Thursday, April 24, 2014


Easy shot, but considering the nature of the Arizona Diamondbacks' play this season, few promotions could be more appropriate than this Saturday’s, at Chase Field: Zombie Night. Despite their 9th-inning comeback in Chicago Wednesday, the lads have certainly looked like a bunch of stiffs out there this year. So…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week’s honor goes to this guy…

Tuesday, April 22, 2014


The searcher in The Search for Simon, playing tonight and tomorrow night at FilmBar, is David, a fortyish, unemployed “ufologist.” Simon is the younger brother, absent since they were kids, who David is convinced has been abducted by aliens.

He’s spent his whole adult life, and most of a substantial lottery windfall, traveling the world to supposed UFO hotspots from Denmark to Utah, or paying shady-seeming contacts for supposed leads to Simon’s whereabouts. He’s tried repeatedly, without success, to get into Area 51. His few friends, hopeless geeks themselves, are sick of his fixation, as is his careworn Mum.

David is played, well, by Martin Gooch, who also co-wrote and directed this low-budget Brit comedy. Gooch freely mixes a Monty Python/Douglas Adams/Simon Pegg-Edgar Wright style of silliness with a stingingly poignant backstory. The poignancy wins here, partly because the variable quality of some of the acting dulls the edge of the comic timing in the ensemble scenes, but also because—spoiler alert!—said backstory is really quite sad. Python alumnus Carol Cleveland, playing David’s mother, is given full-on tragic exposition to deliver, and does a creditably touching job of it. But the seriousness of this side of the material gives an uneasy tinge to the jolly side.

Having said this, I have to add that I appreciated the The Search for Simon’s experimentation with form. If it feels uneven, it’s because it’s original and inventive, and it marks Gooch as a talent to watch.

Friday, April 18, 2014


Opening in the Valley this weekend:

BearsFor parents, Bears may be the most suspenseful movie of the year. The Disneynature documentary follows a mother grizzly bear and her two cubs as they come out of hibernation and cross a vast expanse of the Katmai National Park in southern Alaska, heading for the salmon runs. Mom must not only keep her babies alive, but gorge herself on the fish sufficiently that her milk doesn’t run out in the middle of next winter’s snooze.

Like 2012’s Chimpanzee, this film has the feel of an old-school Disney nature movie, with folksy, jocular narration. In Chimpanzee this was provided by Tim Allen; in Bears it’s John C. Reilly, who mentions, near the beginning, that almost half of all bears don’t survive cubhood. And herein, of course, lies the parental suspense.

I watched this movie with my kid next to me. I was pretty sure that Disney wouldn’t have released it if neither cub had survived, but I was on the edge of my seat because I thought it was just possible, especially after the 50/50 chance noted in the narration, that they’d let kids and their folks tough it out through the loss of one. Don’t read any farther if you don’t want to know what happens.

OK, now I presume that I’m only writing to cowardly parents who want to keep their kids comfortably sheltered from the grim realities of life. Nice to be among kindred spirits. And to you I say: Bears is safe. It’s touch and go at times—the male cub keeps landing in peril—but at least for this season, cubs and Mom all make it.

It’s hard to know to what extent this footage had to be finessed in the editing to build a narrative. But, as with Chimpanzee, no amount of Disney corniness can obscure how astonishing are the scenes that the directors, Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey, and their crew have captured here. Grizzlies snagging fish in mid-leap, male bears roaring and grappling, predators stalking, cubs romping—these are iconic nature-film tropes, and it’s possible that they’ve never been done better than in Bears, all to the accompaniment of a stirring score by George Fenton.

Be forewarned, however: The movie may leave you with a craving for salmon. On the other hand, it may put you off salmon for good.

JoeNicolas Cage plays the title character in this adaptation of Mississippi author Larry Brown’s 1991 novel. A Joe of the working-class variety, he spends his days leading a timber crew in the miserable and probably toxic work of killing junk trees by chopping into them with a poison-squirting hatchet.

