Saturday, July 27, 2013


We Yanks have been in a breathless tizzy over British new arrivals lately, and I’m no exception: Out on Blu-Ray this month is a Hammer horror picture I had never seen before!

It’s Hands of the Ripper, from 1971, and it concerns the daughter of Saucy Jacky himself. In the grim prologue, the poor kid witnesses Jack murder his wife from her crib, after which he comes over and gives her a kiss on the cheek. Years later, as a guileless young thing (Angharad Rees), now working as an aide to a fake medium (Dora Bryan), she’s given to murderous outbursts herself whenever she is similarly smooched.

She’s taken in by a rationalist Doctor (Eric Porter) who wants to try out the techniques that this Viennese fellow Freud has been talking about on her. But the Doc’s something of a head-case himself; he obviously has a Freudian thing for his young charity case, and he starts covering up, Norman Bates style, for her monkeyshines.

Directed by Peter Sasdy (Taste the Blood of Dracula), Hands is like most of the Hammers—silly, and unsavory, but somehow also irresistible, especially if you grew up on the studio’s product. As the story progresses, the circumstances leading to the right psychological trigger for another murder become more and more laughably contrived, but the movie culminates in a strangely subdued and tragic climax at the Whispering Gallery in St. Paul’s.

Porter tries hard to give a serious performance, and he’s impressive right up until he catches a sword in the side, toward the end. After that, the best actor in the Empire—Olivier, Richardson, Gielgud, or whoever you pick—couldn’t have kept his dignity.

Friday, July 26, 2013


“To die! To be really dead! That must be glorious!”

This was the opinion of Count Dracula, as played by Bela Lugosi, and there have been plenty of other characters who have warned us that immortality—physical immortality, at any rate—is no picnic.

The latest is the title character of The Wolverine, the Marvel mutant superhero, armed with a metal skeleton and retractable metal claws, as well as the ability to quickly regenerate when wounded. Thus Wolverine, aka Logan, has been alive and in fighting trim since the most recent days when his bushy mutton chops wouldn’t make him look ridiculous—the 19th Century, in other words.

The new film is a stand-alone adventure, set in Japan, in which the brooding, world-weary Wolverine, played once again by Hugh Jackman, visits an old acquaintance from his WWII POW days, who offers him a chance at regular physical mortality. The trouble is that however much of a drag immortality may be, it turns out that it comes in really handy when you’re tangling not only with murderous opponents like ninjas and yakuza goons, but also with a venom-spitting snake-woman and a giant metallic suit of samurai armor.

Director James Mangold, working from a script credited to Scott Frank and Mark Bomback, moves the lavish production along, and he makes atmospheric use of the Japanese settings. There’s a funny, ingeniously-worked-out fight on top of a bullet train, for instance, and another memorable sequence where our hero gets riddled with arrows, a bit like Toshiro Mifune at the end of Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood.

The Wolverine is given a love interest here, the Yakuza’s beautiful daughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto). But he seems to have a lot more fun with Mariko’s adoptive sister Yukio (Rila Fukushima), who becomes Logan’s self-appointed sword-wielding bodyguard and sidekick. Fukushima’s odd and oddly appealing face is full of puckish life, and Jackman gives the brooding a rest in his scenes with her. For me, she was easily the best thing about the picture.

Jackman manages the title role with the same lithe, effortless physicality he showed in the earlier films in the series. I must confess, though, that the fascination with this character, an associate of both the X-Men and The Avengers, eludes me. It may be a matter of chronology; he first appeared in the mid-70s, around the time that I stopped reading comics religiously. I wasn’t really aware of him until the X-Men movies started coming out.

But there’s no question that the fascination is real: Wolverine has gradually become one of the most beloved of superheroes of all time. A few years ago a friend of mine, then in his twenties, truly tried to get his wife to let him name their son Wolverine. He finally got her to settle for “Logan.” I’m not kidding.

I enjoyed The Wolverine well enough, but if you’re of this guy’s mindset, I’d say it’s a must-see. Then again, if you’re of this guy’s mindset, you’ll probably see it no matter what I say.

Thursday, July 25, 2013


Various matters:

Check out my Topless Robot list of the Top Ten Screen Characters Insultingly Named After Real-Life People

RIP to the excellent Dennis Farina, passed on at 69. It’s not highbrow, but That Old Feeling, the farce in which he starred opposite Bette Midler, is a favorite in our house.

In observance of the naming of George, the new whelp of the House of Windsor, let me just say…

Remember Bunker Hill!

Just kidding. Mazel tov. Still, here’s my New Times review of 1994’s The Madness of King George.

No, in observance of the royal rugrat…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s go for our honoree to the 1961 British creature feature Gorgo, about another wailing youngster surrounded by gawking onlookers in the heart of London…

But the title reptile was a MOTW about a year ago, during the London Olympics, so this week let’s give the nod to his devoted Mum, known as Ogra…

…who comes to fetch him from the greedy exhibitors and nasty spectators. Let’s hope young George is as lucky.

