Friday, May 31, 2013


Most of the career of M. Night Shyamalan, director of After Earth, could be characterized as “After The Sixth Sense.” His work over the decade-plus since that 1999 ghost-story classic has largely been a string of interesting failures, except for 2010’s The Last Airbender, which wasn’t very interesting, and 2004’s The Village, which wasn’t a failure, though I’m apparently in the minority in that opinion.

Shyamalan is full of intriguing ideas, and he’s able to get terrific performances out of his actors. His troubles, at least in part, may have arisen because The Sixth Sense ended with a seamlessly-constructed surprise, and his subsequent films have almost all tried for a similar revelatory effect, with far less success. On the basis of one dazzling twist ending, he became known as the Twist Ending Guy, and he just wasn’t up to it.

His latest, After Earth, is no great shakes, but it has, at least, the virtue of being straightforward. Perhaps because he was principally a hired gun here—the script is by Gary Whitta and Shyamalan, from a story conceived by star and executive producer Will Smith—Shyamalan doesn’t bust a gut trying to blow our minds.

As with so many of his films, After Earth has a laborious-to-explain backstory. Here goes: Having trashed Earth by about the middle of this century, humans abandon it for a new planet called Nova Prime. An alien race resents the invasion, and releases hideous creatures called “Ursas,” who are eyeless but able to track humans through the pheromones we secrete when afraid, and who have the charming habit of impaling their victims on tree branches, like shrikes. The Ursas are foiled, about a thousand years from now, by a stalwart Supreme Commander named Cypher Raige (Will Smith) who learns to battle them without fear, a technique he calls “ghosting.”

All of this is prologue, and as contrived as it sounds (and is) it really just amounts to an overcomplicated set-up for a boy’s-book adventure. As soon as After Earth gets going as such, it’s watchable and reasonably exciting.

The story proper centers on Cypher’s teenage son Kitai (Jaden Smith), who has a distant relationship with his famous father, linked to a shared tragedy. When the spaceship on which they’re traveling crashes on the now-uninhabited Earth, and Cypher is too badly injured to walk, Kitai must make his way, with his father coaching him, to another piece of the wreck, miles away, to send a distress signal.

His father tells him that all the life forms on Earth have evolved to kill humans—odd, since it’s only been a thousand years—and Kitai does indeed encounter souped-up versions of baboons, raptors, tigers and other creatures. He’s also stalked by an Ursa that was aboard the spaceship (being transported for training purposes) and has escaped.

Except in its opening quarter, and a few flashbacks and dream sequences, the movie is essentially a two-character play. The dialogue given to Will Smith is in a stiffly military idiom, and he plays it very straight, but skillfully. Jaden Smith, rightly top-billed, has a little trouble with his diction, but as in the Karate Kid remake in 2010, he has a touchingly vulnerable-looking physicality, and his put-upon facial expressions are amusing.

The theme of After Earth—that “danger is very real, but fear is a choice”—is problematic. It’s expressed by Cypher in a showcase monologue, in which he describes realizing, in a life-or-death moment, that his fear was a fantasy, based on a story he was telling himself about the future. I would point out that the physiological symptoms of fear usually are not a choice, and that they’re just as “real” as, say, the tornado or the charging lion that causes them. More importantly, fear isn’t always debilitating; sometimes it’s lifesaving, as Liam Neeson’s character pointed out in the similarly-themed (though much less pleasant) film The Grey.

I don’t think this is hair-splitting. I think misunderstanding this point—confusing caution with paralysis—is what leads to stupidly reckless risks, especially by the young. Bravery isn’t about suppressing fear, it’s about acting, when necessary, in spite of fear. Besides, most threats to life and limb aren’t like the Ursas—they can still see and smell (and taste) you whether you’re afraid of them or not. Lack of fear in the face of legitimate danger really should be called “ghosting,” because it can quickly make you into a ghost.

Thursday, May 30, 2013


With the sci-fi adventure After Earth opening Friday…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to the beasties in that film, the “Ursas,” seen here in conceptual art…

More about the Ursas, and After Earth in general, tomorrow…

Monday, May 27, 2013


Last weekend Your Humble Narrator, The Wife and The Kid, along with one of The Chihuahuas—the other dislikes travel, and stayed with a sitter—betook ourselves to Palm Springs, California, on yet another pilgrimage to the annual Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival.

