Friday, January 31, 2014


Again, Happy (Chinese) New Year! My pal, the brilliant artist Vince Larue, made these gorgeous horses for The Kid, who was born in the previous Year of the Horse:

Check out my list, on Topless Robot, of 12 Nerdy Alternatives to the Super Bowl.

However you spend it, I hope everybody enjoys UberBowl Sunday. If, like me, you’re mostly indifferent to football, you’ll enjoy the quiet streets, sparsely populated movie theaters and short waits at restaurants. If you’re a fan, you’ll enjoy the festivity of the day, the excitement of the game and the spectacle of the show.

You may also be one of those who enjoy the Super Bowl commercials, those little exercises in corporate ego that often showcase dazzling skill in compressed cinematic narrative. Last year, one of the more popular ads was the “Team” commercial for the Hyundai Santa Fe, in which a put-upon little kid assembles a football team of other wimpy-looking kids engaged in various macho activities—wrestling bears, etc.

One kid is welding some big, round, suspended metal structure covered with what look like square shutters, making it for all the world resemble the sphere that heroes take to the Moon in The First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells.

Can that possibly be what was intended—that he's planning a trip to the Moon?

Thursday, January 30, 2014


RIP to the wonderful Pete Seeger, passed on at 94.

One of my earliest memories was being in the back seat of a car in Newport, RI, and seeing a smiling guy get out of a car up ahead of us, and a wave to everyone, and being told that this was Pete Seeger. My parents were taking my folkie sister to the Folk Festival in Newport, and I was along for the ride. I also remember being taken to a Hubert Humphrey rally, so one or the other was the first famous person I can remember seeing. I’m told I also saw Bob Hope once when I was very small, but I have no memory of it. Maybe only the lefties stick in my mind.

On a more personal note, RIP also to bluegrass musician Kip Martin, my one-time step-nephew (though he was older than me) and unofficial extra older brother, passed on way too young yesterday.

Happy New Year tomorrow everybody! Chinese New Year, that is.

Farewell to the Year of the Snake, welcome to the Year of the Horse.

In honor of that noble beast, and also of The Kid, whose zodiacal sign is the Horse and who favors the Monster High series…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to a new character from Monster High—the Nightmare Horse belonging to Headless Headmistress Bloodgood (“daughter of the Headless Horseman!”).

Thursday, January 23, 2014


Check out my Topless Robot list in tribute to Russell “The Professor” Johnson. Also in Johnson’s honor…

Monster-of-the-Week:…let’s give the nod to any of the title characters in Attack of the Crab Monsters

…Roger Corman’s wonderfully nutso 1957 saga, in which Johnson was among the heroes. It’s number 9 on my list.

Friday, January 17, 2014


Opening this weekend:

Ride Along—The standup comedian Kevin Hart first came to my attention in a tiny role in Judd Apatow’s 2005 The 40-Year-Old Virgin. He had just three or four lines, but he had a comic intensity that popped off the screen, and I made a point of checking the end credits to catch his name—I was pretty sure I’d be seeing more from him.

Now he’s a movie star, top billed with Ice Cube in the action comedy Ride Along. The diminutive Hart’s comedy largely derives from Little Man’s Syndrome—he lives in a constantly aggrieved state of overcompensating machismo. Here he’s a video-game-addicted high school security guard and cop wannabe. When at last he makes it into the Atlanta Police Academy, he’s invited on a day-long ride along by tough-guy detective Ice Cube, the brother of his improbable girlfriend played by Tika Sumpter, a leggy creature who towers over Hart like a showhorse.

Ice Cube’s ulterior motive is to put his brother-in-law-to-be through hell and thus discourage him from joining the force—and, if possible, to break things up between him and his sister. So we get a series of wacky set pieces in which the overconfident Hart is sent barging into situations he’s not prepared for.

Almost all of these scenes are embarrassingly unfunny and overextended. There’s no real sense in which Ride Along, directed by Tim Story from a script by Greg Coolidge and others, can be called a good movie. But the leads are good—Ice Cube, always a strong, naturalistic actor, makes a solid straight man to Hart’s bristling indignation at not being recognized as a studly man of action.

In noting this, I hope nobody will suppose I’m suggesting that you should run out and see Ride Along. But feeble as the movie is, I didn’t mind it, not just because the stars are good company but also because it works through the old-school cop-movie playbook so modestly. When our heroes tangle with gangster heavy Laurence Fishburne—thus reuniting Ice Cube with “Furious Styles” from 1991’s Boyz in the Hood—and his henchman, the result is a little flurry of fistfights, shootouts and explosions, not a half-dozen Wagnerian climaxes in the earthshaking Bruckheimer tradition. It’s almost relaxing.