He’s a shaky alcoholic and a brawler, with enemies and a stint in prison in his past, but we’re also meant to see that Joe is a hard-working, honest man, liked and respected by those who know him. He gives a job to a homeless teenager (Tye Sheridan) who squats in a nearby abandoned house with his family. Wreck though Joe is, he quickly proves a vastly better father figure to this kid than his actual father, a tyrannical, dangerously abusive drunk played by Gary Poulter, a homeless guy in real life who died in the streets of Austin, Texas, still homeless, shortly after Joe wrapped.

Directed by David Gordon Green, Joe is a southern-fried lower depths melodrama in the vein of Sling Blade and Mud. It’s more ferociously violent than either of those films—be forewarned, it includes animal violence—but it has the same agreeable streak of sentimentality, and it has terrific performances, especially by the bleak-eyed Cage. After many tours of movie star duty at the center of big-budget idiocies, you can almost feel Cage’s pleasure in creating a character again.

Happy Easter, Passover, etc. everybody. Check out my Topless Robot list, in honor of the redoubtable Easter Bunny, of badass pop-culture bunnies.

Thursday, April 17, 2014


Have you seen the new Taco Bell commercials, in which the excellence of some new delicacy offered by the franchise is extolled by Ronald McDonald? Indeed, multiple Ronald McDonalds from all over the country express their enthusiasm for it. One of them is from the small town of Kane, PA, where one of my sisters used to live, but she says she didn’t know him.

This is, to be sure, a clever bit of sticking it to the competition. But it struck me that, while many of the Ronalds McDonald look elderly, some of them appear to be young—younger than me, anyway. This led me to the question: after, say, 1970, what American with the last name McDonald freakin’ gives their son the first name Ronald?


Monster-of-the-Week: …this week the nod goes to the Evil Grimace, from that ‘70s-era realm known as McDonaldland.

Later the purple fellow must have reformed, as the adjective “evil” was dropped, and he seemed to be one of the gang. He didn’t seem evil enough, at any rate, to name his son Ronald McDonald.

Friday, April 11, 2014


It’s a ridiculously crowded movie weekend here in the Valley; the two best I saw were, oddly, both documentaries about old men:

Jodorowsky’s DuneThough an interesting, badly uneven film of Dune by David Lynch was released in 1984, it was not the first attempt to bring Frank Herbert’s ponderous sci-fi epic to the screen. In the early and mid-‘70s, the Chilean-born avant-garde director Alejandro Jodorowsky, famous/notorious for his Theater-of-Cruelty-style surrealist “midnight movie” western El Topo (1970) and a couple of other visually powerful but patience-taxing films, worked on an ambitious version of Herbert’s novel. Indeed, according to this documentary by Frank Pavich, Jodorowsky and his collaborators essentially finished the movie—on paper, in the form of a comprehensively detailed storyboard rendered by several of the top fantasy and sci-fi artists.

In Pavich’s film, Jodorowsky, still vital and garrulous in his eighties, recounts how he adapted Herbert’s tale, with considerable liberties—he refers to the process as “raping” Frank Herbert, “but with love”—and then recruited different artists to realize different aspects of his version: French comic-book great Jean “Moebius” Giraud for the characters, Brit sci-fi cover artist Chris Foss for the spaceships, Swiss illustrator H. R. Giger for the evil planet Harkonnen, American Dan O’Bannon for the special effects, and so on. Cast members were to include Jodorowsky’s son Brontis, Mick Jagger, Orson Welles and Salvador Dali!

Studio financing never materialized, and not a frame of the movie was ever shot. The thrust of the new film is twofold: First, the documentary asks, what if this had been the big space movie of the ‘70s, rather than Star Wars? Second, the filmmakers assert that Jodorowsky’s magnificent storyboard material has been pillaged by countless sci-fi, horror and fantasy films of the past four decades.

The first question is specious. You can argue that the Star Wars franchise, enjoyable as much of it is, helped make pop culture more insipid. But it doesn’t follow that if Jodorowsky had managed to realize his Dune project, we’d be a culture of avant-garde spiritualists. As to the storyboard’s influence, however, the movie uses compare-and-contrast to build a pretty convincing case.

I enjoyed Jodorowsky’s Dune as much as any film I’ve seen so far in 2014. I’m nowhere near deep enough to say whether Jodorowsky’s a visionary or a conman, but either way he’s irresistible—a buoyant, exuberant raconteur.

