Thursday, October 31, 2013


Happy Halloween Everybody!

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

But I think my favorite, and thus…

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

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 24, 2013


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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


At 7:30 tomorrow evening, October 23, Phoenix’s FilmBar hosts a book signing of Alternate Histories of the World, by Tucson native Matthew Buchholtz. It’s a superb collection of his startling historical documents. It was only from this book, for instance, that I learned that pterosaurs routinely circled the skies over the city of Chicago as recently as 1820…

The evening will also include a screening of a 75-minute video compilation by the artist of cool movie clips. You can check out a trailer here.

Friday, October 18, 2013


Opening this weekend:

The Fifth Estate—The British actor Benedict Cumberbatch, recently impressive as the villain in Star Trek: Into Darkness, does a striking impersonation of Julian Assange in this chronicle of the WikiLeaks saga. Like 2010’s The Social Network, it’s the story of a virtual-world revolutionary, based on a book by a disgruntled former second-banana—Zuckerberg pal Eduardo Saverin in the case of the Facebook movie, and WikiLeaks crony Daniel Domscheit-Berg (sympathetically played by Daniel Bruhl) in the case of The Fifth Estate.

Surprise, surprise, in both the sidekicks are depicted as decent and long-suffering, and the central figures as socially awkward, paranoid, narcissistic ingrates.

The director is Bill Condon of Chicago, and as in that film he shows some ingenuity in creating psychological landscapes, and his illustrations of the real-world impact of Assange’s online activities are cleverly handled as well. But there’s something slack and artificial about the attempts to generate conventional political-thriller suspense from the release of the Afghan War Logs or the Diplomatic Cables. The performances are sharp and witty—Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney have fun as a couple of jaded State Department stooges—and so is much of the dialogue, but somehow the movie doesn’t feel urgent.

Maybe that’s because it’s off-center. I don’t mean to suggest that Assange’s psychology, at least as it relates to the ethics of his leaks, is an unimportant subject. I just don’t think it’s as important as most of what, rightly or wrongly, he leaked.

Most people would probably agree that at least some state secrecy is necessary for a nation’s security; most people would probably even more strongly agree that this shouldn’t be used as a catch-all excuse to cover up brutality or illegality, or even avoid embarrassment. Yet this is clearly much of what WikiLeaks exposed. The focus on Assange’s admittedly questionable character has kept this material from being as widely discussed as it should be, and it’s hard to believe that isn’t at least partly by design.

A.C.O.D.—The title stands for Adult Children of Divorce, and the central character, Carter (Adam Scott), is a prime specimen of such. His younger brother (Clark Duke) is getting married, and it falls to Carter to negotiate the brief truce between his long-divorced, still-enraged parents (Richard Jenkins and Catherine O’Hara) necessary for the occasion. None of the wackiness which ensues is especially revelatory—the direction, by Stu Zicherman, and the script, by Zicherman and Ben Karlin, are on about the level of an above-average sitcom.

But the great O’Hara and the great Jenkins bring this material to life without breaking a sweat. The supporting players, including Jane Lynch, very funny as an opportunistic therapist, Ken Howard, Amy Poehler, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Jessica Alba, are all proficient. Scott, from Parks and Recreation, is agreeable as the straight man at the center of it all.

The climactic attempt to resolve the various family conflicts with a single stroke of the plot is on the clumsy side, but then, at the very end, Jenkins is given a simple, poignant monologue. He hits it out of the park, of course, and for aficionados of fine acting the movie would be worth seeing just for this.

Now in theatres:

Machete Kills—The title here is, at least, truth in advertising. Scary-looking, likable Danny Trejo returns to his role from the 2010 action parody, a Federale-turned-avenger who slaughters both Cartel goons south of the border and nativist goons north of it. Director Robert Rodriguez, with the help of a cast which includes everybody from Sofia Vergara to Mel Gibson to Lady Gaga to Charlie Sheen, here billed (accurately) as “Carlos Estevez,” as the President of the United States, makes this one even more cartoonishly gory and raunchy than the original, and for my money, more enjoyable (for adults, that is). We’re told at the end that the character will return in Machete Kills Again…In Space. I, for one, hope so.

A couple of RIPs: First, to the fine character actor Ed Lauter, passed on at 74—I just watched him the other night in Hitchcock’s Family Plot, but he was in dozens of movies and TV shows ranging from the original Longest Yard to The Artist.

RIP also to the great Stanley Kauffman, longtime movie critic at The New Republic, passed on at 97. Though I often—maybe even usually—disagreed with his cranky conservative judgments, Kauffman’s impeccable style and wit always made him a terrific read. At the age of 18—years before I discovered Pauline Kael—I was given Kauffman’s 1980 review collection Before My Eyes by a bookstore-owning family friend as a high school graduation present. It was endlessly rereading this book that made me want to get serious about being a film reviewer.

