Friday, March 29, 2013


Casually, reading a newspaper, a firefighter squats to defecate in the middle of the road. Other firefighters lounge on the fire truck behind him, paying no evident attention to a van that sits nearby, engulfed in flames.

From here we cut to the bedroom of our hero Dolph Springer (Jack Plotnick). His alarm clock reads 7:59. When it flips, it reads 7:60. Dolph, an everyman type living in a pleasant house in what appears to be suburban L.A., wakes up to find his dog missing.

In short, Quentin Dupieux’s new film Wrong, opening today at Tempe’s Valley Art, comes by its title honestly.

The principal character of Dupieux’s 2010 film Rubber was a rubber tire. Dazzlingly and mysteriously as that tire was endowed with personality—it was Rubber’s true achievement as a movie—simply by virtue of having a human being at its hero, Wrong is a bit more accessible. As the baffled, wheedling Dolph, Plotnick is unsentimentally sympathetic.

Dolph calls a pizza shop whose flyer he has received, not to order a pizza but to complain about the aesthetics of the logo. His landscaper (Eric Judor) points out to him that a palm tree in his back yard has inexplicably turned into a pine tree. There’s a torrential downpour, indoors, at the office from which Dolph was recently fired—but to which he keeps returning and pretending to work—and no one seems to find this odd.

Witty as many of these dream-logic gags are, I must admit the first half-hour or so of Wrong made me fidget. I doubted that this sort of glib surrealism could sustain my interest in the movie at feature length. But as it progresses, and we learn that Paul the Dog was abducted on the orders of the scarred, accented Master Chang (William Fichtner)—whose organization kidnaps pets so that the owners will fully realize their value when they get them back—Wrong picks up steam. Though it lacks the magic of the living tire, overall it’s a much more lucid and well-structured piece of work than Rubber.

It’s also much funnier. The waiflike waitress (Alexis Dziena) is so impressed by Dolph’s critique of the pizza shop logo that she ends up his starry-eyed new girlfriend. When she moved in, uninvited, and started chatting Dolph up just as he was trying to establish telepathic communication with his dog, Wrong started to make me laugh out loud.

There’s a violent touch toward the end I could have done without, but on the whole Wrong is a successful addition to that small genre of contemporary absurdist comedies like Being John Malkovich and Cold Souls. Still, it’s worth noting that most of the film’s dramatic tension—the element which makes the atmosphere feel so wrong—is our worry over whether Dolph will ever find Paul. This supposedly unconventional movie is powered by a theme that goes back at least as far as Lassie Come Home—that of a boy and his dog.

Thursday, March 28, 2013


Quentin Dupieux’s film, Wrong, opens tomorrow here at the Valley Art in Tempe, so…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week let’s acknowledge the central character of Dupieux’s 2010 film Rubber, a sentient and lethal rubber car tire named Robert…

You can check out my review of Rubber here.

Saturday, March 23, 2013


Read my review of The Croods here, on Jabcat on Movies.

Then check out my Top Ten pop-culture cavemen here, on Topless Robot.

Friday, March 22, 2013


For the large majority of us who didn’t especially want to go to an Ivy League or other prestigious school, or weren’t up to it academically, or couldn’t have afforded it if we were, Admission is a smooth and pleasant hour and a half. For those who did or were or could have, it might be painful, and compelling, too.

One of the more intriguing elements of this romantic comedy, directed by Paul Weitz, is the inside look it claims to give at the admissions process for Princeton University—the script, by Karen Croner, is based on a novel by Princeton faculty member Jean Hanff Korelitz. If your own college career was ever in the hands of a system this baroque and whimsically subjective, it might make watching this movie that much more maddening.

The heroine is Portia (Tina Fey) a veteran admissions officer who, like her colleagues, has long since become immune both to the plying and the outrage of Princeton aspirants and their families, and is ruthlessly able to stamp “DENY” on their dreams. She loves, or thinks she loves, the life she has with her nebbishy Prof boyfriend (Michael Sheen)—quiet, child-free nights in, reading poetry. She has to endure an occasional awkward visit with her disappointed Mom (Lily Tomlin), the author of an iconic feminist classic who expected more from her daughter than guarding the gate for the elite. Other than that, however, Portia’s life is comfortable.

But of course all this gets yanked away from her, and a wacky new life is dropped in its place. She meets John (Paul Rudd) the adorable head of a “progressive” school in rural New Hampshire, who introduces her to his most promising student, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), a brilliant, sweet, slightly dizzy kid that John thinks belongs at Princeton. Then, when he gets Portia alone, John’s real agenda emerges: He tells her that Jeremiah is her biological son, given up for adoption when she was in college.

