Friday, August 30, 2013


The backpack in which The Kid carries her books to school bears the smiling mugs of five British boys. So does a beach bag she takes swimming, and so does a t-shirt she frequently wears. Said mugs belong to a boy band known collectively as One Direction—though I keep referring to them, accidently but perhaps aptly, as “One Dimension.”

The members of One Direction (I just had to correct myself, I started typing “Dimension” again) were assembled in 2010 out of also-ran solo auditioners from the Brit TV talent show X Factor. Taken under the wing of none other than Simon Cowell, they failed to win on the show but became wildly popular anyway via social media fandom. As Cowell rather sheepishly notes in the documentary One Direction: This Is Us (which he co-produced), the boys became stars before they ever released a record.

Then they released a record, and really became stars. The movie, directed by Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), gives a swift 101 course in the band’s history for those of us who were uninitiated, and a few rather touching glimpses of their “Mums” and other family members, but principally focuses on life on the road—the genuinely grueling, maybe rather exploitative tour schedule that these lads are kept on.

I’m not trying to be a dick when I say—I can’t keep these guys straight in my head. The only one I can remember is the one The Kid likes, Zayn (“the mysterious one”). The other four—Harry (“the charming one”), Niall (“the cute one”), Louis (“the funny one”) and Liam (“the sensible one”; how bad does that suck as a signature trait?)—just sort of blur together in my mind.

The same goes for their music. A couple of music critics are heard in the movie, claiming that One Direction’s sound is “anarchic” and has “a bit of an edge.” This, I guess, is why I couldn’t make it as a music critic, because I sure can’t hear it.

Most of their songs sound, to me, neither good nor offensively bad. They’re just cheery, weightless, badly-rhymed pop that flatters little girls—a couple of fans astutely observe that One Direction says the things the boys they know never say. But even by boy band standards, it’s thin stuff. To call it “bubble gum” would be to insult the nutritional properties of bubble gum.

All that said, as a movie the fast-paced One Direction: This Is Us is pretty watchable. Spurlock employs some clever asides—like a German scientist explaining what happens in the brains of young girls when they hear the music—but mostly he mixes tricked-out concert footage with generous helpings of the lads blowing off steam behind the scenes, tussling and roughhousing like the guys in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Most of them seem to come from working-class backgrounds, and I found it hard not to wish them well, even though the One Direction they’re aimed is, of course, straight at the pocketbooks of little girls.

I think the sweetest moment may be when the five are sitting around a campfire, and one of them imagines mothers in the future telling their daughters about how One Direction was the popular boy band in their day. It’s probably healthy that these guys start thinking about their current situation as temporary, before one of them becomes a big star and the rest become bitter and/or relieved to be out of the limelight.

Thursday, August 29, 2013


Looking ahead to October, and here in Arizona in late August, one looks ahead very eagerly to October...

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the honor this week to that curmudgeonly ogre, Shrek. Born in the pages of William Steig’s children’s book, he became a star in the massively successful DreamWorks films, then took on Broadway, and on October 15…

…you’ll be able to see that Tony-winning stage production Shrek the Musical in this DVD. Your Humble Narrator is eager to see it because the majestic Sutton Foster, who isn’t yet aware of her desperate crush on me, plays Fiona. Pencil it in!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013


In the political thriller Closed Circuit, opening today, a truck bomb explodes in a London market, killing dozens. The surviving terrorist is assigned two lawyers—one, Martin (Eric Bana), to defend him in his public trial, the other, Claudia (Rebecca Hall) to advocate for him during the closed hearings involving classified evidence, which is kept secret even from Martin.

Claudia and Martin have an illicit romantic past—his marriage broke up over his affair with her. This creates the teeniest conflict of interest, but the lawyers, eager for the high-profile assignment, neglect to tell the judge this. Before long both of them, working separately, become aware that they’re under a near-Orwellian level of surveillance, and then that their lives are in danger, as they discover a secret at the heart of the case that the Government is willing to kill to protect. Sadly, nothing seems very implausible about any of this.

Directed by John Crowley from a script by Steven Knight, Closed Circuit hurtles forward with almost unseemly speed and economy. There isn’t a shot or a line of dialogue in the picture that could be called digressive, and the tension rises with metronomic precision, driven along by Joby Talbot’s ominous orchestral music. The atmosphere of humorless, frightened suspicion is palpable and oppressive, and the movie grips.