Indeed, as I sat watching him, I thought, this movie is so much better than the pretentious space opera that Jodorowsky would probably have made back then. Instead of glacially-paced spacescapes and portentous pronouncements, we get to see the beautiful illustrations—likely far more beautiful than their onscreen realizations would have been—while Jodorowsky describes, with infectious enthusiasm, key scenes from the movie in his head, or dramatically narrates his failed struggle to get it out of his head.

Near the end, he notes that with modern CGI capabilities, his Dune could be made, even if he’s dead. I’d like to see the effort, certainly, but I’m not sure, after Pavich’s film, that it’s necessary. I’ll take Jodorowsky’s Dune over Jodorowsky’s Dune anytime.

The Unknown KnownThis portrait of W. Bush-era Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is another jaw-dropper from the great Errol Morris. Rumsfeld is the only talking head here, and with the distance of retirement, and perhaps a bit chastened at the judgment even of many conservatives that the Iraq War was a disaster both morally and practically, the ruefully smiling fellow comes across as maybe the most unassuming of the rogue’s gallery from that administration. It’s startling when his mild-mannered interview footage with Morris—in this film we hear the director’s exasperated questions—is intercut with footage of his press conferences from the lead-up to and early days of the war, in which he’s condescending, combative, snidely dismissive of anybody’s doubts about the project.

The Unknown Known is a remarkable document, but it’s also a hypnotic, graphically complex piece of cinema, driven by Danny Elfman’s sad, tense music. As with 2003’s The Fog of War, the new film is about how an idiotically ill-advised military adventure can grow out of the intellectual abstraction of a bright, rational person. Rumsfeld’s arias of spin cross over into a gibberish that’s almost poetic, and at times he stops talking and grins in satisfaction at his own equivocations, as if they were Sufi parables.

An obsessive writer of memos—they were so abundant they became known as “snowflakes”—Rumsfeld seems to have gotten lost at times in a fog of words. In many memos he fixated on definitions, as if by using his terminology narrowly enough, he could somehow parse out a justification for the bloodbath.

Also opening this weekend:

Rio 2The 2011 animated kidflick was about a romance between two endangered blue macaws who might have been the last of their kind. In this sequel the two of them, voiced by Jesse Eisenberg and Anne Hathaway, travel with their three chicks from the title city to the Amazon rainforest, where they learn that the female’s old flock is thriving. Some lovely musical numbers ensue, sung by the likes of Bruno Mars, will. i. am. and Jamie Foxx, and “choreographed” in the style of Busby Berkeley. Come to think of it, I bet Berkeley would love to have worked with parrots, if he could have.

The best strand, however, belongs to Jemaine Clement as a vengeful cockatoo, Ellen Chenoweth as the brightly-colored frog who regards him with unembarrassed adoration, and a silent anteater who puts his prehensile tongue to spectacular use. Clement’s rendition of “I Will Survive” was my favorite number in the movie.

But the flock’s home is threatened by deforestation, and if you think about the reality this conflict represents, then sweet and tuneful as Rio 2 is, and sincere as the wish of its makers to raise environmental consciousness may be, it may leave you feeling as depressed and helpless as The Unknown Known.

Southern Baptist Sissies—Playing in Phoenix one night only, this Saturday at FilmBar, this is only nominally a movie. It’s really a well-produced video of a live L.A. performance of the play by Del Shores, concerning four adolescent boys (played by adults) in a Baptist church in Texas, and their varying struggles with the awareness that they’re gay. Central character Mark (Emerson Collins), who chats up the audience between lines of the hymns, notes that they were four out of forty kids in the congregation, so the percentage was about right.

All of the acting is good—Leslie Jordan and Dale Dickey, as two barflies representing the middle-aged lapsed-Baptist contingent, put on an entertaining drawl clinic—and there is some fine music, ranging from choir offerings to drag numbers. Make no mistake, however, this is no festive musical comedy, but a bluntly didactic, often tragic drama, and the later scenes are painfully overwrought, though never, alas, implausible.

I just hope that Shores knows that you don’t have to be gay to feel forsaken by the conservative-Christian idea of God. You only have to have, say, a fondness for masturbation, or a belief in evolution, or, maybe, some gay—or nonbelieving or Jewish or Muslim—friends that you don’t think ought to be flung into the fires of hell for being who they want to be.