The Nut Job—This animated feature concerns a squirrel named Surly (voiced by Will Arnett), a renegade from the collective of food hoarders in a midcentury urban park, who organizes a heist from a nut shop. I like squirrels, and I share their passion for nuts—my inability to stop eating them (nuts, that is, not squirrels) is such that I could never, without hypocrisy, be judgmental toward a crack addict. So I’m probably the ideal audience member for this US/Canadian/South Korean co-production, and I must reluctantly report that it isn’t very good either.

If The Nut Job had stuck to being a noir/caper movie, but had replaced the humans with squirrels and the diamonds or art treasures or whatever with nuts, it might have been a riot. But the filmmakers weight it down with obligatory kidflick elements—the need for the misunderstood hero to prove himself, the romance, etc—that are inimical to the spirit of the heist picture. It’s visually pleasant, some of the characters come off well—especially an excitable pug voiced Maya Rudolph—and an animated version of the Korean pop star Psy performs the catchy “Gangnam Style” over the end credits, but overall this is, at best, a slow-afternoon desperation matinee pick when your kids have seen everything else at the multiplex.

The degree to which it’s a missed opportunity may become clear, however, if you watch the Canadian cartoon short on which it’s based, Surly Squirrel by Peter Lepeniotis. It’s hilarious, and it upholds the unsentimental cynicism of its genre.

RIP to Russell Johnson, best known as “The Professor” on Gilligan’s Island, though his long career included everything from Rancho Notorious to Roger Corman’s Attack of the Crab Monsters, passed on at 89. The Professor was one of my strongest childhood role models, along with Mr. Peabody. They made me want to grow up to be an insufferable pedantic know-it-all.

Speaking of Mr. Peabody, check out this Topless Robot list, in which various contributors to the site say what they’re most looking forward to in nerd culture in the coming year. My entry is number 9.

Thursday, January 16, 2014


RIP to the conjoined twin gray whales found on the Baja who, alas, survived only a short time after their birth.

In their honor (and not remotely meant, of course, as a reflection on their character)…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas)...

...the lecherous playboy vampire in Hammer’s 1971 Twins of Evil, at long last available on Blu-Ray.

The Count is a dissolute aristocrat who can’t find any decadent diversions to amuse him, until he is turned into a bloodsucker by his undead ancestors and takes to seducing the more adventurous of the two luscious twin nieces of a local puritan (Peter Cushing) who leads an eager order of witch-hunting religious fanatics.

Said nieces are played by Mary and Madeleine Collinson—famously the first identical twins ever to pose together for Playboy; they were the joint “Playmates of the Month” in October of 1971—and they of course were the movie’s major selling points. But it’s a ripping, fast-moving melodrama, and it has its heart in the right place—vile though the Count is, he’s only a hair more odious than Cushing and his sadistic witch-burning pals. The handsome young schoolmaster (David Warbeck) caught between the two factions is a goodhearted religious liberal. He’s in love, at least at first, with the naughtier of the twins, poor chap.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014


Check out my essay on the noir website The Big Click, in appreciation of Frank McAuliffe, a too-little-remembered crime novelist of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

While we’re on the subject of books, here’s my annual list of books I’ve read, excluding as usual articles and reviews, short stories, poems, comics, blogs, menus, grocery lists and such. It’s a bit shorter than some of my previous lists, partly because I spent some of my time rereading McAuliffe’s “Augustus Mandrell” yarns for the essay, but also because I finally took the time to read Eddison’s wonderful but insanely endless Worm Ouroboros.

Liza of Lambeth by W. Somerset Maugham

Beware the Young Stranger by Ellery Queen

The Worm Ouroboros by E. R. Eddison

Elsewhere by Richard Russo

Doctor Who and the Sun Makers by Terrance Dicks

Dial C for Chihuahua by Waverly Curtis

Hot Town by Frank McAuliffe

The Bag Man by Frank McAuliffe

Nate in Venice by Richard Russo

When it All Comes Down to Dust by Barry Graham

Dr. Who and the Abominable Snowmen by Terrance Dicks

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

Friday, January 10, 2014


August: Osage County—Beverly Aiken, a poet, drinks too much, while his wife Violet, who’s struggling with mouth cancer, is addicted to pain pills. When the former, played by Sam Shepard, disappears one day, the latter, played by Meryl Streep, summons their daughters (Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis) as well as her sister (the superb Margo Martindale) to the family manse in rural Oklahoma.