As usual, the acting has a lot to do with this. Bana’s charm has always been elusive to me, but here he’s supposed to be a bit of a cold fish, so he’s effective, and Hall is engaging as ever, even in this less-than-warm role. From the supporting cast comes creditable work by Ciaran Hinds, Anne-Marie Duff, Julia Stiles, Riz Ahmed and especially Jim Broadbent as a mild-mannered yet almost satanic Attorney General who drops into the movie now and then to level a threat in the most pleasant manner possible.

When Closed Circuit was all over, I did find myself wondering why Claudia and Martin didn’t make a point of shoving their at-risk witness in front of the TV cameras outside the Old Bailey, or why they didn’t simply say in court, in a tattletale-ish sort of voice, “M’lud, MI-5 has been trying to kill us all night.” But Closed Circuit wouldn’t be the first thriller that pulls you along so skillfully that you don’t think about its gaps in logic until after the end credits roll.

As in 1812, the British seem to have re-invaded the States—but this time they’ve targeted our multiplexes. Over the course of the week, along with Closed Circuit, at least two other movies from, by or about Brits have landed wide Yank release: the boy-band documentary One Direction: This Is Us and the Simon Pegg comedy The World’s End. The former will be discussed when it opens here Friday, so let’s talk The World’s End here…

The third entry in the “Cornetto Trilogy” of comedies written by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, directed by Wright and starring Pegg and Nick Frost is now in theaters. The first, 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, is a classic both of the zombie genre and of Brit comedy; the second, the 2007 cop-movie spoof Hot Fuzz, started out perhaps even more brilliantly than Shaun but ran out of steam toward the end.

World’s End resides somewhere between the two—not quite the homerun of Shaun, but ultimately more satisfying than Hot Fuzz. The main character is Gary King (Pegg) who is trying to reunite four old school friends (Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman and Eddie Marsan) to have another go at a legendary but unfinished pub crawl from 1990 in their hometown of Newtown Haven, whose major claim to fame is that it’s home to Britain’s oldest roundabout.

Gary’s a scruffy loser who never grew up, while the other four have moved on to relatively mature lives—and one, Andie (Frost) bears Gary a bitter grudge. Nonetheless, all four of his friends show up for the 12-pub crawl, their sights set to finish with a pint at the pub called The World’s End.

This middle-aged outing alone might have provided enough laughs for a movie by itself, whipped forward by the snappy comic punctuation of Wright’s editing. But about midpoint, The World’s End suddenly takes a strange sci-fi twist, as the lads realize that something has changed in Newton Haven.

Really, it’s just roughly the zillionth variation on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but it’s an amusing one, and the motivation of the invaders links up thematically with Gary’s personality. As with Hot Fuzz, the movie is a little overambitious—it goes on a smidge too long, and not every scene works. But there are plenty of laughs, and a few touching moments, and the performances are fine, especially by the feisty, stouthearted Frost.

It should also be noted that the final decision of the aliens with regard to humanity—pronounced by Bill Nighy as the voice of “The Network”—is basically the same as that of The Pods in Jack Finney’s original novel The Body Snatchers.

Friday, August 23, 2013


The mid-‘90s were salad days for Jane Austen fans. 1995 alone saw the release of screen adaptations of Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion, as well as Clueless, that splendid modern-dress teen-comedy adaptation of Emma; a more straightforward version of Emma hit screens the following year.

But ’95 is a banner year for Austen freaks above all, perhaps, because of the BBC television version of Pride and Prejudice, starring Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. Much as I like Firth, I personally prefer the 2005 big-screen version, with Keira Knightly as Elizabeth Bennett and Matthew MacFayden as Darcy. But Austen fanatics, I understand, overwhelmingly prefer Firth’s dour interpretation.

This is certainly the case with Jane Hayes, the heroine of the new film Austenland. Jane (Keri Russell), an American who sleeps in a bedroom full of 18th-Century-style kitsch, owns a cardboard cutout of Firth in his Darcy get-up—a departing boyfriend punches this two-dimensional rival in the kisser.

Now in her 30s, Jane’s pretty sure that her Austen fixation isn’t getting her anywhere. Nonetheless, she invests her meager life savings on a trip to England, to a theme resort in a beautiful country manor that offers an immersion in period role-playing for Austen freaks, with actors playing variously dashing or snobbish or buffoonish types in the author’s vein. Once Jane gets there—after walking through the terminal at Heathrow in Regency drag—the Boss Lady (Jane Seymour) coldly makes it clear that her budget package puts her squarely in “poor relation” territory in terms of the experience.

In other words, though unwittingly, she finds herself in the position of an Austen heroine. And like such a heroine, she soon finds potential romance—both with a “stable boy” (Bret McKenzie) and with a starchy, Darcy-ish “officer” (J. J. Feild). But where, if at all, does fantasy end and true love begin?