Along with Try and Get Me, which I had already seen, this year’s schedule included a really fun obscurity that was new to me: Mary Ryan, Detective, starring Marsha Hunt, who, now in her mid-90s, attended the showing.

This 1949 programmer, from Columbia, seems to have been intended as the first in a continuing series, but it ended up being a one-off. A pity; it’s delightful. I was expecting cutesy Nancy Drew stuff, but the title character was a female police detective, and plenty self-sufficient. She goes undercover to find the heads of a ring of jewel thieves, who turn out to be a Mom-and-Pop couple who run a turkey farm—they smuggle the loot out as stuffing! They also keep pointing out that the front makes dough, too; you get the feeling that it would be more cost-efficient if they just went legit.

Mom and Pop aren’t so sweet, though—at one point Mary has to remove a bullet from a wounded man who they would otherwise allow to die, and at the end they’re perfectly willing to dispose of her, too. What I liked was that there wasn’t some handsome male cop who, at the end, told Mary that her detecting days were over; he was going to make an honest woman out of her. This was probably only because they wanted to bring the character back, but still, it was refreshing.

The Kid went with me to this movie; her first noir! On the way to the Camelot she asked me if it was in black-and-white, and grumbled when I said it was (grrrr!), but she got really caught up in the story. It was also extremely cool that she got to see how pretty and adorable Marsha Hunt was in the film, and then see her brought up on stage for the Q&A afterwards, and see what a beautiful, elegant old lady she is now.

The next day I saw (by myself this time) another pretty good one, called High Tide, from 1947.

It was from Monogram, though it seemed more polished than their product usually does, and starred the great Lee Tracy as—what else?—a fast-talking newspaperman. He and Don Castle, “the poor man’s Clark Gable,” are trapped together in a wrecked car on the beach at Malibu in the opening, as the tide’s coming in, and the plot is a flashback as to how they got there.

By the end of the twisty, confusing story, I wasn’t much more enlightened than I was at the beginning, but who cares, if you get to listen to Lee Tracy talk? Though his character claims to be 42, Tracy was around 50 years old when he made this film, and he looks at least ten years older, but his acting chops were still intact.

As it happened, The International Al Jolson Society was holding its 63rd annual convention in Palm Springs that weekend as well, at the Spa Resort and Casino, so I got to stick my head in there, too, and listen to Jolie fans bellyache about how political correctness has unfairly besmirched the reputation of the man they call “The World’s Greatest Entertainer.” I went to the memorabilia auction—which the auctioneer basically treated as a chance to do stand-up, and he was quite hilarious—and scored a CD of Jolson performing schmaltzy standards as the host of the Kraft Music Hall in the late ‘40s, and trading quips with his piano accompanist Oscar Levant. Great stuff.

I also took The Kid for a ride to the top of San Jacinto Peak, on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, the world’s largest rotating aerial tram, currently celebrating its 50th year in operation.

I had ridden it once before, years ago, to an awards presentation for a film festival I was judging. Not a huge fan of heights myself, I hadn’t much enjoyed the experience, majestic though the view of the craggy mountainside and the Coachella Valley below undeniably is. But I decided it was worth a second trip to enjoy The Kid’s terror. She was disappointingly un-terrified, however. After I got home, a friend sent me an email of “Tram Safety Fun Facts” detailing all sorts of nightmarish things that have happened there over the years. Too bad I hadn’t had this information to tell The Kid beforehand.

By the way, my pal Barry Graham has completed “The Whitey Thor,” a decidedly adults-only comic about his encounter with novelist Brad Thor, illustrated by my pal Vince Larue; you can read it here.

Friday, May 24, 2013


The animated epic Epic, opening today, is gastropod-rich—its dramatis personae includes both a snail and a slug. In that spirit you can check out my fast-paced list of The Top Thirteen Snails in Fiction, on Topless Robot.

Thursday, May 23, 2013


The Wife, The Kid and I spent last weekend in Palm Springs, for the annual Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival. More about that later, but…

Monster-of-the-Week: …we also saw this splendid arachnid…

…repurposed from a Bug into a bug.