Thursday, October 17, 2013


At the suggestion of a reader…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week’s honoree is the winged fire demon…

…conjured up periodically in Jacques Tourneur’s superb 1957 Night of the Demon, or, as it’s known in its abridged American form, Curse of the Demon, showing Friday evening at 9:30 p.m. (Phoenix time) on that all-time greatest TV channel, Turner Classic Movies...

It’s said that director Tourneur, screenwriter Charles Bennett and star Dana Andrews all thought the demon in this adaptation of the M.R. James short story “Casting the Runes” should be suggested rather than seen, but they were overruled by producer Hal Chester. Tourneur et al were probably aesthetically more tasteful, but the demon, with his loutish, jowly face, is cool enough that it’s hard to regret its inclusion.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013


Out today on DVD and digital video is Zachary Levy's 2009 Strongman.

You can read my review of this funny, poignant and fascinating documentary here, or you can just take my word for it: it's worth seeing.

Sunday, October 13, 2013


Check out the October issue of Phoenix Magazine

…for my story on Stephen Wrentmore, the innovative Education Director at Arizona Theatre Company. It’s on Page 40, or you can read it here.

Friday, October 11, 2013


The success of Apollo 13 and Cast Away suggests that audiences are willing to invest emotionally in seeing Tom Hanks get home safe. Presumably this is what led to his casting in the title role of Captain Phillips, a thriller about the April 2009 attack, by a ragtag quartet of teenage Somali pirates, on the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, bound from Oman to Kenya. Richard Phillips allowed himself to be the sole hostage in order to get the pirates off the ship in an enclosed lifeboat. A harrowing four-day standoff with the U.S. Navy ensued.

The director is the British action master Paul Greengrass, of United 93 and a couple of the Bourne movies, and he keeps things tense and austere. We aren’t given a lot of insight into the Captain—though we do get a surprising amount about the pirate leader, Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, and his comrades.

We’re shown Phillips at the beginning, as he leaves his home in Vermont for work, exchanging commonplaces with his wife (Catherine Keener) about how tough the job market their sons will be facing has gotten; these worries are contrasted with the desperate conditions in a Somali coastal town that lead young men to raid huge international ships and demand ransom, most of which goes to faraway warlords.

But after this nod to dramatic irony, the focus is on the nuts and bolts both of mounting and of responding to a pirate attack. Greengrass knows he has us; he doesn’t have to cue our emotions, but his kinetic style quickly builds the suspense to a pretty intense pitch.

Phillips is by no means an uncontroversial figure. Maersk was reportedly sued in 2009 by crewmen alleging that his actions endangered them unnecessarily. This is touched on in the film—after an initial attack on the vessel is successfully repelled, a frightened crewman urges Phillips to flee the waters, and Phillips refuses, noting that this could easily take them into the waters of other pirates, and that anyway they all knew the risks involved in sailing that part of the world. I’m certainly no sailor, but the crewman’s suggestion seemed more sensible to me than the Captain’s dismissal of it.

In any case, Hanks, to his credit, turns off some of his customary warmth here. His Phillips comes across as something of a humorless, uncommunicative hard-ass. Once the Maersk Alabama has been raided, however, Phillips is also unquestionably depicted as a hero—levelheaded, resourceful, wily, observant, compassionate toward his captors. He never postures or gives in to anger, and he’s a natural, improvisational diplomat. How much this reflects the real person I couldn’t say, but it’s a moving characterization.

The Captain’s antagonist Muse, well played by the acting novice Barkhad Abdi, is also given his due—his courage and daring, however misguided, are fully acknowledged. He’s just a kid, obtusely unable to admit that he’s in over his head, but his Third-Worlder’s proud refusal to cower in shock and awe before the technological and political juggernaut of the West is, if not admirable, at least understandable.

Potently gripping as Captain Phillips is as a procedural thriller—it’s the best in a while—it saves its real punch for the final minutes. After Phillips is through with his ordeal, we see him, bruised and blood-spattered—Mel Gibson will be green with envy when he sees the film—being examined by a Navy doctor, and he simply turns to mush. Hanks shows us what prolonged proximity to violence and terror can actually do to a person, and not only is it some of the best acting he’s ever done, it also serves as a reproach to the action genre—to every movie that ever ended with its hero emerging from chaos and carnage with a smirk and a quip.

Thursday, October 10, 2013


Last week our honoree was the original Universal Frankenstein Monster, so this week…

Monster-of-the-Week: …it’s the Twizzler Frankenstein Monster…

…from this beautifully animated TV commercial.

Friday, October 4, 2013


Opening this weekend:

Gravity—Sandra Bullock is a scientist from the Space Shuttle. She’s spacewalking, installing some sort of new gizmo, when a collision with some debris sends both her and hotshot astronaut George Clooney spinning untethered through the cosmos. It’s basically the same setup as Ray Bradbury’s 1949 short story “Kaleidoscope,” except the men flying away from each other in that tale knew they were lost, and their conversation was a poignant poetic elegy to life.

