Original Series man, there were inevitably fewer props and artifacts from my preferred vintage than from the later series. But it still had some great stuff, plus I got to see my kid sitting in the Captain’s chair on the replica of the original series bridge.

After that we checked out the ostensible reason for the Fair’s existence—the livestock and other agricultural exhibits. We saw pigs, cows, chickens and ducks, and we saw a sheep being fleeced. I could empathize with him. Even with all of The Kid’s freebies, after paying for parking, for my own admission, for three rides for myself and for admission for two to the Star Trek exhibit, I couldn’t help but feel that, while it had been fun, it might have been possible for us to find something even more fun to do with a Saturday afternoon at a fraction of the cost.

Before we left the Fairgrounds, we treated ourselves to some funnel cake topped with sliced strawberries and whipped cream. It was incredibly delicious. Dollar for dollar, it probably was the best part of the experience.

Then, as we were getting into my truck in the parking lot, I saw a man loading what looked like his grandkids into a shabby old car. He caught my eye and smiled.

“I feel a little lighter in the wallet,” he said good-naturedly.

“Me too,” I said. Then we both drove away, happy kids and all.

Friday, November 1, 2013


A busy movie weekend:

Last Vegas—Robert DeNiro, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline are friends from the old neghborhood—Flatbush, Brooklyn, that is. They’re scattered around the country now, but when the most financially successful of them, Douglas, finally gets around to getting engaged, the quartet meets in Vegas for a wild bachelor-party weekend.

One of them, DeNiro, is there under protest; a depressed widower, he bears Douglas an angry grudge. Freeman recently suffered a mild stroke and is being kept on a short leash by his son. Kline’s wife (Joanna Gleason), fed up with his crankiness, has given him a condom and a Viagra tablet and told him to improve his attitude in Sin City. Douglas, whose trophy-wife-to-be is half his age, simply hasn’t come to terms with being old.

What is ensues in this comedy, directed by Jon Turtletaub from a script by Dan Fogelman, is just what you’d imagine—corny, heavy-handed gags about geriatrics drinking, gambling and flirting with scantily-clad nymphs young enough to be their granddaughters. Mary Steenburgen charmingly plays a slightly more appropriately-aged lounge singer who gets drawn into the gang and stirs up a bit of romantic conflict, but nothing very serious. The movie is shamelessly fluffy, and more enjoyable than it has any real right to be.

These guys are the real thing—movie stars—and there’s a reason that each of them has an acting Oscar. Even clowning around, they can effortlessly command an audience.

Oddly, though, the standout is the one that, if you were ranking them, would probably have to be considered the acting lightweight of the four—Douglas. Toward the end, he has a short monologue in which his feelings about aging finally pour out, and this amusing old-guys-behaving-badly smirk-fest turns, for one scene, into a real drama.

Man of Tai Chi—The title sounds like an SCTV sketch, but it’s not meant as a joke—this Hong Kong action melodrama wants to make the case for Tai Chi not as a great exercise for old ladies in the park, but as a badass martial art. The hero (Tiger Hu Chen) is a young delivery boy who studies under a Tai Chi master and competes in tournaments. He gets sucked into the world of a to-the-death spectator fight club run by an odious gangster, and soon finds he can only get out if he dies.

The gangster is played by Keanu Reeves, and the movie also represents the directorial debut of Reeves. Turns out that Matrix Boy makes a pretty good director. Man of Tai Chi is a flamboyant, highly entertaining piece of showmanship. Young Chen makes a sympathetic hapless hero—he has some of the passive, guileless charm of the young Reeves—and a thrilling performer; his Tai Chi moves have a riveting, dancerlike beauty. And Reeves shows, for my money, a better eye for martial arts sequences than most current action directors. He gives us less frenetic cutting, and lets us watch the fighters do their thing.

About all that Reeves the director isn’t able to do here is get a good, non-wooden performance out of Reeves the actor. But that puts him on a long list of filmmakers.

Underdogs—This indie football yarn, which played at the Phoenix Film Festival this year, is set in North Canton, Ohio, at a Catholic high school with an abysmal record. A tough, my-way-or-the-highway new coach (D.B. Sweeney) is brought in, and turns things around with his demanding work ethic.