Friday, May 17, 2013


He’s been a natty and impressively businesslike 007, he’s dutifully played supporting parts in stuff like Mrs. Doubtfire and The Mirror Has Two Faces, and he’s been superb in a couple of leading roles, notably The Tailor of Panama. He even holds the distinction, in a cast full of embarrassments, of having given the most embarrassing performance in Mamma Mia!

Yet at some level I’m not sure that Pierce Brosnan has ever completely shaken the initial image we’ve had of him, as a pleasantly suave romantic-comedy lightweight, on TV’s Remington Steel. His turn in writer-director Susanne Bier’s Danish film, titled Love Is All You Need in English, could change that, however—if enough people see it.

Or, on the other hand, maybe not. Even if the movie, opening this weekend at Harkins Camelview, was a hit, Brosnan might not get the acclaim he deserves for this performance. He plays the role of a bereaved widower with such honorable restraint and low-key balance, such a lack of histrionics, that his excellence might get overlooked.

Brosnan is Philip, a high-powered expat produce broker in Copenhagen. It’s 26 years since the death of his wife, but Philip is still furious about it, and Brosnan manages to make us feel that anger without ever resorting to actorish telegraphing. He doesn’t grit his teeth or narrow his eyes; he’s too accustomed to his fury for that. It’s just there, in the faintly rising tension in his voice, in the little smile that you often see on somebody when they’re about to explode.

His vents his rage through belittling insults and brutal honesty, heavy on the brutality, to his employees. When hairdresser Ida (Trine Dyrholm) backs into his car in an airport parking lot, it’s a great opportunity for him rave at her—but she’s so shell-shocked and vulnerable that he can’t keep it up. His manner toward her softens at once. Then he finds out that she’s catching the same flight he is, to Italy, for a wedding. He’s the father of the groom, and she’s the mother of the bride.

This seemed to me at first like a contrived specimen of the romantic-comedy “meet-cute,” but the actors make it convincing. By the time Ida and Philip have reached southern Italy, and are sharing a car from the airport to Philip’s beautiful-but-disused old coastal lemon farm that his son (Sebastian Jessen) and Ida’s daughter (Molly Blixt Egelind) are fixing up for the wedding, Philip even makes a clumsy try at complimenting Ida.

Before long he’s opened up to her about the circumstances of his wife’s death. Philip is awkward and uncomfortable around his son, and he openly loathes his sister-in-law (Paprika Steen), who’s shamelessly trying to get her hooks into him. But something about Ida brings out the best in him—and something about the role brings out the best in Brosnan. It may, indeed, be personal experience—it wasn’t until days after I saw the film that I remembered that Brosnan’s real-life first wife died of cancer in the early nineties.

For English-language audiences, Brosnan’s work here is the story about the film, but he isn’t really the star of Love Is All You Need. Trine Dyrholm’s Ida is. Indeed, in Danish Ida is the title character: Den Skaldede Frisor, or, The Bald Hairdresser.

Ida’s bald—under a fine blond wig--because she’s a cancer and chemo veteran. She’s gone to her daughter’s wedding alone because a few days earlier she came home to tell her husband Leif (Kim Bodnia) that she was in remission, only to find him fooling around with a much younger woman. She’s confident that Leif will return to her, until he shows up at the wedding with the young mistress as his date.

I was unfamiliar with Dyrholm, a major star in Denmark, but she’s a revelation. Wide-eyed and gently smiling, she radiates kindness and honesty. Ida’s misfortunes have left her soul as exposed as her scalp, but both remain beautiful.

Nothing that ensues in the plot is especially surprising, but Bier’s touch, both with the dialogue and the direction, is strikingly observant. There are moments—cringe-inducing toasts, bungled propositions, arguments between mortified people—that feel almost painfully naturalistic. This movie has loose ends and rough edges, and may not convince you that love is truly all you need. But it makes a good case that love is, finally, what matters most.

Thursday, May 16, 2013


Starting today and continuing through Sunday is the 14th Annual Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival, at the Camelot Theatre in Palm Springs, California. Among the obscurities—and some over-familiar selections like Champion and The Asphalt Jungle—on this year’s schedule is the way-too-little-known 1950 effort Try and Get Me (aka The Sound of Fury).