In the wake of these harpies come various spouses, cousins, kids and significant others, played by the likes of Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Abigail Breslin, Dermot Mulroney and the lately-ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch. The Aikens spend the rest of the movie, adapted by Tracey Letts from his Pulitzer Prize-winning Sam Shepard-esque play and directed by TV journeyman John Wells, cutting into each other with blame, ridicule and vitriolic language. Wounding family secrets are revealed, plates get broken. A Cheyenne caregiver (Misty Upham) skulks around stoically, making herself useful; she’s like an ambassador from the world of sanity.

Given its cast and pedigree, it would be tough for August: Osage County to pack no punch at all. There are effective passages of dialogue, and most of the actors get at least a scene or two to shine. Streep goes back to the “accent acting” that so often got her branded a showoff earlier in her career, but here it’s to comic effect—her low, drawn-out syllables are frighteningly funny, especially when she lifts them into a sudden tone of authority.

The whole ensemble squeezes as much grim humor as they can out of this material—it helps that the characters crack themselves and each other up a lot. They seem amused by their own awfulness. As with the 2011 film of another play by Letts, his trailer-park Grand Guignol Killer Joe, the inherent theatricality of the work is unmistakable; you may reflect that it would play stronger live. Even so, the movie is polished and almost never dull.

You may also ask yourself at times, however, how it is that you’re supposed to find the vituperation of this creepy clan enriching. Maybe we’re meant to be grateful for our families by comparison.

Lone Survivor—Mark Wahlberg plays Marcus Luttrell, one of a team of U.S. Navy Seals involved in Operation Red Wings, an ill-fated 2005 mission to locate a Taliban bigwig in a village in northeastern Afghanistan. Luttrell and three other Seals were discovered by locals and attacked by Taliban forces. A badly wounded Luttrell was eventually given shelter by an Afghan family, at great risk to themselves, and got back to safety alive.

Apparently there is some uncertainty about the accuracy of the book, by Luttrell and Patrick Robinson, from which his movie is adapted; the number of Taliban fighters these men faced is disputed. We in the audience are obviously in no position to offer judgment on this, but I can certainly say that the film, scripted and directed by the capable actor turned capable writer-director Peter Berg, is a grim, scary military actioner.

Wahlberg, who was also among the film’s producers, offers one of his more sympathetic acting turns in years. Be forewarned, though, that Berg’s battle scenes in Lone Survivor, though they leave us admiring the Seals for their bravery and endurance, and the villagers for their hospitality, are bloody, horrifying and shot through with a sense of nightmarish futility.

Thursday, January 9, 2014


RIP to actor Larry D. Mann, passed on at 91. Mann appeared in movies ranging from The Singing Nun to The Sting and TV ranging from Hogan’s Heroes to Hill Street Blues to Homefront, but will perhaps be most fondly remembered as the voice of bearlike prospector Yukon Cornelius in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Opening tomorrow in the Valley is The Invisible Woman, directed by Ralph Fiennes, who also stars as Charles Dickens, opposite Felicity Jones as the author’s mistress Nelly Ternan. It’s an intriguing subject, but I missed the screening, so…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week’s award will have to go to the more literally invisible title character of Universal’s 1940 film The Invisible Woman.

Played by Virginia Bruce, she’s a fetching department store model who volunteers to be a guinea pig for sweet but absent-minded scientist John Barrymore, and uses her newfound transparency to take revenge on her skunky boss (Charles Lane).

Non-lethal revenge, that is. She’s surely among the most benign, least scary of all Monsters of the Week—the movie is a comedy, though it’s included on the Universal Monsters Invisible Man DVD collection. The humor is extremely corny and smirky and jocular, but it’s sort of a must-see all the same—can anyone afford not to see a movie the cast of which includes not only Barrymore and Charles Lane but Oscar Homolka, Charlie Ruggles, Donald MacBride, Shemp Howard, Margaret Hamilton and even a glimpse of Maria Montez?

Saturday, January 4, 2014


Hope everybody had a great New Year, by the way, and of course that we all have a wonderful 2014 and beyond. OK, list time! Here are Your Humble Narrator’s Top Ten movies for 2013:

The Act of Killing—In this unique, appalling documentary, the killers from the Indonesian troubles of the mid-60s re-enact their crimes without apparent shame. It’s hard to watch, and maybe not without its opportunistic side, but unforgettable. Another eye-popping documentary, Narco Cultura, explores a similar theme.