Based on a 2007 novel by Shannon Hale, Austenland was co-written (with Hale) and directed by Jerusha Hess, half of the husband-and-wife team that made Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre and the underrated Gentlemen Broncos. The theme—American Anglophilia—is a promising one for an eccentric romantic comedy. It’s even a bit timely, considering the recent Yank media preoccupation with the new Whelp of Windsor.

The movie also has the benefit of beautiful Keri Russell, an actress who isn’t used as often or as well as she could be—her last real triumph was in Adrienne Shelly’s superb Waitress in 2007. Russell isn’t showy, but there’s a directness to her, and she has an open, responsive romantic manner. In her scenes with the guys here, Jane wears a living-in-the-moment smile of delight simply that something is going on in her life, and she’s quite beguiling.

Russell also rescues the film from utter triviality. Magnificent as Jane Austen’s novels are, there’s something irritating about modern women using these stories, in which near-powerless women can be banished to scorn and irrelevance if they fail to obtain a marriage, as fantasy fodder—willingly embracing social strictures to which Austen, with all her briliance and imagination, had little choice but to conform.

I don’t know if Hale’s novel touches on this, but in the movie it shows up only tacitly, in the liberating use of Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” on the soundtrack, and more importantly in the way Russell’s Jane seems to recoil from even play-acting these situations once she’s in them. (A friend of mine went to Afghanistan as a journalist, and was surprised at how demeaning she found the requirement that she keep her head covered.)

Russell can’t save Austenland, sad to say. After a pretty amusing initial setup, the film just doesn’t come together. Much of the comedy in the Hess pictures arises from a sort of wobbly, not-firing-on-all-cylinders timing to the gags. It can be devastatingly funny when it works, as in Napoleon Dynamite, or in the rather hilarious amateur play sequence in Austenland. But this comic style is always in danger of deflating, and it does so, big time, in Austenland’s homestretch.

The later scenes, which try to resolve the romance through various revelations and declarations, fall with a thud. They aren’t funny, they aren’t romantic, for me they weren’t even fully coherent. And they’re only poignant in an external sense—you feel a little bad for the actors, trying like crazy to make this stuff work, while Hess’s camera stares unhelpfully at them.

Austenland is a mess, and for me it failed altogether as a romance, but it’s by no means without laughs. Aside from Russell’s performance, my favorite aspect of the film is the performance of Jennifer Coolidge as Elizabeth Charming, a game middle-aged party girl who befriends Jane. Elizabeth Charming doesn’t know the difference between Jane Austen and Austin, Texas; she went to the resort because she knows the Empire dresses will show her figure off to good advantage.

But she dives right into the spirit of the resort, spouting ridiculous improvisation in an absurd accent, and trying to get everyone involved in the fun. Miss Charming is shameless, but she’s just trying to help things along, and the same could be said for Coolidge.

Thursday, August 22, 2013


The new sci-fi comedy The World’s End, from the team of screenwriter/stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost and director Edgar Wright, opens this weekend, so…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to this mutant, designed and performed by peerless Paul Blaisdell…

…from Roger Corman’s 1955 The Day the World Ended. The movie may be watched in its entirety, here.

Friday, August 16, 2013


Check out the August issue of Phoenix Magazine

…for my article on the history of camels in Arizona. It’s on page 50, or here, with a sidebar about the discovery of the possible “Walmart Camel” fossils here.

In the course of working on the story I got to meet a very cool camel, named Aladdin, who had been ridden by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the 2002 movie The Scorpion King. As it happened I sort of liked that movie, so let it serve as a deadhead video suggestion for the weekend.

It would be hard to find many movies dumber than The Scorpion King, but it would also, happily, be hard to find many movies that are smarter in the way they go about being dumb. Somehow improbably, the film managed to strike a note of silliness and fun without seeming insulting.

The Scorpion King is set in a vague ancient era, vaguely in Mesopotamia. The title character, Mathyus, played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, had been introduced in the opening scenes of the previous year’s The Mummy Returns—the introduction seemed, indeed, to have been the principle reason for that film’s existence. Mathyus is an Akkadian, which students of ancient culture will recognize as the Sumerian people who composed the great ancient epic of Gilgamesh. In this film, however, Akkadians have a reputation not as poets but as assassins, and Mathyus is the greatest of them. He accepts a mission, from a coalition of beleaguered tribes, to kill the evil King Memnon (Steven Brand) because, well, he’s evil.