Instead of recusing herself, Portia starts trying to steer the process in Jeremiah’s favor. She also, it need hardly be said, finds herself falling for John, and bonding with his adopted Ugandan son Nelson (Travaris Spears), who likes her because, in contrast to the globe-trotting, do-gooding John, she’s “boring,” as he feels an adult ought to be.

This complicated, rather contrived story gives rise both to farcical and to poignant scenes, and the terrific cast gives them punch. Fey’s persona, with her declarative delivery and her self-conscious disinterest in sex, seems to generate a love-her-or-hate-her response in many people. I’m in the former category—she’s fine company here, and strikes some surprisingly heartfelt, touching notes.

Rudd gets to show less of his manic, squirrelly side here in this unambiguous good-guy role, but he’s appealing as always, as is Tomlin. Sheen is a riot as the sad-sack boyfriend; he looks like a melancholic teddy bear with Albert Einstein’s hair. There are good turns by Gloria Rueben, Wallace Shawn, Sonya Walger, Olek Krupa and others, but the real standout is the beguiling Wolff (son of actress Polly Draper) as the wide-eyed, fast-talking Jeremiah. Our investment in the story hinges on his likability—on him seeming, for all his intelligence, like a clueless boy.

Of course, you may find yourself hoping that Princeton doesn’t ruin him. A quiet ironic joke built into the fabric of Admission is what it says about the American sensibility in relation to prestige institutions—the tension between the belief that they’re often essentially meaningless and their unshakeable currency in the American culture of success.

On the one hand, the movie suggests that getting into Princeton is an arbitrary, even corrupt process. On the other, we’re expected to root for Jeremiah to get into the school anyway. We’re told he’d “thrive” there, and he may believe he will, but it’s mentioned several times that he’s an “autodidact,” so you may wonder how much, in purely educational terms, he needs with college at all. I suspect the real reason the grownups want him to get in is simply so that he can put the word “Princeton” on his resume for the rest of his life.

Thursday, March 21, 2013


With The Croods opening this weekend…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to this specimen of the movie’s fanciful prehistoric fauna, a bear/owl hybrid…

RIP to Deep Throat leading man Harry Reems, passed on at 65.

Friday, March 15, 2013


The opening minutes of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone are a pretty convincing depiction of how, very probably, most show-biz careers are spawned.

The title character, though he hasn’t yet given himself that grand moniker, is chased down the street by a gang of bullies on his 10th birthday, in 1982. Their gift to him is a punch in the stomach and a blunt reminder that he’s a loser who no one will ever like.

His gift from his mother, however, is better: a Rance Holloway magic set with an instructional videocassette in which the great prestidigitator assures him that everybody loves a magician. Burt and his only friend Anton build on what they learn from this basic stuff, and soon they’re partners in a stage act.

Burt and Anton are played, in this prologue, by the excellent Mason Cook and Luke Vanek, respectively. Steve Carrell and Steve Buscemi take over when they hit adulthood, and their Vegas act, full of elaborate sets and huge hokey props, is a fixture at Bally’s, with its own theatre. Ten years into their run there, Burt has been turned by boredom and repetition into a hateful jackass, snarling contemptuously at everyone who works with him, including the long-suffering Anton. He lives in joyless luxury in a casino penthouse, where even his nightly seductions of comely volunteers from the audience have become a carefully-rehearsed routine.

But like any other star, Burt finds himself in decline, threatened by the newfangled stylings of the insufferable Steve Gray, “Brain Rapist” (Jim Carrey), who wows the crowds with extreme “street magic” stunts, often involving revolting abuse of his own body. Burt and Anton’s act—and friendship—fall apart when they try to compete with this approach, and Burt finds himself unemployed, broke and at the reluctant mercy of his disgusted assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde), herself an aspiring magician.

The rest of the movie, rather snappily directed by TV veteran Don Scardino from a script by several hands, including John Francis Daley of Freaks and Geeks, is about Burt’s attempts to resurrect himself, both as a performer and a person. It’s a perfectly legitimate template for a showbiz story, and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone entertained me, and made me laugh quite a bit.

But it’s marred, for me seriously, by a high degree of cloddish, heavy-handed shtick of what I suppose might be called the Hangover school: mean-spirited slapstick and obvious, telegraphed jokes. There are lengthy set-pieces, like Burt and Anton’s stunt in a suspended booth, or Anton’s imbecilic charitable efforts, that seem meant to convulse us with hilarity. But they just go thud, like a failed a magic trick.