Thursday, July 18, 2013


In honor of Comic-Con, now underway in San Diego…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to Godzilla, as rendered in this rather marvelous teaser poster from the convention for next year’s new American version…

Thursday, July 11, 2013


Check out my preview, on Topless Robot, of the movie panels at this year's Comic-Con San Diego.

Speaking of comics, here's a literary masterpiece from the period of my youth that I recently came across:

It's a Whitman Three Stooges comic from 1971, and it features various monsters, including...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...this one...

...with one head per Stooge!

Thursday, July 4, 2013


Happy Fourth everybody!

As usual, I suggest a ceremonial viewing of the Star Trek episode “The Omega Glory,” which offers what should be an elementary cautionary moral against fetishizing objects of patriotic regard like the Constitution or the flag, but which all too many in our country need to be reminded of.

Speaking of nerdishness, the other evening The Wife, The Kid and I were cruising down 19th Avenue, when suddenly I began singing the theme song from the sitcom The Big Bang Theory: “Our whole universe was in a hot, dense state…

“What made you think of that?” The Wife asked.

I gave her a glance.

“Do you have a guess?” I asked, but by then I knew she had traced my thoughts. We were passing a bar called La Pachanga, which had made me think of Sheldon’s catchphrase “Bazenga!” which had made me think of the show.

In other words, The Wife is capable of “ratiocination” on the level of Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin.

RIP to the great and influential Richard Matheson, passed on at 87, and to Jim “Black Belt Jones” Kelly, passed on at 67.

With Despicable Me 2 in theatres…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the honor to this specimen of the voracious purple “evil minions” from the film, seen here in the new policy trailer for AMC Theaters…

Wednesday, July 3, 2013


There’s always been something vaguely insulting about the very title The Lone Ranger. It’s applied, after all, to the least lonely of heroes, the one with the most patient and devoted sidekick ever.

Alas, it’s an awkward time for sidekicks. Or, rather, it’s an awkward time for pop heroes with nonwhite sidekicks. Two superhero movies of recent years, the misbegotten Green Hornet and the otherwise enjoyable Iron Man 2, have featured ugly fistfights breaking out between the hero and the sidekick—the Asian Kato in the case of the Hornet, the black Rhodey in the case of Iron Man.

It’s not hard to guess at a subtext for these tiffs—an overflow of race-based resentment at losing top dog status on one side, and at playing second fiddle on the other.

Now comes a new, big-budget screen treatment of arguably the greatest sidekick since Sancho Panza: Tonto, Indian pal of the mysterious masked title character in The Lone Ranger. The pair originated as radio heroes in the thirties, concocted by the same Detroit-based team that later came up with The Green Hornet (supposedly the Ranger’s grand-nephew). Tonto unabashedly gets top billing in the new film, because he’s played by Johnny Depp, and he’s the narrator and, really, the central character.

Depp’s idea is to make Tonto a slightly crazy put-on artist, self-consciously playing the stoic, monoslyllabic, article-challenged Indian for the whites he encounters. It’s in the long tradition of the racial clown who parodies the bigotries against him.

Given the wisdom of casting an Anglo in the in the role in the first place, this was probably the best approach open to Depp, and he has some lovely, funny moments, but on the whole the characterization doesn’t come into focus. The performance feels tentative, unsure; it isn’t among his best.

As the Masked Man himself, Armie Hammer doesn’t fare much better. In order to make him the butt of Tonto’s jokes, the part has been written as callow and foolishly idealistic, which makes it a bummer to play. Still, Hammer’s warmth and appeal survive the movie. There are other fine actors in the cast, including Tom Wilkinson, Barry Pepper, Stephen Root and William Fitchner as a ghoulish Butch Cavendish, but the only one to rise above the general chaos is Helena Bonham Carter, unflappable as ever as a madam whose artificial leg is decorated with scrimshaw.

The chaos comes courtesy of the director, Gore Verbinski, who has a gift for wild, grand-scale slapstick. He stages some here, including a pretty enjoyable chase finale. But, as with his Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, he flings too many diverse ingredients into the stew, and the results are incoherent.

The movie makes reference to sources ranging from The Searchers to The Wild Bunch to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to the spaghetti westerns to, in the frame story, Little Big Man and The Princess Bride, all blown up into cartoony shtick. This eclecticism needn’t be a fault, could indeed be a virtue, but Verbinski also tries for somber scenes invoking the actual genocidal horror of the Old West. Something about shoving this stuff up alongside comedy broad enough—and dumb enough—for some old Bob Hope farce feels deeply unsavory.

In short, this Lone Ranger is a mess—a fascinating, occasionally brilliant, but ultimately miserably unsatisfying mess. At one point Silver the horse—an unusually beautiful and expressive animal, by the way—drops a pile onto the desert and, sure enough, we get to see the unconscious Lone Ranger dragged through this horse crap. That pretty much sums up the movie.