It features Lloyd Bridges in a flashy role as a fast-talking, hyper-confident stick up man and the underrated Frank Lovejoy in a heartbreaking performance as an unemployed family man who, desperate for money, gets sucked into a kidnapping scheme. The director was Cyril “Cy” Endfield, just before he was blacklisted, and it’s not hard to see why the Red-baiters might have thought the guy was a Commie—for its first two-thirds, it’s an angrily anti-capitalist drama, then it shifts into a startling critique of how irresponsible journalism can lead to mob violence.

The story is based on the same California lynch-mob incident that inspired Fritz Lang’s 1936 American debut Fury, but it’s a better, more honest, less sentimental movie than Fury. In its final stretch (shot in downtown Phoenix) it becomes truly epic—amazingly so, considering its budget. It has the feel of something from the early Eisenstein. Despite the clumsiness with which the movie presents its high moral values—placing them in the mouth of a visiting Italian academic—I think it’s a neglected classic, and the Palm Springs festival is to be commended for showcasing it.

I wasn’t able to attend the Phoenix area screening of Star Trek—Into Darkness, and therefore the multitudes breathlessly awaiting my take on it will have to wait until I'm able to catch up with it. I was excited to learn, however, that the new Star Trek video game involves the Gorns, the reptilian race that Kirk encountered back in the original series episode “Arena.” So…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s recognize the Gorn Captain with which Kirk was forced into one-on-one combat in that episode…

“Arena” is my earliest memory of Star Trek, when I was five or six years old, and the Gorn—who politely offers to kill Kirk quickly and mercifully—remains my favorite Star Trek alien. Can’t wait to see what the game's version looks like, but I very much doubt it can rival the original in my affections. I even have this bobble-head…

…sitting on my desk. Anytime I need some validation, I just tap his head. Think I’ll do it right now: “Is this a good post, Gorn?”

Man, that’s a load off.

Friday, May 10, 2013


It sounds like a joke: “The Great Gatsby, in 3-D.” What’s next, The Grapes of Wrath in 3-D? The Old Man and the Sea in 3-D? Catcher in the Rye in 3-D? What other high-school English class assignment classics could we watch in dorky dark glasses?

Oddly, though, it sort of works in the case of this Gatsby. The director of this new version of the F. Scott Fitzgerald tale is Baz Luhrmann, and he takes more or less the same approach to it that he did to Romeo & Juliet and Moulin Rouge and Strictly Ballroom—which is to say, a combination of Bollywood and Busby Berkeley on speed. So his lunging, plunging, swooping camera seemed to pack a little extra punch from the 3-D in a way that most recent offerings in the format—the superhero and animated flicks—have not.

Strictly in terms of plot, it’s a pretty faithful retelling of the 1925 novel about the title mystery man (Leonardo DiCaprio) who shows up at the ritzy end of Long Island. But it couldn’t be much farther away in tone from Fitzgerald’s famously balanced, plangent prose. Despite the solemn narration by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), the style is all wild whip pans and fast cutting and undulating aerial shots that carry us from new money “West Egg” to old money “East Egg” and back, and sometimes all the way in to Manhattan.

Gatsby, a West Egger, throws decadent jazz-and-flapper parties in which he doesn’t usually participate. His neighbor and tenant Nick sees Gatsby gazing longingly at the “green light” across the bay, on the dock of the East Egg estate where Nick’s cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) lives with her blueblood ape of a husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton). Needless to say, there’s some history there.

I’ve always been fond of this yarn, with its fairy-tale backstory. Like many durable American fables, it’s rooted in seriously adolescent notions, about reinventing yourself and impressing the girl of your dreams with grand gesture, but what gives it its power was that Fitzgerald knew, first-hand, that the fix was in when it came to Gatsby’s dream of making himself acceptable to the old money class—if he’d simply wanted to be rich or famous, he could have managed it easily enough, but he wanted to be One Of Them. That he wanted this for, from his point of view, the most gallant and romantic of reasons mattered not at all.

Once you’ve accepted that this is Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby, not Fitzgerald’s, you’re likely to feel that this is the most successful adaptation of the story. It’s highly uneven—in particular, it runs out of steam toward the end—but it’s more satisfying, overall, than the drab 1949 version, starring Alan Ladd, and much more than the plodding 1974 version starring Robert Redford, and this has at least as much to do with the leading man as it does with Luhrmann.