Thursday, April 10, 2014


With Captain America: The Winter Soldier number one at the box office this past weekend, I'd happened upon a copy, at a used bookstore, of a book I’d loved as a kid: 1967’s The MAD Adventures of Captain Klutz, the chronicles of MAD’s own version of Captain America, as drawn by the great Don Martin…

Rereading it, I was jolted by some of the ugly epithets it threw around, but it was a blast from the past to revisit anyway. So…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the honor to Gorgonzola, a massive arachnid which Klutz—the secret identity of down-on-his-luck comic-book lover Ringo Fonebone—must confront.

Note the always-evocative Martin sound effect...

Monday, April 7, 2014


RIP to Mickey Rooney, passed on at 93.

The veteran of everything from the Andy Hardy flicks to It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World to Twilight Zone to Carroll Ballard’s masterpiece The Black Stallion, among countless other film and TV credits, Rooney also did plenty of stage work. I saw him as Professor Marvel/The Wizard in a touring production of The Wizard of Oz more than a decade ago, and I’ll never forget his entrance: The lights came up on him as Professor Marvel, the crowd stood up, the applause went on and on, and finally he oh-so-reluctantly dropped character, rose and put his hands on his heart and oh-so-humbly acknowledged the crowd with gestures and expressions indicating he was astonished by, and regarded himself as unworthy of, our adulation. In this way he was able to keep the ovation going quite a while longer, and when  at last he sat back down and started the scene, it of course didn’t matter what he did from there on. I remember thinking that I was seeing a piece of showbiz skill from another era, and feeling privileged to witness it.

RIP also to comedian and actor John Pinette, passed on at 52—not nearly as long-lived as Rooney, alas.

Friday, April 4, 2014


There are many exciting, ingeniously-directed scenes in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the extravagant sequel to 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger.

On the deck of a ship, for instance, the Marvel hero (Chris Evans) engages in an extended scrap with a French pirate that looks like some sort of folk dance. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) holds off an attack by gunmen dressed as cops from inside his heavily fortified SUV. A little later, Cap finds himself surrounded by turncoat enemies in an elevator, and all hell breaks loose in the enclosed space.

These sequences and others are cleverly executed by directors Anthony and Joe Russo. The movie also has Scarlett Johansson going for it—she’s drolly alluring as Cap’s butt-kicking ally Black Widow. I enjoyed Johansson’s gentle prodding of the less-than-electric Evans, but overall, when the end credits of Captain America: The Winter Soldier arrive, it’s more a relief than anything.

The 2011 film, which squared Cap off against his nemesis Red Skull, was a period piece, circa WWII, which maybe gave it a bit more snap and flavor than some of the other Marvel flicks of recent years. Cap was frozen in that film and thawed-out in contemporary times, and the new movie pits him, along with Black Widow and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and a few other good guys, against cyborg menace Winter Soldier. It’s watchable, but it gets bogged down in too many interminable shoot-outs and chases, and a lengthy finale involving giant airships.

Indeed, it suffers from the same problem—though I may be in the minority in regarding it as a problem—as most recent superhero flicks: None of them seem to know When To Quit. They dawdle on, climax after climax and then coda after coda, even interrupting the end credits for a now-obligatory parting shot. My best guess is that, having charged us so much for our tickets, they’re terrified that we’re going to feel we haven’t gotten enough for our money.

Thursday, April 3, 2014


RIP to the imposingly sexy Kate O’Mara...

...well known for her role on Dynasty but also for her appearances as Rani on Dr. Who and in Jimmy Sangster’s nasty but tongue-in-cheek The Horror of Frankenstein (1970) and the peerless Vampire Lovers (1970), passed on at 74. In her honor…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to the Frankenstein Monster, as embodied by David “Darth Vader” Prowse in Horror of Frankenstein.

RIP also to the brilliant Lorenzo Semple, Jr., passed on at 91—the writer of TV’s Batman and The Green Hornet, and the screenwriter of the 1976 version of King Kong, the 1980 version of Flash Gordon, the underrated 1983 “off-brand” James Bond flick Never Say Never Again, and the creepy 1968 psychological thriller Pretty Poison, among many other cheeky works.