Philomena—Judi Dench looks for her long-lost son, given up to and sold into adoption as a toddler by the nuns when she was an unwed teenage mum in Ireland. Steve Coogan is the sophisticated investigative journalist helping her. This blood-boiling real-life tearjerker is played as a buddy-road comedy by director Stephen Frears and the stars, to delightful effect.

12 Years a Slave—The famous slave narrative is dramatized with intense visual storytelling on a par with the great silents. It’s beautiful, epic, absorbing and terrifying. Superbly acted, too.

Nebraska—This tale of an elderly man who can’t be convinced that he hasn’t won a million dollar sweepstakes looks like it’s going to be a Bergmanesque downer for the first ten minutes or so. Then it gradually turns into a wonderful deadpan comedy, dried out perfectly by the 77-year-old Bruce Dern’s most austere performance, by Will Forte’s work as Dern’s straight man, and by Phedon Papamichael’s exquisite black-and-white cinematography.

Captain Phillips—Tom Hanks does some of his best acting in years in this account of the Maersk Alabama piracy case, and the procedural-thriller direction is expertly handled by Paul Greengrass.

Fruitvale Station—This charged-up, lucid recounting of the killing of BART passenger Oscar Grant, a knockout feature debut by director Ryan Coogler, is heartbreaking, infuriating drama and exhilarating cinema. Michael B. Jordan gives an instant-classic performance as Grant.

Her—Joaquin Phoenix falls in apparently requited love with his computer’s operating system, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Another strange concept from Spike Jonze that shouldn't work but does, the film is fascinating and relevant, even if the usual banalities of relationship dysfunction keep Jonze from finding a satisfying ending.

All Is Lost—As with Nebraska, this is another triumphant piece of laconic, taciturn acting by a 77-year-old, in this case Robert Redford, lost at sea, methodically and near-wordlessly working to survive. His restraint, like Dern’s, is a brilliant acting strategy; we write their characters for them in our heads.

42—This retelling of the Jackie Robinson story felt, to me, almost more like a religious epic than a baseball picture, and it was enjoyable in the old-fashioned-Hollywood way that both a Biblical epic and baseball picture can be.

In a World…—The actress Lake Bell wrote, directed and starred in this peculiar comedy set in the weird, envious world of voice-over artists. I thought this movie didn’t get its props; it’s not perfect, but it’s truly funny and imaginative, and at its best it had, I thought, something of the flavor of an early Howard Hawks comedy.

Also worthwhile: Matthew McConaughey did a bunch of fine work this year, including the title role of the rich Southern gothic Mud, but his performance in Dallas Buyers Club as Ron Woodroof, who founded the title exchange for then-unapproved (by the FDA) AIDs medications, was perhaps his most impressive turn. Then there was The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, James Gandolfini’s poignantly funny swansong Enough Said, Peter Berg’s scary Afghanistan actioner Lone Survivor, the excellent and overlooked political thriller Closed Circuit, the zombie movies Warm Bodies and World War Z, the Coens’ maddening but never boring Inside Llewyn Davis, the underrated fantasy Jack the Giant Slayer, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Saving Mr. Banks, August: Osage County, Disney’s FrozenMonsters University, Last Vegas, The Great Gatsby, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2, The Armstrong Lie, The Croods, One Direction: This is Us (sorry, but The Kid asked to be taken to it again, and I wasn’t bored the second time), Parkland, Inequality for All, Thanks for Sharing, Man of Tai Chi, Parental Guidance, A.C.O.D., The Wolverine, Gravity, Despicable Me 2 and The World’s End.

Highly flawed movies in which I nonetheless found some merit this year include: The Purge, Admission, Riddick, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, We're the Millers, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Machete KillsThe Lone Ranger, White House Down, the Red Dawn remake, Escape from Planet Earth and The Last Stand.

I should also mention a movie I haven’t yet seen, an indie about foster care called Short Term 12 which keeps showing up on lists by my critical colleagues. I should try to catch that ASAP.

Thursday, January 2, 2014


Your Humble Narrator isn’t much of a game guy. But The Kid recently put a simple game on my Kindle with which I find myself able to waste a fair amount of time. Therefore…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week the nod goes to any specimen of the seemingly bottomless supply of Backyard Zombies…

…the rather cheerful-looking undead that assail you from either side of the Kindle proscenium in the game of the same title. It is, I admit, brain-numbingly satisfying to dispatch one after another.