Neither Redford nor Ladd was the real problem with their respective productions; both did their level best with the part. But neither of them captured the subtly frantic, terrified side of Gatsby’s psychology like DiCaprio does. This makes it possible, as it usually isn’t, to find some pity for Daisy, to see how even life with the cloddish, philandering Tom might offer her more breathing space than Gatsby’s obsessive devotion.

Even more than this, though, for the story to be convincing, Gatsby must have a radiant glamour that transcends acting, or even beauty. In one of the book’s most famous passages, Nick describes Gatsby’s smile:

He had one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced, or seemed to face, the whole external world for an instant and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself.

When DiCaprio smiles into the camera here, he comes closer to capturing this quality than any previous Gatsby I’ve seen. Maybe it was just the 3-D.

Thursday, May 9, 2013


Obviously this week…

Monster-of-the-Week: …a Ray Harryhausen monster was in order. But which, out of all his wondrous fauna, ought to get the nod? Then it occurred to me—this weekend is also Mother’s Day. The choice is clear: The Roc, the awe-inspiring two-headed bird from my personal favorite Harryhausen movie, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.


The Roc comes flapping back to her lofty nest, to the accompaniment of vertigo-inducing Bernard Herrmann music, to find that a couple of scurvy sea-dogs of Sinbad’s crew have cracked open one of her eggs and are enjoying a drumstick of the sweet two-headed chick that emerged. Bad luck for those guys.

A very Happy Mother’s Day to all Moms everywhere.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013


One of my best friends just called me from Back East, seriously in tears, to tell me that Ray Harryhausen has passed on, at 92. I’d already heard, from another friend, but I was glad he called just the same—we talked about Harryhausen’s movies for more than an hour.

It’s hard for me to know quite where to begin with regard to Harryhausen. Anyone who’s read my writing for any length of time may already know that the special-effects sorcerer, along with his great mentor Willis O’Brien (of King Kong) before him, was responsible for a really high percentage of the images that turned me into a movie lover.

Harryhausen was the greatest of the stop-motion animators, that small class of movie artists who photograph articulated puppets one frame at a time, then painstakingly move them the tiniest bit before shooting the next frame, to create the illusion of motion when the film is run at full speed. He hadn’t made one of his fantasy spectacles, made up of various set-piece sequences of monsters and other fanciful beings strung along an episodic plot, in over thirty years, since Clash of the Titans in 1981. He’d spent his long retirement sculpting—he designed this…

…dramatic statue of David Livingstone, his wife’s great-great-grandfather, in Blantyre, Scotland—doing interviews and DVD commentaries, playing small roles in John Landis movies, accepting awards and generally soaking up much-deserved adulation.

Computer-generated imagery had made him technically obsolete, but he never became aesthetically obsolete. Computer effects, even at their formidable best, have never had the warmth or soul of Harryhausen’s creations. In recent years stop-motion has been used almost exclusively for stylized, cartoony stories, like The Nightmare Before Christmas or the recent Frankenweenie and ParaNorman.

But the skittish, haywire, obsessive flavor of old-school stop-motion—the familiar “jerkiness” that resulted from each frame being a still image rather than a picture of a body in motion—meant that it had an air of whimsical stylization even when it was used in a supposedly realistic setting. I think that as kids, we loved stop-motion creatures not because they were so real but because they so obviously and enchantingly were not.

Harryhausen claimed that the director Eugene Lourie once told him that he always made his monsters die “like the tenor in an opera,” piteously rising and re-collapsing. I can attest that the death of the “Rhedosaur” at the end of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms always put a lump in my throat when I was a kid. Here, perhaps, is a clue to what made Harryhausen special: I think he was, in a sense, an actor, channeling carefully-wrought performances into the faces and limbs of his models.

I defy anyone to watch several of his films together and not see distinctive personality types emerge from the “acting” of his creatures. He specialized in rampaging comic thugs, like the Cyclops in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, the Ymir in 20 Million Miles to Earth, Talos in Jason and the Argonauts, the Kraken in Clash, or the Troglodyte in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger—slow-thinking, with loutish, irritable faces (subconscious parodies of the bullies who pick on the kind of little kid who grows up to be an animator, maybe?). He could also create manic, demonic characters, like his animate, sword-wielding skeletons, and animals, like the Rhedosaur, the title allosaurus in The Valley of Gwangi, or the Dragon in 7th Voyage, with its oddly canine manner—when I showed my kid that movie, she was furiously indignant at Sinbad for shooting this guileless beast with a giant arrow.