Gravity, however, is a no-let-up survival thriller. Clooney and Bullock struggle to get back to the wrecked Shuttle, and from there to the International Space Station. At some point they get separated, and Bullock must make a third extravehicular sojourn, this time to a Chinese space station with working escape pods.

Clooney has fun fitting his own persona into the archetypical squared-jawed, calm in the face disaster astronaut, cracking dumb jokes and flirting with the terrified Bullock, partly to keep her spirits up, and partly just because he’s a flirt. But it’s really Bullock’s movie, and she’s uncommonly touching as this melancholic woman with a dreadful tragedy in her past who still keeps fighting to survive.

The director is the excellent Alfonso Cuaron, of Y Tu Mama Tambien and Harry Potter and the…well, I can’t keep those titles straight, but the best and spookiest of the Harry Potter movies. He keeps the tension pulse-poundingly high in Gravity, and the otherworldly atmosphere beautiful yet hostile—the dramatic irony of sailing through the boundlessness of space and at the same time being oppressively trapped is not lost on him.

Gravity is so exciting, so close to a home run, that it seems ungrateful to nitpick, but there’s no way around it—the picture gets away from Cuaron in the end. The movie begins with a frightening sense of plausibility and realism, but as the story progresses its action also grows steadily more comic-book corny and improbable. It’s still entertaining, but it moves more into the realm of Hollywood hokum. Then, in the final minutes, as Cuaron piles more and more peril and obstacles onto poor Bullock’s plate, her plight begins to seem a little funny.

Another small grumble: The concussions which tear the spacecrafts apart happen, appropriately, with no sound at all, and the effect is weird and chaotic and chilling. But the filmmakers can’t resist piling on Steven Price’s brooding, ominous music, to cue us that something terribly dangerous is happening—and also, maybe, to reassure us that the sound system in the theater hasn’t malfunctioned. I can’t help but wonder if complete cosmic silence might have made these scenes even more disorienting and scary.

Parkland—The title refers to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, to which John F. Kennedy was taken after his motorcade passed Dealey Plaza in November 1963. He was already a goner by the time he got to the emergency room, and that’s the oddity of this film, directed by Peter Landesman—it’s all aftermath.

The main characters in Parkland are the likes of ER resident Jim Carrico (Zac Efron), or Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), who was shooting home movies when the motorcade passed, or FBI man James Hosty (Ron Livingston), who had gotten a threatening note from Lee Harvey Oswald weeks before the shooting, or Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton) of the Dallas branch of the Secret Service—ordinary people remembered for their proximity to an iconic historical shocker. We also get a look at the Oswald family—maybe the two best of the film’s many strong performances are those of James Badge Dale as Lee Harvey’s brother Robert, and Jacki Weaver as their nutty mother.

While Landesman’s script is adapted from a book by Vincent Bugliosi that reportedly espouses the Oswald-acted-alone viewpoint, the movie takes no obvious position pro or con on the matter of a conspiracy. It sticks to what is more or less undisputed in the record.

This could legitimately lead to the question of what, exactly, is the value of one more retelling of this extremely familiar story. I‘d guess that the answer, aside from capturing uniformly fine ensemble acting, is to suggest that national hysteria, perhaps mixed with the celebrity worship of Jackie Kennedy, may have been more than sufficient to account for the irregularities in the case that, in retrospect, seem so suspicious.

The characters scramble around recklessly, and while the movie seems to suggest that they’re honestly doing their best, they’re too stunned to get it right. A coroner seems ghoulish when he demands that the President’s body be left behind for an autopsy, and the Secret Service agents seem goodhearted when, "for Jackie," they ignore his demand, but the result is that no autopsy was performed in the highest-profile murder case in U.S. history.

Whatever your view of that strange and indelible historical episode, nothing in Parkland is likely to change it. But I found the film absorbing from start to finish.

Thursday, October 3, 2013


Happy October everyone!

As always, I must note that this is my favorite month of the year, partly because it’s the month when we finally get a bit of a cool-down here in Arizona, but also because it’s the month of Halloween. So in honor of Monster Month...

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s acknowledge the quintessential monster, the Monster, arguably the image which the word “monster” conjures up for many modern people; the Frankenstein Monster popularized by the great Boris Karloff in James Whale’s 1931 Universal film, under the makeup of the great Jack Pierce: flat-skulled, hulking, greenish-gray skinned, with electrode bolts in his neck:

For Phoenix folk who have never seen this truly classic, haunting performance at the heart of this really fine piece of moviemaking, you can catch the Universal Frankenstein at Filmbar in Phoenix this coming Sunday at 2 p.m, where it’s part of the FilmBar Frightmare Series, a monthlong program of scary pictures: Other titles include Psycho, The Lost Boys, An American Werewolf in London and Young Frankenstein, and there’s also a Halloween-day extravaganza featuring local horror host Dr. Diabolic, Dario Argento’s Dracula and the wacky Horror Remix. October!