Memnon has a gorgeous prophetess (Kelly Hu) working for him, reluctantly, and somehow she and Mathyus get hooked up, and Mathyus gains a variety of other ragtag allies in the course of his adventures, among them Grant Heslov and the recently late and lamented Michael Clarke Duncan and Bernard Hill. The resulting banter and antics might put you in mind of a Hope/Crosby “Road” picture, and that’s not all bad.

The highlights of The Scorpion King, of course, are the swashbuckling fight scenes, and in this the movie seems to have benefited, oddly, from its association with Pro Wrestling (Vince McMahon is credited as Executive Producer). The action isn’t hyper-edited in the MTV manner, so the fights have a story arc—you aren’t asked to take the editor’s word for what’s going on. And “The Rock” turned out to be charismatic performer with a touch of self-deprecation. And his camel had a lot of charisma and star power, too.

Thursday, August 15, 2013


I was saddened to learn, late last week, that Karen Black, who I had a crush on in my teen years, had passed on, at 74. So, inevitably…

Monster-of-the-Week: …in her honor the nod goes this week to the vicious little Zuni fetish doll that terrorizes her in one third of the 1975 TV-movie favorite Trilogy of Terror

The flick may be watched in its entirety, here.

A quick personal note, to anyone who may be texting me: A couple of weeks ago I sat down on a hot curb on a 108 degree day here in AZ for a couple of minutes to work on something, and I had my cell phone in my back pocket. The screen on my cell phone got somehow scorched and is now mostly black, so I can't read texts or even see who it is that's texting me (because of the readout on the outside of the phone I can still see incoming calls). I'm not sure when I'll get around to getting a new phone, so if you're trying to text me, please don't be offended that I haven't responded, and please give me a good old fashioned phone call.

Friday, August 9, 2013


There seem to be certain actresses who, having attained some popularity and acclaim, are suddenly subject to a peculiar fashionable backlash. Jennifer Aniston has been a major star for almost twenty years now, but I can only think of one person I know who would admit to liking her.

Except me, that is. I like her. She isn’t, perhaps, an actress of any great range, but within the scope of what she does she has an easygoing, companionable manner, an unpretentious, goodhearted air of common sense that I find fairly irresistible. She has what used to be called a girl-next-door quality.

She’s also managed her career with remarkable shrewdness. The adult comedy We’re the Millers would probably be a very small blip on the summer movie radar if the movie’s trailer didn’t make it clear that Aniston performs a striptease. The scene in question is nothing especially eye-popping in itself—though Aniston, at 44 years, has every reason to feel confident with her clothes off—but there’s somehow an unearned pop-culture piquancy because it’s sweet little Rachel from Friends gyrating up there.

Aniston is the story about the film, but she isn’t the central character. That distinction belongs to the likable SNL veteran Jason Sudeikis as Dave, a scruffy, single, small-time weed dealer in Denver. Dave’s not a bad sort, but when he gets robbed of his stash and cash, and is forced to make a huge smuggling run to Mexico and back to make up the loss to his noxious boss (Ed Helms), he realizes that “disreputable loser” is written all over him, and that he’ll never get past the border guards alone.

His wacky solution is to enlist three neighbors from his building to masquerade as his square middle-class family, taking a trip south of the border in an RV the size of a small continent; he figures this hide-in-plain-sight cover will make him invisible to the authorities. So a neglected adolescent boy (the terrific Will Poulter) plays his good-hearted son, a guttersnipe runaway (Emma Roberts) plays his teenage daughter, and a broke, fed-up stripper (Aniston) poses as the little woman (a thieving boyfriend is used to explain how a stripper with no drug problem comes to be broke).

The plan works perfectly, and the trip goes smoothly. Just kidding. All manner of humiliating—and rather xenophobic—complications arise for the foulmouthed, sarcastic quartet, all in roughly the manner of The Hangover and its imitators. “The Millers” end up entangled with drug lords and DEA agents and crooked motorcycle cops; they’re pulled into other people’s marital frustrations. A tarantula crawls up a pantleg, resulting in a sight gag similar to a notorious one in 1998’s There’s Something About Mary.

It’s a sentimental comedy, of course—the four start to truly bond as a family through all of this and to look out for each other. Director Rawson Marshall Thurber gets the picture off to an excellent start, setting up the premise with admirable speed and efficiency. But the contrived, heavy-handed shtick slows it down as it progresses.

Still, the actors keep it from grinding to a halt. I thought there were plenty of laughs—mostly rising from the characterizations, not the coarse gags—even if the movie loses some energy in its second half. The four Millers really do seem to connect and learn to enjoy each other’s company. It’s soon easy to perceive affection just under the surface of their casual, almost reflexive exchange of obscenities and aspersions.