But that’s the point. All of these creatures, benign or menacing, were endearing, touched as they were both by the hands and the spirit of the unassuming California boy who gave them life. RIP to him—he may have come to a stop, but his creations will long remain in motion.

Sunday, May 5, 2013


It’s often a hundred and twelve degrees here in the Valley. For years, I’d spend much of the day working outside, reflecting that the cliché was true—it is a dry heat. Like a kiln. By the time I’d collapse on my couch, I’d feel as dried out as a clay pot, and as fragile.

On Arizona summer days like this, I would lament the lack of a cure readily available to citizens of my beloved home town of Erie, Pennsylvania: Rita’s Italian Ice, in my never-very-humble opinion America’s greatest frozen dessert chain. Why, I’d wonder, was this chilly ambrosia not available out here in the sweltering land of the Zonies, where we could really use it? But almost two years ago, I became aware that a few Rita’s franchises had indeed opened around the Phoenix area.

The dish we call Italian Ice—or sometimes, rather redundantly, “water ice”—comes by its name honestly; it really does go way back in Italian history. It’s claimed that Nero himself would send slaves to the mountaintops near the Eternal City to collect snow, which would then be hustled back to the feast and mixed with fruit and other sweeteners. Back in dear old Erie, at least during the brief summers, we never had to resort to such hassles to enjoy this refreshing treat.

We just had to betake ourselves to the Rita’s on Gore Road, just off upper Peach Street, and walk up to the little window, and for a ridiculously low price a sweet-faced teenage girl would hand us a cup of Italian Ice fit for a Roman Emperor. If it was a particularly lucky day, the menu would include Wild Black Cherry. If so, I might buy a large, and sit on the concrete step and luxuriate in the scrumptious flavor and the humid but comparatively pleasant Pennsylvania afternoon. The sign at Rita’s reads “Ice Custard Happiness,” and I’d be hard pressed to disagree.

Rita’s menu has, within its limited scope of cool treats, a lot of variety. A dozen or so different flavors of ice are offered, some daily, others every few days, along with chocolate or vanilla soft-serve custards—my ten-year-old favors the chocolate, straight up. These may be blended with the ice for a “Misto” drink, or for a “Blendini,” which may be topped with Reese’s cups, M&Ms, Oreos and other such goodies.

Polluting pure, innocent Italian ice in this manner is acceptable for a little kid, I suppose, but for an adult it’s an appalling vulgarity. The same goes for some of the queasy, gimmicky flavors of ice that show up under Rita’s glass from time to time, like Swedish Fish or Red Velvet Cake or Cotton Candy or Peeps. Don’t misunderstand; Peeps are the greatest Easter candy ever invented, but delicious as they are, they aren’t what you’d normally call refreshing.

I always make a point of asking for a sample of these freaky, rich flavors when I see one I haven’t encountered before, and the gracious staff always obliges me with a tiny cupful and a tiny spoon. Every time, I have the same reaction—that they taste amazingly like what they’re called, in frozen liquid form, and that while one taste is a delight, a whole cup would be oppressive to a mature palate.

Not every adult shares this view, however. Asked to name his favorite flavor, Zach Cobian, co-owner of the Tempe Rita’s at McClintock and Elliot, says “Birthday Cake. I don’t even like sweet things all that much, but for some reason I love it.”

Well, enjoy to your heart’s content. But after I sample such kid stuff, I then buy what I came in for—Wild Black Cherry. Make no mistake, even among Rita’s flavors it’s a stunner—deeply sweet but not cloying, and studded with fleshy bits of real cherry. Indeed, while in a pinch I’ll settle for Rita’s standard non-wild Cherry, or Mango, or Juicy Pear, or “Alex’s Lemonade,” I rarely go into the place unless I’ve been informed by email that the Wild Black Cherry is on the menu that day. When it is, I usually buy a couple of quarts to take home and freeze—it’s very revivable by means of a microwave zap and some patient stirring. There are four quarts of it my freezer at this writing.

One minor warning, however: Wild Black Cherry will turn your lips and tongue a gory, arterial scarlet. If I was directing a vampire movie, I would make the actors eat it between takes.