It isn’t just that these scenes aren’t funny. It’s that they’re not consistent with the characterizations. Anton, for instance, is supposed to be the smart, sensitive half of the pair, so the gag about his misguided interactions with Third World people plays particularly dumb.

This side of the material also feels disingenuous in the face of what the movie seems to be championing—corny but comparatively genteel showmanship over shock. It struck me, by the way, that Burt and Anton’s show could still play in Vegas to full houses, and leave them well and unironically satisfied. (I’d certainly go.)

What saves the movie is the sensational cast. Despite the unhilarious nature of the stuff he’s given to do, Carrey isn’t bad at all in his Criss Angel send-up. James Gandolfini is very funny as the dull-souled Bally’s honcho, and Buscemi is always easy to like.

As for Carrell, he’s about as poised a leading man as you’ll find in American movies right now. He has suavity and charm balanced with an accessible everyman quality and a comedic fearlessness. His best moment here is the pleasure Burt registers, quietly but deeply, when he meets his old idol Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin in full curmudgeon mode) in a retirement home—it’s the point at which Burt starts the trudge back from Assholedom, and it gives a hint of the movie that The Incredible Burt Wonderstone could have been.

But then, the potentially touching scene in which Burt and Anton make up is thrown away on overplayed and way overextended mock-sniveling. Carrell and Buscemi both deserve better than this, but alas, they’re complicit in it. It’s a lousy trick they’ve played on themselves.

Thursday, March 14, 2013


Happy St. Patty’s Day this Sunday!

In the day’s honor…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to this “Irish Vampire…"

…an 1885 caricature of nationalist leader Charles Parnell for Punch by the great English illustrator (and occasional ugly reactionary) John Tenniel, better known for his Alice in Wonderland drawings.

Friday, March 8, 2013


RIP to kickass folksinger and cranky Canadian cultural nationalist Stompin' Tom Connors, passed on at 77.

Here is his classic "Hockey Song." Since, as every civilized person ought to know, the Good Ole Baseball Game is the best game you can name, I can't really agree with its central premise, but it's still a great song.

Thursday, March 7, 2013


Check out the March issue of Phoenix Magazine...

...for two stories by Your Humble Narrator: On Arizona-based executive producers (page 40, or here) and on Bisbee's wonderful Warren Ballpark (page 50, or here).

Driving down to Bisbee in January for the second story, I passed through the town of Benson, Arizona. I promptly found myself singing the following, out loud in the car:

Benson, Arizona, the cool breeze in your hair
My body flies the galaxies, my heart longs to be there
Benson, Arizona, the same stars fill the skies
But they seemed so much brighter when I watched them in your eyes

I was singing—that is to say, I thought I was singing—the theme to Dark Star, John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon’s low-budget sci-fi comedy of 1979.

A few minutes online showed me that I had rewritten the lyrics of this bit of futuristic cornpone in my head; they actually go like this:

Benson, Arizona, blew warm wind through your hair
My body flies the galaxies, my heart longs to be there
Benson, Arizona, the same stars in the sky
But they seemed so much kinder when we watched them, you and I

In my defense, I last saw the movie almost thirty years ago. I remember it fondly, however.


Monster-of-the-Week: …this week the nod goes to the alien from Dark Star...

...memorably played by a painted beach ball with costume monster hands glued to the bottom. You can see him/her(?), and hear “Benson, Arizona,” here.

Belated RIP to western-movie fixture Harry Carey, Jr., passed on at 91.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


Back in 1984, I spent the summer working, with one of my best friends, in Chillicothe, Ohio. Ronald Reagan was president in those days, and the Soviet Union still existed, and fears that We and They might go to war were very real when, one boring Sunday afternoon, my friend and I went to see the original Red Dawn.

For the uninitiated: Red Dawn is about an invasion of the U.S. by the Soviets. Set in a small town in Colorado, it follows a group of high-school-aged kids who become “The Wolverines,” partisans executing guerilla strikes against the occupying Russkies and Cubans. It seemed absurd to us at the time, but we liked it anyway, and so did a lot of other people; it was a hit, and has grown into a cult favorite in the decades since.

The desire to remake it was probably inevitable, but it came with an obvious problem: Who, in 2013, would play the essential role of They, especially if the Dawn was to remain Red? The only even nominally Communist superpower left is China, so that’s who MGM originally picked for the remake, out today on DVD.