For a brief time in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it looked like Sweeney might become a big star. That didn’t happen, but he remains an interesting presence. His performance here is good, but there isn’t one football scene in this competently-made but banal debut effort by director Doug Dearth that doesn’t feel derived from earlier, better sports movies like Rudy, The Rookie, The Blind Side and others—the final sideline scene here is virtually a remake of the same scene in Hoosiers.

The movie has a subplot about a different kind of underdog—the quarterback’s Dad, Bill Burkett—that is based on the story of the real North Canton resident Bill Burkett, developer of the EdenPure heater. According to Underdogs, Burkett faced a legal struggle with his then-employer over the intellectual property rights to the device which he had invented at home in his spare time. This is an intriguing story, and it’s hard not to suspect that the football stuff was grafted on to make Underdogs more commercial.

Thursday, October 31, 2013


Happy Halloween Everybody!

If you haven’t seen Guillermo del Toro’s opening for this year’s Simpsons Treehouse of Horror, check it out here. It’s a near-comprehensive extravaganza of pop-culture monster and horror homage—a friend of mine especially liked its torch-and-pitchfork-wielding mob made up of monsters…

But I think my favorite, and thus…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week’s honoree, is Chief Wiggum as this donut-relishing Cyclops…

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


Last week Your Humble Narrator received a letter in the mail from a friend Back East. For you younger readers, a “letter” is a piece of paper on which somebody you know writes down some personal message, folds it, places it in a specially-designed paper container called an envelope, on the outside of which they write your street address and then paste a stamp—a little sticker indicating that they’ve paid a small delivery fee to the U.S. Postal Service.

Then the person places in it a receptacle called a mail-box, and agents of the Federal government see that it’s left at your home. It’s like an email, except that it actually, physically exists, and takes a couple of days to get to you.

I was delighted to be at the receiving end of the charming old-fashioned custom—believe it or not, this was once a major means of communication—and even more delighted at the contents of the letter, which I pass on to you below, slightly edited, as a Halloween video recommendation:

…what happened kind of hit a nerve—Julie Harris died this August 24th. In the little article they printed in Entertainment Weekly they mentioned some of her films. But not The Haunting, and that just sucks [Indeed!—MVM]. I remember the first time I saw it about the age of thirteen and it scared me to death. To this day, once in a great while I’ll have an unsettling dream and upon waking I’ll know it was caused by The Haunting percolating around in my gray matter…I don’t know what Shirley Jackson thought of the film but for me it’s an example of a fine film based on a fine novel. The Haunting is one of the few films I know that makes the supernatural seem real. I Walked With a Zombie and Don’t Look Now might be a couple of others but for the most part after watching most horror movies you can shrug it off and know that nothing like what you just saw could ever happen. Not so with The Haunting. Sometimes when an actor passes away I’ll watch one of their films (when Patricia Neal died I watched A Face in the Crowd. When Andy Griffith died I watched it again.) But this time I’ll wait til October 31st. When the porch Jack O’ Lanterns are all extinguished and the last kid leaves with his treat, I’ll be watching The Haunting, to hear Eleanor Lance say ‘And we who walk here, walk alone.’

If you’ve never seen The Haunting, and wisely choose to follow my friend’s example, see to it that you’ve rented the 1963 version, and not the unfortunate 1999 remake with Lili Taylor, Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Also, check out my Halloween tribute to the great Brother Theodore, on Topless Robot.

Thursday, October 24, 2013


The City of Detroit’s trial to determine its eligibility for bankruptcy began yesterday. In sympathy with that good town’s struggles…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week let’s honor the title menace, The Creature That Devoured Detroit, as pictured on the cover of Aquaman #56 (April 1971)…

I recently unearthed and reread my copy, confirming that the monster on the cover is disappointingly allegorical in the actual story. It’s irradiated algae from Lake Erie, hazardous but alas not anthropomorphized.

Anyway, it’s nice to see Aquaman including the Great Lakes, especially the one on the shores of which I grew up, on his beat.