Friday, May 3, 2013


Once again, Robert Downey, Jr. triumphs in the role of the armored Marvel superhero Iron Man and his alter-ego Tony Stark.

In Iron Man 3, as always, he has the light touch of a comedian and the soulfulness and charisma and glamour of a movie star. His jumpy, fast-talking insolence doesn’t come across as narcissism, because it’s mixed with an uncommon sense of empathy—he seems connected to the other people onscreen, even the villains with whom he’s grappling.

Thus, even when he’s playing a self-absorbed egomaniac like Tony Stark, he, Downey, doesn’t come across as a self-absorbed egomaniac. Or rather, he does come across as a self-absorbed egomaniac, but a lovable one.

Iron Man 3 (or Iron Man Three, as the credits spell it) begins with a sequence set in Bern, Switzerland on the last day of 1999, in which a younger, more obnoxious Tony, by way of snubbing a stranger, unwittingly sets in motion the troubles which will follow. Thirteen years later, a sinister figure calling himself The Mandarin, played with spooky panache by Ben Kingsley, claims responsibility for a series of mysterious explosions.

Eventually Iron Man, now suffering from PTSD after his experiences in The Avengers, runs afoul of a circle of fanatics claiming allegiance to The Mandarin. They’ve been treated with an agent called “Extremis,” allowing them to regenerate when injured, and to turn red-hot from within. This gang kidnaps Tony’s sweetie Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), as well as The President of the United States (William Sadler).

The boots-on-the-ground leader of these hotties is played, rather well, by Guy Pearce. Tony and his pal Rhodey (Don Cheadle), aka Iron Patriot, must ride to the rescue. There are twists and turns—Tony befriends a little kid, for instance—and absurdly magical sequences, like Iron Man’s rescue of multiple people falling out of a ripped-open jet plane. The director here is Shane Black, replacing Jon Favreau of Iron Man and Iron Man 2 (though Favreau plays a sizable acting role here), and while the movie is probably about a half-hour too long—like almost all action blockbusters seem to be any more—it’s polished and mostly engrossing.

But there’s no way around it, or at least there wasn’t for me—recent events intrude into one’s enjoyment of Iron Man 3 as a simple action entertainment. The explosions, the amputees turned into “Extremis” henchpersons, even the Iron Man suits themselves—here often used empty, by remote control, like drone aircraft—all give the movie an ugly, unsavory real-world resonance it wouldn’t have had a few months ago, rightly or wrongly, and a tragic atmosphere it doesn’t really deserve. This doesn’t ruin the picture, but it does leave you more poignantly aware than usual of the genre’s limitations.

No doubt superhero stories have their legitimate place in the human tradition, just as the stories of Hercules or Beowulf did in their time. The fantasies they service, both of being protected and of being a protector, are perfectly human, even noble.

They’re also vain, taken literally. Even if Tony Stark’s technology existed, and even if —far less likely—it was in the hands of somebody as well-intentioned as Tony, it couldn’t protect us from evil. Superhero stories have become far more complex in last half-century, yet in the end, they tend to return reflexively to the touching idea that evil can be vanquished in a fistfight. But evil is the part of human badness that can’t be socked in the jaw. Iron Man 3 reminds us, probably without meaning too, that the superhero archetype is, in the end, an empty suit.

Thursday, May 2, 2013


RIP to lovely Deanna Durbin, a box-office powerhouse in the ‘30s for a string of sunny musicals, passed on at 91. But in the end, she may be just as vividly remembered by noir fans, for her turn in 1944’s neglected Christmas Holiday.

RIP also to Allan Arbus, best known as Dr. Freedman on M*A*S*H but also memorable as a bad guy in Coffy, passed on at 95. Odd, somehow, to think that he was older than Deanna Durbin.

You can well imagine my excitement when I read the headline “Monster suing SF City Attorney.” Instantly I had visions of some shaggy, scaly, fanged, tentacled abomination sitting in some Bay Area civil court, his multiple eyes filled with righteous indignation over some miscarriage of justice. But then I read on—it was just…

Monster-of-the-Week: …the mysterious creature that leaves these claw marks…

…as the logo of the like-named energy drinks. The litigious company is put out with the City Attorney because he wants them to stop pushing their jitter-juice to minors.