China was offended by this vulgarity, and why shouldn’t they be? They’ve already conquered us, on the battlefields of WalMart and of the National Debt. Also, China has a lot of people who, like people almost everywhere else, like to go to American movies, and MGM didn’t want to alienate them.

But North Korea? Not a big box office concern for MGM. So, after a bit of re-editing, redubbing and digital tweaking, and the addition of a new prologue montage…presto! It’s that global superpower North Korea that’s dropping paratroopers on Spokane, Washington. Dennis Rodman reports that all Kim Jong-un really wants is a call from Obama; according to this movie, the Prez shouldn’t be playing hard to get.

It’s a hilarious illustration of the degree to which, in this kind of adolescent fantasy, Any Enemy Will Do. Aside from this central risibility, however, this wingnut actioner, directed by stunt-unit veteran Dan Bradley, is fast-moving and reasonably entertaining. Replacing Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen from the original are Chris Hemsworth, aka The Mighty Thor, and Josh Peck, while Jeffery Dean Morgan takes over for Powers Boothe.

They and their young costars are all perfectly competent, but nobody’s heart really seems in it. It’s all less laughably overwrought and masochistic than the ’84 film, but for this very reason, I doubt this Red Dawn will replace the original in many people’s affections. It’s more calculating, less crazily sincere—a going-through-the-motions movie.

Saturday, March 2, 2013


Happy 109th birthday to the great Dr. Seuss! The noble occasion was observed yesterday at The Kid’s school, and I got to join her at the cafeteria for a commemorative breakfast consisting of actual green eggs and ham. I was proud to partake of this repast, as I believe that Dr. Seuss is one of the towering narrative poets of the century, and that Green Eggs and Ham is a masterpiece of incantatory, incremental repetition.

I was fascinated to read, a few years ago, that Green Eggs was written on a bet from his publisher at Random House, Bennett Cerf, that he couldn’t write a book using only fifty words. Dr. Seuss was up to the challenge, and only one of the fifty—“anywhere”—isn’t a monosyllable!

Friday, March 1, 2013


A story with a hero named Jack is always promising. The Ripper aside, fictional Jacks tend to be plucky, resourceful working-class fellows who overcome adversity through courage and native wit, without benefit of being knights or princes. Indeed, in latter-day retellings they sometimes even get the Princess—and while killing a giant may be impressive, being accepted by the 1% is truly the stuff of fairy tale

The Cornish folktales known since at least the 18th Century as Jack the Giant Killer have been adapted for the movies at least once already, in a pleasant 1962 version manifestly made in imitation of the Ray Harryhausen classic The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. The lavish new version opening today, directed by Bryan Singer and called Jack the Giant Slayer, borrows elements from the earlier film but applies them to a retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk.

The new movie’s Jack is played by Nicholas Hoult of Warm Bodies, whose long, homely-handsome face lends itself to the idea of a farm-boy hero. The script, by Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie and Dan Studney, cleverly makes Jack’s acquisition of the Magic Beans plausible without either violating the spirit of the story or making him a hopeless dupe. The plot is also embellished to add a sweet Princess (Eleanor Tomlinson), a fretful King (Ian McShane), a scheming rat of a courtier-villain (Stanley Tucci, sly as ever), and a valiant guardsman (Ewan McGregor), among other secondary characters, all effective.

But of course this movie must stand or fall by its giants, and it’s nice to report that they’re terrific—squalid and scabby and scary, but with a certain uncouth grandeur and with pungently distinctive characterizations, from the two-headed alpha male (the left head voiced by Bill Nighy, the gibbering right by John Kassir) down through various aggrieved subordinates and malcontents. They have pathos and a bitter dignity along with their menace; you want to see them defeated, but you don’t hate them.

When episodic high fantasy of this sort is done right—soberly but not somberly, with unpretentious high spirits, a generous heart and a well-structured story that sticks to the rules it sets up—it can offer one of the keenest pleasures of which the movies are capable. Jack the Giant Slayer comes closer to nailing this atmosphere than any I’ve seen in a while, much closer than the remake of Clash of the Titans from a couple of years back.

I don’t think I could ever feel as warmly toward CGI effects as I do toward stop-motion, but that’s personal nostalgia. And it should be said that Giant Slayer is likely to be a little too frightening for smaller kids. But that’s not a criticism either; it just means that they’ve taken their giants with proper seriousness. Jack the Giant Slayer is a strong entertainment. Only in its final minute or two does it strike a very slightly sour note, when it links the story’s legacy to an ongoing aristocratic fetish that is unworthy of a self-respecting Jack.