In this way, their behavior probably isn’t too different from most square middle-class families. They just think it is, because they’ve gotten their image of such families from movies and TV. But then, the makers of We’re the Millers have probably gotten their image of outcasts and misfits from the movies.

Thursday, August 8, 2013


If you don't have a kid who devoutly watches the Disney Channel, you may not be aware of the new Mickey Mouse cartoons. They're really good; the first time Mickey has truly been funny since the days of Steamboat Willie. So...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...this week the nod goes to the avalanche-fearing Abominable Snowman...

...from Yodelberg, one of these neo-Mickeys. You can view it here.

Friday, August 2, 2013


The standard-issue movie-critic superlatives—“riveting,” “stunning”—certainly apply to The Act of Killing. The trouble is that none of them seem adequate. This is one of the most astounding and challenging documentaries I’ve ever seen, and I’m not ready, after one viewing, to offer more than a few initial thoughts on it.

The title is a grim joke. The film is about murder, but it’s also about the re-enactment—the astonishingly willing re-enactment—of murder by the perpetrators. The focus is on a few jovial middle-aged guys, most notably a certain Anwar Congo, who back in 1965, in the wake of the Indonesian Revolution, killed countless people accused of being Communists on behalf the new regime. Many of these cutthroats were small-potatoes gangsters who came to be regarded as national heroes through their association with the founding of the paramilitary party Pemuda Pancasila (Pancasila Youth). Anwar Congo, a North Sumatran, may have personally killed as many as a thousand people.

This is no typical historical chronicle of a human rights outrage, however. The director, the American Joshua Oppenheimer, uses little in the way of archival photos or footage—maybe none, if memory serves—and I don’t think the names Sukarno or Suharto are ever mentioned. The film takes place very much in the present, in which Anwar and others act out their murders, with no trace of embarrassment and no evident fear of consequence, for Oppenheimer’s camera. These aren’t casual re-enactments, either—they’re staged vignettes, in the style of the gangster pictures these guys love.

Among the many discomforts which The Act of Killing visits on us is one that particularly hits home for those of us in the movie critic and movie buff communities who have long insisted that violence in films has no causal relation to real-life violence. It becomes a good deal harder to be confident of that position after listening to Oppenheimer’s subjects cheerfully discuss the inspiration for their crimes coming from Marlon Brando or Al Pacino movies. It also left me wondering if movies were what allowed these men to dissociate from what they were doing, to see it as unreal.

The Act of Killing is, in a sense, a difficult movie to like, since some of the participants, who play the victims in the re-enactments, are clearly terrified—including some children. It’s disingenuous, after Oppenheimer has filmed children in these potentially traumatic psychodramas, to hear him object from behind the camera when Anwar wants to watch footage from the film with his grandsons.

The result of this viewing is fateful. The last scene of The Act of Killing, which shows Anwar’s reaction when he revisits the scene of his crimes, is, I think, among the most horrifying, heartbreaking, jaw-dropping couple of minutes I've seen in any movie ever. While the movie would still be a unique and shocking expose without it, this scene takes it to the level of Shakespearean tragedy.

To discuss The Smurfs 2 after The Act of Killing seems almost obscene. But the sequel to the 2011 kid movie starring the little blue gnomes created in the ‘50s by the Belgian comic artist Pierre “Peyo” Culliford opens this weekend, and while it’s no classic, like its predecessor it isn’t without a self-mocking wit. In the first film the Smurfs had an adventure in Manhattan; in The Smurfs 2, in a dazzlingly innovative twist, they have an adventure in Paris.

Also like its predecessor, with whom it shares the director Raja Gosnell, Smurfs 2 offers a pretty funny performance by Hank Azaria as the villainous wizard Gargamel. Stranded in our world at the end of the previous film, Gargamel has become a success as a stage magician in the City of Light, and has also created two non-blue quasi-Smurfs, Vexy and Hackus. Through a dimensional portal, the sorcerer abducts Smurfette (voiced by Katy Perry) in order to steal her “Smurf Essence,” with which he can turn his tiny homunculi blue and use them to infiltrate Smurf Village.

The Smurfs 2 was the last film of the great Jonathan Winters, who passed on in April, and to whom it’s dedicated. He provided the kindly voice of Papa Smurf, and he got to intone the movie’s moral: That it doesn’t matter where you come from, what matters is who you choose to be. A platitude, maybe, but some platitudes are better than others, and this one struck me as better than average.

Thursday, August 1, 2013


One of my awesome sisters sent me a picture of...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...this week's honoree...

...a carnosaur spirit vibrantly liberated from the wood in which it was contained somewhere near Corry, PA.